Are SKAGs doomed? Assessing yet another Google exact match update

An explanation of Google's exact match update and single keyword ad groups (SKAGs).

Google is constantly rolling out changes to its exact match keyword matching option.

This gives a lot of PPC marketers headaches.

What they spent months or even years building gets destroyed in a single update.

That's not fun. But that's the reality in the world of marketing.

In September Google made yet another such change, updating its exact match keyword category.

At the time, a lot of PPC marketers worried this would lead to the end of SKAGs.

Following the update, exact match keywords would match with queries that include close variations of keywords.

The change saw Google once again reinvent the definition of what the word 'exact' means.

Two months have now passed and its enough time to analyze what effect this change has had on SKAGs.

Does Google's latest change mean that SKAGs are no longer relevant? Are SKAGs still a viable way to optimize your Google Ads?

We'll look at that here. But first:

What are Skags?

SKAGs stand for Single Keyword Ad Groups.

They are a Google Ads campaign structure in which there is only one keyword in each ad group. For a detailed explanation, take a look at this link.


On the left you can see the traditional campaign structure advocated by Google.

Google suggests that you include several keywords per ad group to trigger your ad.

So if you had an ad about selling scooters, one of your keywords could obviously be 'scooter'.

But then you would also add 'escooter' and 'electric scooter' and 'hipster transport' and so on.

The more keywords you add that describe your product, the more likely your ad will show up on searches.

It seems like a logical approach, but it is actually highly inefficient. And Google makes money when users are inefficient.

What happens is your ad starts to appear for search terms that, yes, may in fact be relevant, but they might not be the target customer you want to reach.

You end up with people clicking your ad but not converting.

Because your awesome ad for a scooter may have been shown to a bunch of stingy hipsters who don't want to spend any money.

So why are SKAGs a better way of organizing your campaign?

Unlike the Google approach which advocates several keywords per ad group, SKAGs only have one keyword for per ad group.

Let's look at that picture again.

What does having only one keyword per ad group mean?

It means you have an extremely tight match between your ad copy and your keyword.

This tight connection between a search term, the triggered keyword, and the ad text leads to highly relevant ads being shown to users.

You get this.

On top of that, Google bolds the words in your ad copy that are exact matches to what users searched for.

And people are more likely to be drawn in by your ad copy if they see bolded words.

How does Google's exact match keyword update affect SKAGs?

The benefit of SKAGs is that it creates what amounts to an exact match between what somebody searches for and the ad copy that appears for that search.

But following the exact match keyword update, Google has taken away some of the control that once laid with account managers.

For instance, 'organic coffee new york' now matches with 'all-natural coffee new york.'

While organic and all natural may be similar, and most likely users that searched for organic would also be interested in seeing results for all-natural, the match is not the same.

What's the result?

Your could have a SKAG campaign set up for the word organic coffee, and it may nevertheless be shown to a user who searches for all-natural coffee.

Sure the intent is probably the same. But your words may not be bolded anymore. Users may be less likely to click on your ad.

With this change, exact match is becoming less and less about the exact words users use to search for items, and more and more about the intent.

Here's the example Google gave of different queries that were matched for the keyword 'yosemite camping':

PPC marketers are concerned.

The folks over at Wordstream gave a good example: "Consider "The Copley Square Hotel" bidding on the exact keyword of its brand name [The Copley Square Hotel]. To them, someone searching for the exact term The Copley Square Hotel is highly qualified brand traffic whereas someone searching for the term Hotel by Copley Square is effectively a non-branded search as they’re competing with a dozen or so other brands."

Google has now stripped away the control that previously laid with paid search marketers and brand advertisers. If Google thinks your ad is relevant to a query, they will show it. They are the ones who decide.

What effect can this have on SKAGs?

1) Ad copy connected with the exact match keywords might be less relevant

That ad copy you specifically wrote to match with the keyword ‘organic coffee new york’ will now show up for ‘new york organic coffee.’ or a paraphrased version, like 'all-natural coffee new york.'

Sure, the intent is the same, but a user will no longer see the exact phrase they searched for in your ad. This may decrease the likelihood they click on your ad.

2) Your ads will compete with each other on duplicate keywords

PPC marketers that use SKAGs often create ad groups around keywords that are similar or related.

It is not uncommon to have one ad group for “organic coffee in new york” and another for “all-natural new york coffee.” Whereas before you could have ad copy separately tailored to each keyword and ensure that one ad shows up for one keyword and the other for the other keyword, now this is being questioned.

With the close variants update, the separate ad group you created for the keyword 'all-natural coffee New York' might end up competing with the ad group centered around the keyword 'organic coffee New York.'

3) Your ads will match to the wrong intent

While this is a problem that concerns all Google Ads campaigns, PPC Marketers who use SKAGs could be particularly affected by the new change.

Google has promised the close variants match option will only match to queries that paraphrase your keywords and where the intent remains the same. But this is not a guarantee.

For instance, while "cheap tour packages miami" is similar to "cheap vacation packages miami" it is not quite what "cheap tours miami" means.

We don't know how closely close variants will match to paraphrased versions of keywords.

We've been here before

While the arguments above may have you worried, it is important to keep in mind that we have been here before and SKAGs survived.

The initial change came in 2014, when Google announced that exact match would match with misspellings, acronyms and single and plural forms of nouns.

Then in 2017 Google made a big change when it said exact match would focus on the intent of a search over the words used. This meant ignoring function words, such as:







For example, if your keyword is ‘restaurants in new york’ you will also match for the query ‘restaurants new york’ since the preposition ‘in’ does not change the intent of your search.

Close variants also ignored word order.

This meant that if your keyword was “hotels in Dubai” you would show up for “Dubai hotels” as well.

The idea behind this change was that what matters when users searched for something in Google is not the exact words they use, but the intent of the search.

Users who search for ‘hotels in Dubai’ are likely searching for the same thing as users who use ‘Dubai hotels.’ So why not show ads to both of these people.

As Google put it at the time:

“Whether someone is searching for ‘running shoes’ or ‘shoes for running,’ what they want remains the same; they’re looking for running shoes. You shouldn’t have to build out exhaustive keyword lists to reach these customers, and now you don’t have to.” - Google (March 2017)

This same principle holds true for the new update in September.

But just like with the previous updates in 2014 and 2017, SKAGs did not die out.

They simply adapted to take into account the new changes.

It's likely the same thing will take place now.

That being said, there are a few things you can do to minimize the damage to your SKAGs campaigns from the new update.

1. Remove duplicate keywords

The new rules for close variant mean that the keyword 'marketer' and 'marketing' are considered the same thing. Many SKAG ad groups are simply versions of other keywords already in the account. This could lead to duplications that cause your ads to bid against each other. To avoid this, go through your keywords and ad groups and get rid of these duplicants. This will ensure your ads to not end up competing with each other.

2. Review your ad copy

After getting rid of duplicates, you may find that the ad copy you wrote for certain keywords is no longer an exact match. You will want to review and tweek your ad copy appropriately to make sure it matches with the right keywords.

3. Add negative keywords

Since exact match will now link to close variants using different word orders and paraphrases, you will want to make sure that your exact match keywords that contain more than one keyword cannot be rearranged in an order that will make your ad show for an irrelevant search term.

Adding negative keywords is going to be key for this. If you want your ad to specifically show up for 'soda drinks delivery' and not for 'soft drinks delivery' then you should add 'soft drinks delivery' as negative keywords to your ad for 'soda drinks delivery.'

What impact has the change had so far?

Initial feedback from marketers suggest that the change Google made is leading to some valuable traffic.

So the doomsday scenarios voiced earlier in September may have been overblown.

Others have analyzed the data on their accounts and come up with more negative results.

WordStream analyzed $69,000 in Exact Match keyword spend over a 30-day period and found that 41% was spent on keywords that Google would now consider to be duplicate, or around $422 per account.

They also found that out of one million impressions tied with these exact match keywords, 36% was now irrelevant, with exact match keywords competing in the same auctions for the same impressions as other exact match keywords in their accounts.

As WordStream put it:

"This has potential to frustrate advertisers on two fronts. First, it makes account management more difficult. Not knowing that you have duplicate keywords is a pain, but figuring out where they are and if they’re costing you money can be a massive investment of time, too. More importantly, though, by bidding on multiple keywords vying for SERP real estate in the same auction, you can drive up your own CPCs for each keyword."

The Final Verdict

Google is taking away more and more control from account managers and automizing aspects of campaign management that before users had control over. Whether they are doing this solely because they can make more money, or whether it really is leading to more relevant ads being shown to users is up for debate.

There are ways to push back against the changes though. Some marketers have updated old Adwords scripts that are designed to reverse the close variants update.

Google has said that it still prefers identical matches between queries and keywords over synonyms and paraphrases. So SKAG campaigns that create an identical match between keyword, search term and ad copy will still likely perform the best.

Nevertheless, updating exact match scripts and reviewing and deleting possible duplicate ads that could end up competing with each other will ensure that any possible damage from the changes on your SKAGs campaigns is kept to a minimum.

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