SKAGs vs STAGs: What is the best Google Ads account setup?

Single Keyword Ad Groups or Single Theme Ad Groups. Which is better?

When you run Google Ads campaigns, you have several options for how to structure your account.

The first approach is to follow Google's traditional recommendations.

This means adding in 10-20 keywords in an ad group.

Google says this is the best approach because these keywords then form a pool of search terms that potential customers might use when searching for products or services that your ad could be shown for.

Moreover, having several keywords in your ad groups leads to more traffic, and consequently more data. And Google's smart bidding strategies thrive the more data there is.

Then there is the opposite end of the spectrum: Single Keyword Ad Groups, popularly known as SKAGs.

SKAGs are ad groups that contain just one keyword in them.

SKAGs are popular with PPC marketers because they create a one-to-one match between a user's search term and the keywords they bid on.

This makes it easier to get more creative with ad copy, knowing that the ad will only appear on the search term you want it to.

Knowing this, you can then match your landing pages to your ads. And this tight match between search term, ad, and landing page makes it all the more likely a conversion will occur.

There are several other account strategies too, but generally speaking, they fluctuate between these two extremes: Google's way and SKAGs.

But against the backdrop of changes Google has made recently to exact, phrase and BMM keyword matching preferences, another Google Ads structure is gaining popularity: Single Theme Ad Groups, or STAGs.

To see a live example of how STAGs work, take a look at the video below.

You can try to build STAGs yourself here.

In this post we are going to look at this new STAG approach to organizing accounts in Google Ads, and how it differs from Google's traditional 10-20 keyword recommendation. We will also show how STAGs are different to SKAGs.

Are SKAGs dead?

Ever since Google implemented a change in late-2018 allowing exact match keywords to match with close variants of search terms that shared the same meaning, marketers have been hailing the death of SKAGs.

Why are close variants considered a threat to SKAGs?

SKAGs thrive because they create a one-to-one match between the specific words a user chooses when he searches and the ads they are shown.

Say a user searches for 'sugar-free energy drinks'. In the good old days a SKAG with that keyword in exact match would mean that your ad would only be shown to users that searched with those specific words.

But following Google's update in 2018, your ad for the exact match keyword 'sugar-free energy drinks' can now also be shown for the search term 'zero-calorie energy drinks'.

This is because the intent of the searcher is the same: to find energy drinks that won't make them fat.

Google's focus on intent as opposed to words creates a potential problem for SKAGs.

The whole value of SKAGs lies in the fact that a one-to-one match between keyword, search term, and landing page. When the words are switched up, this connection is potentially lost.

Google has recently expanded close variants to also apply to BMM and phrase match keywords, further diluting the queries your keywords will appear for.

But as several articles have already shown, Google's recent updates have little affect on SKAGs, and given proper management of negative keywords, SKAGs work just as effectively as before.

Why do SKAGs still work?

Google's selection preferences still favor an exact match keyword over a close variant of a user's search.

As Frederick Vallaeyes of SearchEngineLand writes: "An advertiser who wants to show a specific ad for a specific query can still put that query as an exact match keyword in a SKAG and know that it is as likely as before to trigger the intended ad and deliver the associated quality score benefits."

Moreover, you can add the close variants of the keyword into your SKAG and then pause them, or set them as negative keywords, and your ad will no longer appear for the close variants Google brings up.

What are Single Theme Ad Groups? (STAGs)

In any case, while SKAGs still work just as effectively as before, there is another way of setting up your Google Ads campaigns that may be better suited when you have a large list of keywords and don't want to create separate ad groups for each one.

Overall, Google has made the reasoning behind why it has made close variants updates clear.

What matters to Google is not so much the actual words that a user chooses when they search, but the intent of the search.

A person searching for organic coffee and all-natural coffee are both looking for the same thing: a good, hearty cup of morning joe.

Given these changes, Single Theme Ad Groups are just that: they are organized around the intent of the searcher. And they can be a good compromise between Google's traditional 10-20 keyword recommendations and SKAGs.

As Wordstream put it in a post:

"Single theme ad groups focus on themes rather than syntax, ensuring there are three to five similar themed keyword concepts per ad group."

With A STAG, there is no limit on the number of keywords, but they have to be tied around a particular theme. For example:

  • services
  • company
  • firms
  • agencies

The above words would form the root of your STAG. Then you would add variations as follows:

  • accounting¬†services
  • cleaning¬†services
  • housing¬†services

And so forth.

What does a STAG look like?

Let's take a look at a real example of what a Single Theme Ad Group might look like in practice.

In the following example, the general product of your campaign revolves around a Land Rover. You would then split your STAGs up between two general themes:

  1. Car model (Land Rover, Discovery Sport, Discovery, Discovery 5 etc)
  2. Search Intent (Buy, Price, Cost, Characteristics, 2019, etc)

The STAGs would be grouped as follows:

The difference between a STAG and Google's traditional set up of a 10-20 keyword ad group, is that the keywords within a STAG will all share the same theme. In the examples above, those would be words like "price", "buy" and "features".

SKAGs vs STAGs: What's the difference?

The steps to setting up SKAGS and STAGs largely remain the same, just STAGs will contain fewer ad groups.

First you perform keyword research and create campaigns based on your product or service (i.e. insurance, coverage, warranty).

With SKAGs you will create one ad group per keyword, making sure to include the keyword in the eventual ad copy for your campaign, and also to include all the different match types of the keyword in the same ad group.

Otherwise, if you create seperate ad groups of the same keyword with different match types, your ads will bid against each other.

Under STAGs, you do the same keyword research (insurance, coverage, warranty) but then also identify the main themes for each campaign, for example (buy, cost, quote).

You then name the ad groups by the theme name, in other words 'buy insurance', 'warranty cost' etc.

What are some benefits of STAGs?

1. More control of your account

One problem that may arise with SKAGs, especially when you have lots of keywords, is the inability to group them by priority. If you just upload an excel sheet with a bunch of keywords and make combinations out of all of them that produces hundreds of SKAGs, it can be difficult to get a sense of which SKAGs matter and which don't.

STAGs are an effective way to divide up that list of 100 keywords so that instead of having 100 different ad groups, you only have 10. This gets easier to manage.

2. Impression share goes up

SKAGs thrive because they create a tight connection between keyword and ad copy, leading to a higher quality score, lower CPC and more ROI.

But this comes at the cost of impressions.

Inevitably if you SKAG your campaigns, you will have to wait longer for data to accumulate on different ad groups, before you can start testing ad copy.

With STAGs, however, because you have more keywords grouped together under one ad group, you will have several keywords pulling in traffic.

3. Testing ad copy becomes easier

The extra impression share makes it easier to test ad copy. Let's say you have 10 keywords. Under the SKAG model, you would have 10 separate ad groups for those 10 keywords, that bring in 100 impressions per week. You would have to create variations of ads for each of those 10 keywords, and only be testing on 100 impressions.

Now, under the STAG model, you would group those 10 keywords into one ad group. Now all of a sudden, you go from testing ad copy on 100 impressions per week, to testing ad copy on 1,000 ad impressions per week.

The more impressions could lead to more informed decisions on what ad copy is working well with searchers and which isn't.

4. Automated bid strategies work better.

Google's smart bidding strategies thrive on ads with large impression share. Target CPA, for example, sets bids to help get as many conversions as possible at the target Cost-Per-Acquisition (CPA).

But for Google's Target CPA to work well, it needs impression data. Consequently, if you take a STAG with 5 keywords that have 1,000 impressions per week, Target CPA will be more effective for that ad group than if those 5 keywords were separated in their own ad group with 200 impressions per week.

How to switch from SKAGs to STAGs?

So you're ready to make the big move?

There are a few tips that you can follow to make your transition to setting up STAGs easier.

1. Organize STAGs around high-performing keywords

If you have some SKAGs that are performing well, it would be better not to pause those keywords. Restructuring campaigns can lead to changes in campaign performance, and not always for the better, at least in the short term.

It's best to then keep the high-performing keyword as the base for which you organize a STAG around, even if it does not neatly fit into the STAG structure overall. This can be changed later.

2. Purge your account of low-performing keywords

Any account restructuring is a good time to take out the trash.

Keywords that are simply variants of another keyword should be paused or chucked. Take the opportunity to purge your account.

3. Create a duplicate of your campaign

Once you make drastic changes to an account, there is no guarantee that if you return to the old structure it will perform the same.

To keep things safe, it is best to create a duplicate version of your campaign and then make changes to the copied campaign.

If the new STAG setup for whatever reason does not perform as well as the SKAG setup you previously had, you have the original there as a backup to return to.

The Bottom Line

SKAGs are still a great way to organize your campaigns, despite all of the changes Google has initiated.

But the ability to group by topic can be an easier way to manage that list of 100 keywords.

Moreover, STAGs and SKAGs can work alongside each other. When you see a keyword that is performing well within a STAG, there is nothing stopping you from taking that keyword out and creating a SKAG out of it, to further hone in on the ad copy.

SKAGs are meant to optimize your highest-performing keywords. But they can exist alongside STAGs.

At the end of the day, there is no 'correct' strategy for account management. Each account is different. What works in one situation might not work in other circumstances and vice versa. It's best to have a range of strategies to deal with this.

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