Are Google Ads SKAGs Effective in 2022?

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Single keyword ad groups were once a popular and reliable Google Ads campaign structure to improve impressions, clicks, and conversions.

But changes by Google have made SKAGs more difficult to set up and control. Keyword matching does not function as it did when SKAGs rose in popularity.

These charges are significant enough that some marketers have abandoned the idea in favor of single-theme ad groups or intent-based ad groups, among other account structures.

Let’s start with a SKAGs refresher.

SKAGs 101

Johnathan Dane, the founder of performance marketing firm KlientBoost, produced a pithy video describing SKAGs back in 2018.

In the video, Dane suggests that SKAGs:

  • Improve click-through rates,
  • Improve quality scores,
  • Improve impression share,
  • Lower cost per click,
  • Lower cost per acquisition.

“You need to understand the value of granularity,” Dane said. “The keywords in your account are what you can control, and this is what you bid on. The search terms are what you can’t control, and this is what you’re actually paying for. So when a search term doesn’t match a keyword…you’re leaving a lot of click-through rate on the table.”

In Google Ads, “search keywords” are the phrases the advertiser targets or bids on. “Search terms” are the phrases someone typed in when the ad was displayed.

Screenshot of Google Ads interface showing "Search keywords" and "Search terms."

In Google Ads, “search keywords” are the phrases the advertiser targets or bids on. “Search terms” are the phrases someone typed in.

To implement a SKAG, start with a root keyphrase containing one to three words. An example could be “mens running shoes.”

In the past, advertisers would use a broad match modifier signified with plus signs (+mens + running +shoes) or a phrase match noted with quotation marks (“mens running shoes”).

This keyphrase would have its own ad group. The ad copy would be relevant to the phrase, which would appear in the headline.

One of the original aims of a SKAG was to include the exact keyword in the ad’s headline.

After the SKAG had run for a while, the advertiser would look for the long-tail search terms driving the most traffic. The advertiser would then use those terms for their own SKAGs.

Say, for example, “blue size 14 mens running shoe” was an important long-tail keyphrase. It would become its own SKAG and included as a negative keyword in the original SKAG to prevent keyword overlap.

Advertisers would repeat this process so that an account might eventually contain several campaigns, each with hundreds of SKAGs. This was so common that software tools such as Aori managed massive lists of SKAGs.

Overmatched

SKAGs depended on having fine control of keyphrases and how they appear in the ad copy. The problem is that Google Ads has changed how keyword matching works over the past decade.

  • In 2012, Google introduced close variants for exact and phrase matches, meaning similar words might match. By 2014, advertisers could not opt out.
  • In March 2017, close variants expanded, allowing for changes in word order and ignoring function words. Now the exact matches (designated with brackets) [running shoes] and [shoes for running] are the same.
  • By 2018, exact match included synonyms and intent and a year later expanded to broad match and phrase match.
  • In February 2021, Google Ads began merging phrase match and broad match modifiers. By July 2021, the broad match modifier was gone.

Darren Taylor runs The SEM Academy. His popular YouTube channel is called “The Big Marketer.” Taylor is a long-time advocate of SKAGs, but recently he has discouraged their use.

“I think using single keyword ad groups is not necessarily the best way to set up a PPC campaign,” Taylor said before describing various Google Ads matching updates.

Screenshot of YouTube video, "Should you use SKAGS?"

Watch “Should You Be Using SKAGS?” on YouTube

Single Concept Keyphrase

So it would appear that the once-powerful SKAG is not nearly as effective now.

Or is it?

What if advertisers could apply some of the ideas behind the SKAG to current Google Ads campaigns? At least some marketing pros have started to use compact ad groups with one to five keywords focused on a concept.

Kasim Aslam is a founder of performance marketing agency Solutions 8 and the author of the book “The 7 Critical Principles of Effective Digital Marketing.”

He said in a June 2021 YouTube video titled “Is This the Return of SKAGs?,” “I’ve bashed the daylights out of SKAGs for a really long time. I don’t think single keyphrase ad groups have been as viable because they don’t allow you to take advantage of Google’s algorithmic learning.

“All of a sudden, because Google is beginning to be so far-reaching with their exact match, match types…if you know your keyword profile and you know what your highest ROI phrases are, put them in their own ad group, separate them out entirely, do really robust keyword sculpting.,” Aslam continued.

Screenshot of YouTube video, "Is This the Return of SKAGS?"

Watch “Is This the Return of SKAGs?” on YouTube

So what might this look like in practice?

  • Organize those keyphrases into concept groups, each with one to five phrase matches or exact matches.
  • Make the keyphrases negative keywords in the original DSA.
  • Build ad groups around single concept keyphrases, including each phrase in one or more headlines.
  • Monitor the search terms triggering each ad group, adding negative keywords to refine the concept.
  • If the single concept keyphrase doesn’t outperform the original DSA, pause and try again.

Using single concept keyphrases is no guarantee of success. SKAGs required a significant amount of attention and iteration, and the single-concept-keyphrase structure does, too.

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