The keyword is both dying and thriving right now.
They are instrumental in providing direction for our strategies.
Additionally, they are a core component of how the most popular form of digital marketing (search) functions.
However, their mechanics have undeniably changed over the years.
Visual content is rising in popularity, and audiences are pushing ahead as a major targeting source.
This post will explore the history of the keyword, its current state, and whether it will retain its relevance or gradually fade into obscurity.
It will not pass judgment on how keywords are used in today’s marketing strategies.
However, we will explore aspects that folks continue to use in spite of depreciating utility.
A Look Back: The Journey Of Keywords
Historical Mechanics Of Keywords
In the past, keywords had a very specific role. Each keyword represented a unique idea, corresponding to specific user queries.
For example, the phrases “dog walker,” “dog walking,” and “walk the dog” would all be treated as different ideas. This allowed us to bid on how people think and search.
Traditionally, keywords behave as our representatives in the auction every time a user enters a query.
Based on the bid and quality score, we receive an ad rank, which determines where the ad will appear on the search engine results page (SERP).
In the old days, match types highly impacted keyword theory due to their distinct properties:
- Broad: So long as any part of the core idea matched, the keyword would enter the auction.
- Modified Broad (RIP): Each word in the keyword had to be present but could be in any order, and there could be terms before and after.
- Phrase: The keyword phrase could not be interrupted, but there could be terms before and after.
- Exact: Only the exact keyword would trigger the auction.
These keyword match-types would enter the auction at different times (exact first; broad last), so bidding on all match-types with different bids was meaningful.
This would ensure coverage while communicating where the advertiser wanted the budget to go.
The Rise Of Close Variants
2016 saw a lot of things change. Google removed the right-hand side of the search results page and introduced “close variants.”
Close variants have expanded quite a bit in recent years but used to be contained to quality of life matching.
For example, an advertiser would no longer need to bid on abbreviations or misspellings.
Search term reports showed whether the match type was “vanilla” or a close variant.
This meant we could see which keyword variant represented the best return on investment (ROI) without having to use every possible version of the keyword.
Fast forward to 2018-2019, and close variants became even more disruptive. Implied words and synonyms were acceptable in all match types. Additionally, mod. broad was sunset.
By the 2020s, broad match started to include audiences, which brought it back into popularity. Meanwhile, phrase and exact match enjoyed equal popularity with control-oriented advertisers.
Keywords As Audiences
While search keywords were undergoing these transformations, audience-based keywords were starting to make their way into display and video campaigns.
These keywords had different but equally powerful functions:
- Topic and Content Targeting: Bidding on placements corresponding to the content of the keyword.
- Custom Intent: People who search in a certain way or who show interest in the keywords you picked.
- Audience Signals: In PMax campaigns, advertisers can build an audience signal based on desired keywords.
Negative keywords are just as critical as targeting keywords.
Like regular keywords, negatives have match types:
- Broad: So long as the words in the negative are there in any order, the ad won’t enter the auction.
- Phrase: The negative keyword phrase order needs to be maintained in order to block traffic.
- Exact: The exact negative keyword (nothing added or removed) will stop the ad from entering the auction.
Negatives retained their utility and never took on close variant properties.
This means advertisers would need to include all variants as negatives if they wanted to block traffic.
It also made it tougher to justify keeping match-type driven campaigns and single keyword ad groups (SKAGs) due to how many negatives would be needed to protect those structures.
One of the reasons why keywords are so important is that they are a common ground for both SEO and PPC.
They can be used to work together to create content and bid strategies.
But, with the search term report starting to hide search queries, this common ground is starting to disappear.
In today’s world, where privacy is super important, we now have to guess the best keyword concepts based on traffic forecasts and performance.
Additionally, Performance Max represents an all-in-one campaign type that only uses keywords as an audience signal.
It’s gaining momentum for a few reasons:
- More and more advertisers are being pressured to adopt it due to sunsetting features.
- Genuine utility for brands looking to communicate with their customers at all stages of the buying journey.
Are Keywords Still The Best Guiding Star In Targeting Strategies?
While keywords do require people to search in specific ways, they may not always line up with the world’s focus on privacy.
In a world where protecting the consumer is the number one priority, it might be better to focus on your audience and the creative elements of your campaign.
This is especially true as the privacy-first web forces more protections on what data is shared with advertisers.
One of the reasons search terms will be hidden in the report is that there aren’t enough people searching in that way.
As such, an advertiser would have no problem matching the exact way a person searched to the person who became or didn’t become a customer.
As that level of data becomes a privilege instead of a right we need to get more comfortable with cohorts.
That said, you can still put proactive protections (negative keywords and audience exclusions).
The Future Of Keywords
Instead of focusing on the keyword, we may soon be focusing on audiences and building strategies that meet customer needs.
Two examples of this shift are shopping campaigns and local service ads.
Shopping campaigns work by using Google’s algorithm to read your feed and match user queries based on info like product title, description, and category.
Local service ads don’t use keywords at all, instead focusing on reviews, proximity, and how well a query likely applies to a service you’re bidding on.
These ad types consistently provide great ROI and show that actively bidding on keywords is less important than understanding the people behind the queries.
Keywords have been a key part of digital marketing for a long time.
While their role is definitely changing, they still have a pivotal place in campaign strategy.
Audiences and feed-based campaigns represent the future of active targets.
Featured Image: ING Studio1985/Shutterstock