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Retailers, It’s Time to Move Beyond the Traditional Keyword Strategy for Paid Search

Updated 7/12/21

Your keyword strategy is top of mind now that Google is changing the game again with its match types. As of late July 2021, you will not be able to create new keywords using Broad Match Modifier (BMM). This update is Google’s follow-through from February, when it started to phase out Broad Match Modifier and updated how Phrase Match works. The new Phrase Match covers Broad Match Modifier traffic while continuing to follow word order.

For instance, here’s an example of what’s gone:

The Broad Match Modifier Keyword of +best +sneakers will no longer match to best prices on sneakers for toddler.

Here’s an example of what’s here now:

The Phrase Match keyword of long sleeve dress will match to long sleeve lace dress.

Many retail marketers are reviewing their keyword strategy and historical search query reports to identify new keyword builds.

But before you dig into the weeds, it’s important to understand the bigger picture of where Google is going with its match type changes. This is not the first or last time Google is changing match types. Just last year, Google changed Exact Match to be, well, not exact at all.

What do all these changes mean for YOUR keyword strategy?

From where we sit, we’d like to share a big piece of advice. It might surprise you at first. Here it goes. 

You might not need to sculpt such expansive paid keyword lists anymore.

Mike Perekupka headshot

That’s right. We see a complete reversal of what we call the “keyword bell curve.” Marketers have been creeping up and up the bell curve for years. We think we’ve hit the peak and it’s time to start going back down.

We know there’s a lot to unpack with that idea. So our own Mike Perekupka hosted a webinar with full details: Zero-Keyword Search Campaigns: Reality or Hype? The webinar examines how Google’s own updates, as well as innovations with natural language processing, are creating a world where marketers no longer need to create massive paid keyword lists.

Tune in to learn if you are over-segmenting your keywords by creating bloated lists, and how to change your keyword strategy for the future of paid search in retail.

Opt for the video recording, or read on below for the transcript.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity and brevity.

What Are Zero-Keyword Search Campaigns?

Zero-keyword search campaigns can exist anywhere there are keywords and consumers are shopping — Amazon, Microsoft, Google. So this is all just one big topic these days. There is this trend of people letting these networks take over for them and not having to pick their keywords themselves. That’s what we’re talking about with zero-keyword search campaigns.

I want to take the next 15 minutes to answer this question: Is this the way of the world these zero keyword search campaigns? Are they the reality of where everything is heading? Or is it a lot of hype right now?

Why You Need to Re-evaluate Your Keyword Strategy

When the pandemic first hit, we were flooded with people asking us a lot of questions. Should I still be advertising? What am I supposed to do here? Depending on your business and how many stores or locations you have, it’s been a huge re-evaluation process for all retailers and it’ll continue.

Amid this, a lot of retailers have re-evaluated their keywords at a very high level. But when is the last time that you actually re-evaluated your tactical keyword approach?

Keyword Lists Are Bloated

I’ll tell you why it’s important to take a very close look at your keywords. The number of keywords required and the best practices in this channel have ebbed and flowed over time. There was a time where people had to become keyword experts. The more keywords, the better. There was this ramp up of how many keywords people were using in their campaigns.

Keyword Bell CurveOver time, what has happened is that people have come down this curve. There’s a trend of people who say, “I’m not going to put any keywords in. I’m just going to let the networks do it for me.” So where’s the right spot on this curve to sit?

Match Types Have Totally Changed

There are two concepts that I want to call out even further, that further show why you need to re-evaluate your keyword strategy. When Google changed Exact Match to not be exact anymore, it was a big change. There was a lot of confusion. And the way it used to work is you put a keyword on an Exact Match, it showed up for one search term, and it was as simple as that. That’s the truest form of Exact, and now it doesn’t work like that.

Exact Match Is Not ExactGoogle says that if they think that people are implying the same thing or they’re paraphrasing and have the same intent, we’re going to match it to your Exact Match keywords. I’m going to show some data around studies that we’ve done and I’m curious how this has gone for a lot of people.

On Feb. 18, Google is going to start sunsetting Broad Match Modifier and completely changed the way Phrase Match works. Retailers that I’ve spoken with over the past six months, the trend I’ve noticed, and we’ve noticed at Sidecar, is there was a massive shift of people moving away from Phrase Match. The Phrase Match didn’t have much value, and they really leaned into Exact or Broad Match Modified.

Now Broad Match Modified is going away and it’s time to re-evaluate what that means for your catalog. And you need to be proactive here because you don’t have a choice. So we’re set up to run some tests and measure the impact. We’re working with our customers to get them ready for that.

How New Match Types Impact Keyword Strategy

What I want to do is walk through an example of why I think this is such a big deal. I’ll use a field or a vertical that we’re very familiar with. If you sell apparel, before these changes, the way you built keywords was to start with women’s shirts and build out every variation of keywords relating to women’s shirts.

Traditional Keyword CreationYou put an apostrophe in it. You made it singular. You made it plural. You changed the word orders. You thought of synonyms and misspellings and you ended up making a lot of variations of the exact same keyword.

Then you have to think about all the variations of that. And then you have to think about, “Alright, now I sell women’s pants and women’s jackets, and now men’s clothes and kids clothes.”

Is this necessary anymore? Do you have to do that? Are you wasting time? So what I wanted to do is run a controlled experiment. I wanted to show some data on this webinar today. What I did was set up a one-week test of a women’s apparel retailer.

I put the Exact Match keyword of women’s shirt and set it out into the wild, with new match types, with new Exact Match close variants. This is some of the data. This is a snippet of 50. On the right side of the screen you can see it matched to 91 total searches. Where in the past that would have matched to one.

Traditional Keyword PerformanceConsider the very first one — shirts for women. That is not an Exact Match as we know it. You can see there are synonyms — ladies, female shirts. There’s t-shirts. There are synonyms of both. There are misspellings. There are plurals. It is matching to all these. Where in the past if you went and you built out all of these keywords, you would have had to build them to match to these. That was just one example of one keyword.

Why Your Keyword Strategy May Be Limiting Paid Search Performance

By creating these exhaustive keyword lists, are you hurting your performance? Are you actually detracting from what you can do in paid search by doing this?

I want to elaborate on what I mean by that. Just continuing that example through, and then giving you some suggestions and things to think about. Before the change, it was very simple. Woman’s shirt matched to woman’s shirt. You got data around that keyword. You could make a smart decision about it.

Exact Match Before the ChangeIf you wanted to match to other search queries, or you wanted to match to other keywords that were out there, you had to build them out and put them on exact match. So if you end up getting a woman’s shirt ad group, what that might look like is this extensive list of keywords where each one of these is built out.

But here’s the problem. Each one of these keywords then needs to be monitored. Each one of these keywords then needs to have a bid where you need to make an intelligent decision. You start debating with yourself. Should I bid it higher? Should I bid it lower? And then some of these keywords have $2 of traffic. Some of them have 52 cents of traffic. And how are you ever going to make a smart, intelligent decision about those keywords?

So I’m on this webinar claiming that by doing that and by staying with the old approach or the traditional approach of building out keywords, you are detracting from what you can do in this channel. You are over segmenting your keyword list by creating these bloated lists. You are actually hurting yourself.

If you don’t take advantage of this new functionality, you’re not doing yourself a service. This third concept here, I think can probably hit home for a lot of people. You’re also wasting time. You don’t need to do it.

Steps to Improve Your Keyword Strategy

So I want to offer some suggestions. I want to talk about some quick tips for what you can do. If you think, “Oh wow, I am in that old world, the more traditional world. I am over-segmented.” I’m going to offer five tips for how to get yourself into this more modern scenario.

The goal should be to go from what I was talking about on the left, where you have this over-segmented list with all of the segmented data, and roll it up to this scenario on the right where you’re matching to more queries.

Keyword Strategy GoalsYou’ve got a lot of data, a thousand clicks. You get $700 in spend. You can make a decision about that keyword every single day. You can use that data to do more meaningful things with your time. And you’re going to be more strategic. A/B testing is the name of the game in paid search. And if you don’t have enough data to do it, it’s another form of wasting time.

You can be strategic and recommend a holistic strategy across paid search and shopping, or maybe your other channels. That is the benefit of doing this. If you can get out of this traditional way of building keywords and move into this more modern approach, and adopt some technology to help you with this, there are a lot of areas of beneficial improvements that you can apply in your own campaigns.

Evaluate the Impact of New Match Types

Go back and just take 45 minutes, take 30 minutes, take an hour, to evaluate the impact of the changes that have happened and see what they’re doing to your campaign. Are you over segmented?

One, download your search query report. Pick a timeframe. I usually recommend 90 days. On the right, create what I’m calling an “N-gram analysis.” N-grams are just phrases — how specific specific phrases are performing.

Set up a table using the formula that I gave you in column L. Columns M through Q are where you’re looking for how those words perform.

N-Gram AnalysisWhat this table does is roll up performance. You can type words into column K and see how search queries perform with the word “best” or with a brand in it or ones that say “near me.” You might be able to get a look at data at that level.

Pick some words, pick some phrases that you are interested in, and see how many searches they are matching to. What does the performance look like? I guarantee you’ll find that to be interesting. Then what usually happens is you want to see how every word performs, every phrase performs. This is where my next tip is.

Leverage Natural Language Processing and Automation

I would highly suggest doing some research and leveraging natural language processing (NLP) and automation on the account. This is truly where Sidecar hangs our hat.

We’re doing some really cool stuff with search queries so maybe I’m a little biased here, but you’re going to find some trends in your search query report and I almost guarantee you’re going to want to take it to the next level and evaluate every word and every phrase. That is where you can really bust through any plateau in your keyword strategy.

Benefits of Automation in Paid SearchYou can see the value attached to every word and every phrase if you lean into automation and NLP. You can also have, you can build automation to do the analysis I was talking about before. You can have automation look at every keyword, see what it’s matching to and automatically add new, automatically negate across every keyword, every ad group, every campaign you have.

Real big benefit of leaning into automation there. And if you get really to the next level, there are some really cool concepts, but in NLP, natural language processing, that can take the guesswork out of it.

If you’re not sure about match types, there’s one unique metric called PMI, pointwise mutual information. It tells you how likely words are to come as a phrase or to be included by words in between them. How likely words are to come in a string next to each other or not.

If they’re very likely to come next to each other, maybe you do Phrase match. I won’t go too in the weeds, but really cool, really valuable metrics that you can lean into to take all of the guesswork and nuance out of it.

Find the Middle Ground of the Keyword Spectrum

Here’s my third one. Now I’m finally going to answer the question, reality or hype? Evaluate where you should be on this keyword spectrum. You’re either over here where you have too many keywords. You’ve built bloated, exhaustive lists. Or you’re going to go all the way to the other end of this spectrum where zero keywords are and lean into these things like dynamic search ads and smart shopping campaigns.

Keyword SpectrumWe very rarely recommend going to a completely zero-keyword approach. Why? Because what you do at that moment is you take away any control you have over an auction, and you hand it over to the people running the auction, and say, “Do it for me.” And while it will save you time, it is very rarely the best approach for your business. You lose strategic control.

If you’re on the opposite end, we would recommend you come a bit towards the middle, which we would call the strategic adoption phase. That’s where you want to be. You want to be using these things more as catchall campaigns, research campaigns. That’s the ideal keyword strategy.

Lean into smart intelligence automation, use these where they make sense, but find your spot. It’s not going to be the same spot for everyone. So that again, just a quick idea of you need to take the time to answer that for your business.

Build 10-20 Keywords Per Ad Group

Here’s an easy one. If all you have time to do is a five-minute check, just go to your Google Ads campaigns, and just check your keyword-to-ad-group ratio. Count how many keywords you have, how many ad groups you have, or just download an Excel report and do a division.

You should have 10-20 keywords per ad group. If that number has gotten too high, I would recommend it’s time to take some action. It’s going to hurt your relevancy. It’s going to hurt your quality score. So check that. You want to take some steps to go back and to reduce that.

Regularly Test With a Subset of Your Budget

My last strategic guidance that I want to offer is, when testing, pick a subset of your budget, maybe it’s 5%. Or 30%. Maybe it’s some percent of your budget. Maybe it’s a part of your catalog. If you are going to advertise those products on text ads today, how would you do it? Knowing match types have changed, knowing all of these technology advances have changed. You’re going to start fresh. I challenge you to think modern about them. Set a campaign live for a good amount of time. Monitor it and let it run.

You’ll find there are some benefits. There are some time savings you can have. There’s some technology and some automation that can really help take your campaigns out of the stagnant old world where they’re sitting there and getting bloated, and move them into this new agile, fresh, modern way of doing it.

Think about it being holistic with your other channels. Think about a more omnichannel approach. Can you think modern about this channel that’s been around for 20 years?