Do SKAGs Still Work?
Understanding How Google’s Latest Update Affects Your Account Structure
The SKAGs debate and why we’re bringing it up again
SKAGs have long been a subject of PPC controversy, but Google’s recent changes have brought new energy to the anti-SKAG camp’s movement.
On July 31st, 2019, Google announced that broad match modifier and phrase match keywords would match with same-meaning close variant search queries. We wrote a blog post detailing what you need to know about this change and why this change was made, but to sum up – your ads will now be triggered by search terms that don’t even include your keyword. This update restricts the control advertisers have regarding ad relevance, and since SKAGs are all about controlling relevance, anti-SKAGgers all but declared total victory in this dispute.
Disruptive Advertising asserted confidently that “SKAGs are dead. They simply aren’t viable in today’s paid search environment.” WordStream claims that SKAGs now increase the odds of duplicating keywords and bidding against yourself, and are still, as they always were, an inefficient way to manage your budget. Google has never been pro-SKAGs, and commentary about their updates is further discouraging this type of account structure.
On the surface, the arguments sound convincing, but we’re not buying it, and we don’t think you should be, either – there are some things that they neglected to mention. Google’s updates are significant, yes. But they didn’t kill SKAGs. At least not yet.
And because we know just how valuable SKAGs can be, we’re going to talk about why we believe that every PPC marketer should still be using them, why the update didn’t render them useless, and what you don’t know about why Google and WordStream don’t want you to use them.
Remind me again what SKAGs do, and why you’re pro-SKAGs?
SKAG stands for single keyword ad group. It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like – instead of including multiple keywords in one ad group, you only have one. One specific ad is created per keyword, so that each individual keyword belongs to a matching ad group that no other keywords belong to. Often, this keyword is an exact match keyword. (For a more detailed explanation and visual examples, check out our blog post on why you should be using SKAGs.)
We could give you a lot of reason why we’re so passionate about SKAGs, and we will, but here’s the primary one – they WORK.
At Empirical360, we pretty much only care about results. So if something gets results, we’re for it, and we use it, and we contend for it against best practices and educated guessing. Accounts and campaigns that have used a SKAGs structure have always, always performed better.
While we’re aggressively testing SKAGs in light of this recent update – because we’re not attached to anything more than we are to concrete data – they’ve performed better even in the last month.
Take a look at this experiment campaign we ran inside of Google Ads for a medical client (pitting a SKAG campaign against a normal campaign). We took over the account, and tested our new campaign layouts (SKAGs and individual landing pages). So far, we have cut the account-wide lead cost from $260 to $84. While the experiment is still running, it’s obvious that SKAGs are currently on top.
SKAGs give you better data visualization; you can see exactly what ad group contains what keyword without having to click into it. They give you better control over bidding, because you can see exactly which keywords/ad groups/ads are under-performing and adjust those bids. It’s the most granular way to structure your account.
Before the updates, we would also make a strong case that SKAGs were the best way to achieve relevance, because you show the user exactly what they’re looking for. Greater relevance leads to a higher CTR, a higher Quality Score, and a lower CPC. We still believe that’s true. But the controversy is now raging around this point because, as we mentioned, the recent Google udpates have changed what relevance looks like.
What the update changed….and what it didn’t
Keywords (for exact match, broad match modifier, and phrase match) can now match with search terms that Google’s algorithm decides have the same intent or a close variation of the same meaning. For example, if you created a single keyword ad group with the phrase match keyword “five star hotel”, before the update, it may have matched with “five star hotel prices”, but now may match with “best rated hotel near me”. User search queries no longer have to be an exact letter-for-letter match, or even include the same word, to trigger your ad.
As an advertiser, you no longer have the same guarantee that your ad will show for just one query when you create a SKAG.
HOWEVER, the way the Google keyword auction process works has not changed. Exact match keywords (and closest matches, for phrase and broad match modifier) are still given priority over same-meaning close variants – existing preferences take priority over the new matches, and the closest keywords to the query take priority over new match possibilities. The update hasn’t changed that.
So if you put a phrase match keyword in a SKAG, it will be just as likely to trigger your intended ad and boost your Quality Score.
What the update did change is that now your ad may trigger other search terms that you didn’t intend; you no longer have control of the wide range of additional close variants to potentially account for. You have to work harder to ensure relevance (thanks a lot, Google). You need to be a negative keyword wizard, adding more than you ever have before and checking your search term reports daily to identify new opportunities.
What you don’t know about the anti-SKaggers
Popular thought leaders, like WordStream, are saying that SKAGs are no longer needed. And Google, as we mentioned at the beginning of this post, never recommended them to begin with. If SKAGs are so great (you may be thinking), then why do these giants not want you to use them?
It’s important to know why they’re so against it. The answer is simple, if cynical – they make more money if you avoid using SKAGs.
Google makes more money when you spend more money. While not all of their recommendations will harm you, they are looking out for their best interest, not yours. Because using SKAGs lowers your CPC, and because you can adjust your bidding and optimize based on what keywords are underperforming, you aren’t going to spend as much as if you were using a consolidated (not segmented) account. And their automations are designed to get you the most traffic, while SKAGs are designed to ensure you get qualified traffic (cheaper). So of course they would discourage this.
WordStream’s software doesn’t work with SKAGs – it can’t add ad groups, only keywords. (Many company’s software is like this, because adding ad groups is hard to do, or at least to automate!) If you use their software, you end up with themed ad groups, which are not as relevant as SKAGs. SKAGs don’t fit into their service offerings, and they lose money if you choose a SKAG account structure, so of course they would make a case against them.
We’re always open to the reality of change and the possibility that there’s a better way, however. If this new update, and continued trends towards PPC automations, works better, we’ll let you know. As we said, we’re testing it right now, and we’re constantly monitoring performance.
Rather than blindly accepting what they say (or what we say, for that matter), go test it. Test your campaigns using a SKAG structure and see what your performance is like. We’re doing that now, because of the update, but we expect SKAGs to prove themselves the best strategy.
Have questions about SKAGs, close meaning variants, Google algorithms, or anything else related to all the PPC changes happening lately? Ask us in the comments or send us a message! We love discussing industry trends, and we’re always staying on top of the updates to ensure that your campaigns are achieving optimal performance. Empirical360 specializes in PPC marketing. We’re Google Partners, and we have the skills and experience necessary to grow your business and increase your revenue – and we know, because we’ve produced millions of dollars for our clients. Contact us today!
Shea Duncan - Author
Director of Content Marketing
Shea is an expert content writer and is a classic literary nerd! She loves writing highly engaging content and has a knack for making it convert!