The Keyword Is Dead: Accept And Adjust

Fifteen years ago, when I got into SEM, the only thing a marketer could focus on was having the right keyword (and all its variances). Fast forward to 2019 and the concept of the keyword is diminishing, and its perceived necessity to a search campaign is “going the way of Old Yeller."

While actual keywords have not gone away, there has been a shift in the way marketers should view the priority of the elements in a campaign. Today’s focus is on the audience target/segment -- something we couldn’t even fathom in search a decade ago.

When building a search campaign now, after the objective/goal have been established, marketers now focus on who should even see their ad, regardless of whether or not they searched for a relevant term.

This begins a thought process similar to what an FBI profiler envisions -- trying to determine who the ideal consumer is and whether they are worthy of receiving precious ad dollars. 

For example, recently I built a target for a QSR campaign. Understanding the current site traffic, we first set our target audience before even entering keywords (women 25-34, within five miles of a restaurant in the bottom 60% of HHI, with a college degree who are parents of young children, who have not placed an order on our site in the past 30 days).



Once we isolate that audience, we can lean heavily on Dynamic Search ads to do the keyword targeting for us. As we narrow down the audience, the competition begins to diminish, meaning that we aren’t paying a premium for this target. Add in some ad copy that is relevant to the landing page and the consumer (in this case it was along the lines of “Don’t forget to bring dinner home for the family”), and your search campaign is alive and in motion.

This shift away from the keyword-focused effort and toward the audience-focused effort has been foretold for a number of years. Whether or not it was realized is a different story. All one needs to look at is Google and Bing Shopping ads, Yelp ads and Facebook ads. For all of these, the category/audience is what drives your traffic.

So how does one begin to accept this and not lose pace? Several key steps should be taken.

  1. Merge your paid social and search teams. The hands-on skill sets are becoming the same, and the audience targeting between the two is mirroring as well.
  2. Become closely acquainted with your site visitor. Understand their demographics, their preferences, and online behavior, and utilize this to build audience targeting and segmentation lists (some of this info can also be harvested from social platforms).
  3. Focus less on keyword variance builds -- as the loosening of the engines match types have made these redundant -- and more on ad copy creation attuned to a specific audience.
  4. Take charge of your keywordless and keywords ad units like Yelp, Facebook, YouTube, Google Display Network, Shopping, and Gmail, to understand how they function and how the effort can be used in search.

You should not -- yet -- abandon the usage of keywords, but by making you and your team less reliant on them, you will be better prepared for the ongoing changes of the engines, and the evolutionary steps of our industry.

1 comment about "The Keyword Is Dead: Accept And Adjust".
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  1. Oren Netzer from cClearly, May 13, 2019 at 6:26 p.m.

    Jonathan - great article! I couldn't agree more on the importance of targeting audience in paid search. We found that audience optimization is also a very effective strategy in paid search because you can identify and define multiple audience groups and assign a different bid to each one. For example, you might set a higher bid for females age 35-44 because they convert better but you still want to target entire female population.
    Full discolure: my company, cClearly (, provides technology for identifying, targeting and optimizing audience in paid search and allows you to use thousands of different criteria to target and optimize by leveraging zip code bid modifiers.

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