Paid Search And A History Of Losing Control

“In paid search, keywords mean nothing," a director told me this when I began my search career, and it stuck with me. Keywords are supposed to be fundamental to paid search targeting, so how could they be meaningless!?

However, that statement has never been more true. Agencies, partners and clients need to recognize that the days of keyword targeting are over. Keywords do have value, to some degree.  However, audiences not keywords are now a much stronger signal to influence paid-search targeting and strategy.

Changing Strategies in 2021

Google recently announced the dismissal of broad-match modified and expansion of phrase matching logic, forcing advertisers to rethink and likely restructure strategies. Bing, not one to be left out, also announced the swap of manual CPC to enhanced CPC and its own automated bidding strategies. These take keyword bidding out of human hands and put it in the algorithms’ control.



One major but expected change is the expansion and evolution of close variant queries. Close variant matching allows for keywords to match to searches that are plurals of misspellings, or a different word order (specifically impactful for exact match), as well as implied paraphrasing if the engine believes there is similar intent.

Given the increased nuances from the starting point of a single keyword to the final search query, reliance on keyword targeting no longer offers the same control it once did. 

Then there is the unexpected change: The loss of control isn’t limited to just how we target. It also impacts how we message.

Most advertisers were excited when text ads evolved into expanded text ads to provide more freedom for messaging. Now that expanded text ads have taken center stage, the engines are promoting responsive search ads.

That takes ad-copy creation out of the advertiser’s hands and puts it into the algorithms' — automatically testing millions of combinations, all while keeping advertisers in the dark as to which combination was successful due to limited reporting.

It has even been rumored that Google is considering phasing out expanded text entirely in favor of responsive search ads. 

How Agencies Can Exert Control

These changes mean we have to rely on the two most ambiguous A’s in advertising: automation and algorithms. Since advertisers have limited control over what queries our ads match to, it’s important to look at the levers we can tap into. 

In my experience, audience targeting is key to reaching the right searcher to convert engaged prospects more effectively and efficiently.

Campaigns structured with an audience-first approach allow for paid search to strategically engage and message prospects at different points in the funnel and bid accordingly. Rather than the traditional approach of organizing by theme or product, this encourages segmentation by audience signal.

An audience-first approach helps advertisers connect their searcher with customized messaging rather than a blanket keyword approach with little insight into the searcher’s intention.

In order to put this into practice, advertisers need to work with their tagging teams to ensure proper tagging on site to track and assess key actions. Audiences can be as specific as cart abandoners or PDF downloaders, or as broad as those similar to converters.

Using paid search to guide key audiences along the purchase journey encourages deeper engagement and allows for stronger brand awareness. 


The transformation of paid search should not come as a surprise. It’s simply taking a high-performing channel and adapting it to be more in tune with other digital channels — ones that rely heavily on audiences.

In the years to come, I believe successful paid search accounts will take an audience-first approach by leveraging intent signals to build bidding strategies.

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