Keywords: when less is more

Posted on 25. Nov, 2011 by in Digital Marketing

There’s a tendency to evaluate a PPC account by their size: the bigger, the better. How many keywords are you able to manage? How many millions of variations did you think of and have in the account, ready to be searched for, clicked on, bought from?

As much as it still sounds quite impressive to say “we manage hundreds of millions of keywords”, the true and honest answer to the question about keyword numbers is: it doesn’t matter.

And it doesn’t matter for 2 reasons:

  1. Users are not that inventive and unpredictable
  2. Advanced match type strategies paired with clever bidding strategies demonstrate that “less is more”


Users are not that inventive or unpredictable

If you’re looking to buy an mp3 player, you’re most likely to search for “mp3 player” or maybe “mp3 players”. You might get it wrong and go for “mp3 plyer” and you might search for a specific model or type of mp3 player.

True, about 20% of searches on Google each month have not been seen before. They are combinations of words that have not been used before.

For commercial searches this percentage drops though. When users are looking for specific products or services, they might misspell them, they might use a different denomination to the actual branded name, but the set of combinations that a significant number of users would go for, is limited.

And if you are in the business of news and information and your main aim is to generate traffic for your website, it’s more about quickly reacting to search trends and cater for these keywords in your account rather than trying to predict what people might search on next week.


Advanced match type strategies paired with clever bidding strategies demonstrate that “less is more”

Reducing the keyword count doesn’t mean dropping traffic in paid search, or advertising less. It also doesn’t mean forgetting about your niche/low volume keywords.

But trying to pre-empt all possible word combinations people might use to search for certain products or services, is not only a time-consuming, but often enough a pointless exercise.

A clever use of broad match (including broad match modified) in combination with exact matching for high volume terms, allows for a balance between reach (catering for users who search in uncommon ways) and cost efficiency (on high volume/high competition terms).

By recently restructuring a retail account along these lines, we cut keyword numbers down to a third of the original list, with no negative impact on traffic levels, as well as the quality of traffic (cost per acquisition remained essentially stable).

For one of our travel clients we reduced the size of the account significantly by cutting “0 impression” keywords. We almost immediately saw a 10% increase in ROI. Why was this the case if those keywords were not accumulating any impressions or clicks, and were just “sitting there” without costing money?

A more limited set of keywords allows for a more focused approach on the “essential stuff”, rather than trying to manage an endless list of “long tail”. But what is the essential stuff then? The answer is two-fold:

Relevancy – of course!

Not just a buzz-word in search, relevancy really does make a difference. Fewer keywords allow for a more granular adgroup structure, which in turn allows for more focused, specific and relevant adcopy. Better adcopy means better quality score, which ultimately means cheaper clicks. Job done!


Reach – but clever

Rather than trying to reach your customers by catering for all the “funny” ways in which each of them might be searching for your products, it is getting increasingly important to understand where these users are when searching for your products and services.

Most likely a lot of them will be on Google: will they be searching on Google Shopping though or rather within the news section or even on Google images? Are you present with a Google merchant center account alongside you “classic” keywords,  and are you aware that some users might be looking for you via images, for example? And are you thinking about other search engines, maybe considering that most of your customers sit in places where Google is not the biggest player in the search market?


In summary, the question to ask whoever is in charge of your paid search activity, is no longer “how many keywords are you managing for me?” but rather “are you placing my brand in all spaces my customers or potential customers might be looking for the brand?”

Slightly more complicated, but definitely more strategic a question, that will certainly unleash the creativity of your paid search manager, in-house expert or agency.

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  • Asaad Dookhy

    Good article Sandra!

  • Benatkinson

    Fantastic post and a great reference. thank you