Death of the keyword: What it is (and is not) for retail

Are keywords dead, or slowly dying? Columnist Andy Taylor believes that's up to Google as it controls keeping keyword negatives strumming.

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It’s becoming a common refrain within the paid search industry to cry out, whether by blog post or tweet or conference presentation, that the keyword is dead! Buried! Six feet under in a memory box full of the paid search tools we used to have.

In truth, the importance of traditional text ad keywords is diminishing over time, particularly in retail. However, the death of the keyword has been put in terms that, for lack of a better description, I just don’t like, and I’m here to put them in terms that I do. Come listen for a while.

Strumming my pain with its fingers – The rise of Google Shopping

Retail advertisers should be well aware of the importance of Google Shopping by now, but here are some fresh stats to show just how important.

In Q4, Google Shopping spend grew 42 percent Y/Y according to Merkle (my employer) data, driven primarily by a significant rebound in click growth, particularly on phones.

Merkle Q4 2018 Paid Search Google Format Growth

As you can see from the chart above, text ad spend growth fell over the same time for the retail-heavy client set and digging deeper into the data it sure seems like Google is prioritizing the placement of Shopping ads over text ads.

On phones, Google Shopping Impression Y/Y growth accelerated from 59 percent in Q3 to 116 percent in Q4, as click growth went from 28 percent to 47 percent. Non-brand phone text ad impressions went from 26 percent growth in Q3 to 31 percent decline in Q4, as clicks fell 23 percent Y/Y in the final quarter.

For many retailers, text ads are now a small and diminishing part of paid search management as more time and resources are committed to Google Shopping. With Google Shopping based on product targeting as opposed to keywords, this has significantly reduced the importance of keywords for many retail advertisers.

Additionally, the smaller share of spend now attributed to keywords has increasingly led to growth in the use of Dynamic Search Ads.

Singing my life with its words – Dynamic Search Ads continue to grow as a keyword management tool

Introduced way back in 2011, Dynamic Search Ads (DSA) allow Google to determine which queries are relevant to pages on an advertisers website using Google’s organic web crawler. While Google initially launched DSAs as a way for advertisers to uncover any holes that might exist in keyword coverage, over the last few years Google has transitioned to advising advertisers to let any queries that DSAs pick up to just keep running through these keywordless campaigns.

I’ve made the case in the past that Google’s selling points for letting DSAs run with any queries they pick up aren’t that strong, and it remains the case that any query getting meaningful traffic through DSAs should probably be broken out as a keyword.

However, the steadily diminishing traffic share of text ads for many retailers has made keyword management less important relative to Google Shopping over the years. With more resources being poured into ensuring that Shopping campaigns are fully optimized, DSAs are becoming an increasingly important part of staying visible for new queries with text ads.

In Q4 2018, the median Merkle retail advertiser using DSAs since at least mid-2016 saw 20 percent of all non-brand text ad clicks produced by DSAs. That share can be even higher for advertisers with huge and ever-expanding product selections which make keeping keyword lists up to date a never-ending game of whack-a-mole.

With such a significant share of text ad traffic now heading to keywordless campaigns, the pulse of true keywords slows ever more, especially when taken together with the evolving nature of keyword match types.

Telling my whole life – Close Variants continue to expand the potential reach of existing keywords

With Google’s most recent update to the definition of queries that constitute exact match close variants, it opened up exact match keywords to traffic from queries with implied keywords, paraphrasing, as well as any query Google itself deemed to have the same meaning. While contests have been held to assign one best name for what exact match constitutes under the current definition, I think it can best be described as Vibe Match.

Taking a look at the share of exact match traffic coming from close variants for Merkle advertisers, we haven’t seen much movement since the October roll out of the change to U.S. search queries. That’s not to say new close variant queries aren’t impacting any keywords, but just that most advertisers don’t see monumental shifts in the number of clicks coming from close variants at this point.

Advertisers can still control which queries are targeted with keywords via keyword negatives, which is likely also playing a role in why our numbers don’t reflect much of a shift since analysts regularly update negatives for new queries. However, the definition of exact match is now so expansive that even the fairly high limit of 10,000 negative keywords per campaign might not be enough to fully control traffic.

If advertisers can’t feel confident that a keyword will trigger terms that the advertiser deems related to that keyword, it’s probably fair to say that part of the keyword has died. But if you love something, set it free, ya know?

Killing me softly with its song – Local searches primed to operate without keywords

A recurring theme coming from Google over the past couple of years has been the explosive growth of queries with local intent. One way that Google has served ads for such queries is by way of location extensions added to traditional keyword campaigns, which have been used since 2016 to trigger ads not only on Google searches but also on Maps searches.

While Google doesn’t provide easy segmentation of Maps searches versus traditional searches on, the “Get location details” click type comes from Maps and has been growing over time.

Merkle Q4 2018 Paid Search Google Get Location Details Click Share

These clicks are coming from keyword-based text ad campaigns for many brands, but several developments stand to reduce the role of keyword targeting for local ads in the future.

For smaller businesses, the Smart Campaigns announced in mid-2018 use Google My Business information to craft ads for relevant searches in relevant geographies and do not rely on keywords. Local Services ads, which are aimed at businesses in a handful of service industries, are also keywordless and have steadily expanded to more geographies. And for advertisers which neither Smart Campaigns or Local Services ads are applicable, Google announced Local Campaigns last July aimed at providing yet another keywordless campaign option for reaching local searchers across Google properties.

The steady growth of local queries might have resulted in the increased importance of keywords over time, but with these developments, Google has signaled that the future of local search is unlikely to rely on traditional keyword campaigns.


Is the keyword dead for retail advertisers? At this point, I feel like a more accurate depiction would be that the keyword is dying rather than dead.

Dying because Google Shopping is soaking up more ad clicks than ever before, and DSAs are soaking up more and more of the remaining text ad traffic. Dying because the definition of keyword match types keeps expanding to the point that keywords don’t act the way advertisers think they should. Dying because Google seems set to point quickly growing local searches to keywordless campaign types.

Queries still matter and using keyword negatives to control the types of searches driving traffic from Google Shopping, DSAs, Close Variants and locally-focused campaign types will be an important part of campaign management moving forward. That is, at least as long as Google keeps keyword negatives alive.

Contributing authors are invited to create content for Search Engine Land and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the search community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.

About the author

Andy Taylor
Andy Taylor is vice president of research at Tinuiti, focused on creating unique views into digital marketing performance based on $3 billion in annual ad spend under management. In addition to Search Engine Land, his work has been featured in major publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and The New York Times, among many others.

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