Google Ads

Optimizing Google Ads without Keywords

Keywords were once the core targeting mechanism in Google Search campaigns. Keywords informed searchers’ needs and advertisers’ ads and landing pages. But the importance of keywords dwindled in the last decade for various reasons, including:

  • Less-precise match types.
  • Intent-focused smart bidding.
  • Keyword-less campaign types.

Keywords remain critical (and necessary) for standard Search campaigns. Yet other entities increasingly determine account success. Keyword queries alone don’t reveal searchers’ intent.

Here’s how to future-proof Google Ads accounts beyond keywords.

Less-precise Match Types

The problem:

Exact and phrase-match campaigns used to show only ads with the precise keywords. For example, bidding on the exact match of “baseball gloves” would only trigger ads when searchers typed that identical query. Phrase match bids would show only ads with the exact words in the same order.

Over time, Google introduced relaxed variants for similar queries, such as:

  • Singular and plural (“baseball” glove),
  • Misspellings (“baseeball” gloves),
  • Close variants (“catcher” gloves).

Broad match keywords combined with smart bidding are now common. Google says it considers users’ recent searches, the landing page content, and other keywords in an ad group. Thus a broad match ad for “low-carb diet plan” can show for:

  • “carb-free foods,”
  • “low-carb diets,”
  • “mediterranean diet books,”
  • “how to cut carbs for beginners,”
  • “carb-free meals.”

The solution:

Consider keywords as themes, a starting point. For example, a phrase match bid on “baseball gloves” could trigger searches for “baseball gloves under $100.” Yet an advertiser whose gloves cost more than $100 could opt not to assign negative keywords, as Google may know searchers’ preferences and show ads accordingly. Perhaps a searcher has queried with and without price and demonstrated (to Google) her preference for gloves costing more than $100. This leads to the next point.

Intent-focused Smart Bidding

The problem:

Manual bidding gives advertisers the most control. An example is setting a maximum amount per keyword. Furthermore, advertisers can place modifiers, such as increasing mobile bids by 20%. But those manual tactics are now outdated given the shift to intent and away from words alone.

The solution:

Google’s smart bidding uses artificial intelligence to optimize conversions or revenue. Google’s AI tracks hundreds of signals to show the right ad to the right user and adds device or location modifiers automatically. An advertiser with most sales between 1:00 and 5:00 p.m. could see its bids automatically increase during this time.

The actual keyword is less important. A query for “research baseball gloves” —  normally information-focused — could show an ad selling baseball gloves if the searcher’s previous queries were shopping-related.

Keyword-less Campaign Types

The problem:

The rise of close variants and smart bidding can seemingly mask advertisers’ keyword gaps. Yet Google claims billions of searches daily, with 15% new queries. It’s impossible to bid on every existing or future keyword, even for huge accounts.

The solution:

Shopping, Dynamic Search Ads, and Performance Max campaigns show ads on Google Search results. None use keywords, focusing instead on other factors. Shopping and Dynamic Search campaigns show ads based on advertisers’ product-feed attributes and site content. Even Performance Max, with ads on Google’s Display Network and on Search, relies on advertiser-provided signals.

In short, search intent — not keywords — increasingly determines which ads appear.

Matthew Umbro
Matthew Umbro
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