The Future of Paid Search

One thing we know for sure about working in any internet related discipline is that nothing is more constant than change. Just as you get used to new policies and procedures, they are changed. Right when you finally wrestle a user interface into submission, it gets an “upgrade”. As paid search professionals, we know that change is something we must be prepared to deal with on a monthly basis. It’s cool though – most of us get bored easily, so all of this need to adapt is good for us, right?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where paid search is going. I’ve been in this business for a long time. Started in web design in 1999, added SEO in 2001 and began doing PPC in earnest around 2005. I’ve seen a lot during my career. Things definitely seem to be moving faster and faster every year. In the same way that social media and apps are clamoring for our attention, so too are the advertising opportunities they create. Social media was non-existent when I started in paid search. Now, it is huge.

I come from a marketing background and first expanded from design into SEO. Back in the early 2000s, SEO was all about keywords – figuring out which ones people searched on and creating keyword dense copy to match those queries. Life was simpler in those early days! When I started doing paid search, I took a lot of my experience in the SEO space and applied it to my PPC strategies. In those days, and in many ways still today, paid search on the search engines was all about search terms or keywords.

But lately forces are aligning that make me believe that the era of keyword or search term driven PPC really is on its way to being sunset. I know this is not an original thought. Many have been discussing this for the past several years at industry conferences. It seems like this march is speeding up.

Allow me to present the evidence:

(Not Provided)

This was really the first big harbinger of the next wave of search. When Google stopped providing web site owners access to the search queries that brought visitors to their sites, it was a big deal. Much was written about it. I wrote a piece about how it was a PPC problem, not just an SEO problem. Not Provided definitely impacted organic search dramatically. There have been a lot of other things that have happened that have also significantly affected SEO (like Panda, Penguin, etc.) but losing access to visitor behavior tracking by keyword/search term was huge.

I have always felt that organic and paid search are in many, many cases just meant to work together as part of a well rounded plan. Before Not Provided, I was able to dig deeply into what terms were working well for clients organically and decide to either augment successful terms with PPC and/or try to gain traction for more competitive terms in PPC and let the organic handle the longer tail terms or less competitive terms. Now, I can see search queries in Webmaster Tools (I mean Google Search Console) but it’s just a sortable list there. There is no ability to dig into user behaviors and gain insights from them.

Bing just announced that they will be following Google’s lead and also begin not providing search term data. So, even if we want to continue to use keywords as the basis of our PPC strategies, this move just made it a lot harder because search term data is about to get scarce. Yes, I believe we are entering into a period where the only place to get this kind of data will be the AdWords Keyword Planner (shudder…). Where else is it going to come from? The third party tools that are providing that data now are largely getting it from Bing. When that data stream dries up, where will any search term volume or popularity data come from? Google Trends? Yikes.

Google’s SEO Changes

Over the past couple of years, Google seems to be working overtime to move SEOs away from targeting keywords and into answering questions or fulfilling searcher’s needs. It is a subtle difference in some ways, but its impact has been huge. Again, as someone who worked in SEO in its heyday, strategy was all about determining which terms people searched on most and then creating content around those terms. PPC is quite similar, really and has remained so.

The vast majority of paid search strategy, at least for PPC on search engines, is still very largely driven by keywords. We create ad groups based on keywords and write ad copy and landing page copy with those same keywords front and center. Google tells us to do this – Quality Score is at least partially determined by what Google deems your relevance to a term is. How does Google determine relevance? It is, and has always been, based on your words – what does your content say? If you want to be recognized as relevant for garden gnomes, your keywords better include the word garden and gnome, as well as your ad copy, your landing page and to really guild the lily, your URL never hurts!

But this is changing too…

The End Of Close Variant Opt Out

I know there are varying opinions out there on the severity of impact of the end of close variant opt out. I am sure that there are quite a few accounts that do just fine, or arguably do better opted in to close variants. I am not here to tell anyone that their experience is not true or valid. I can only speak to what I’ve seen in the accounts I personally manage. And what I have seen is that not being able to opt out of Google (and now Bing too, although in a totally different way so that I have to have two different logic paths to address both platforms, oh my God I am getting a headache just thinking about it) displaying my ads for what it considers to be close variants makes for two things consistently:

  1. a lot of search queries that are not relevant for my clients and therefore cost them money with 0% of them ever gaining a customer
  2. add to my workload when it comes to imagining and adding negatives, because I used to be able to have an exact match term only trigger for, you know, an exact match

All grousing aside, this is another signal about Google’s position on keywords. Think about it – they have laid down the law that you can put keywords into your ad groups, and even designate them as exact match types, but if Google thinks something else is relevant to that term or to a searcher based on their session behavior, they will ignore your keyword parameters and display your ad anyway (until you add a bajillion negatives to address their often rather liberal interpretation of close variants).

Really even now, you can suggest or request keywords you’d like to have trigger your ads, but they are just that, suggestions open to Google’s (or Bing’s) interpretation.

Rise Of Demographic Targeting

With paid search options on social networks, it is only natural that the search engines themselves would be trying to catch up and offer demographic targeting for search and display network advertising. Social networks’ biggest attraction for paid advertising is that you can target, say, females between the ages of 35 and 45 who live within 25 miles of Miami, or you can target people who have a particular job title in a particular industry if you’re advertising on LinkedIn.

Specific keywords matter a whole lot less when you are letting demographics drive your strategy. They matter in your messaging, but not so much in your targeting. This is a big shift from “traditional” PPC strategy and set up.

Google’s Push About “Micro Moments” On Mobile & Apps

Google (and I would assume Bing and Yahoo as it begins to unwind itself from Bing for PPC) want to be able to command the same costs per click for mobile ads that they currently do for non-mobile ads. Think about it – more and more of our internet time is being spent on mobile devices. Advertising needs to be where the eyeballs are to be effective for advertisers and profitable for the platforms. Google’s latest AdWords event was heavy on their system getting smarter about mobile users. Where are they when they are doing a search (exact geo location)? What were they doing right before they executed the search? Which apps are they using and let’s push ads to them in their favorite apps, no search action even needed!

None of these are really about keywords either. They are more about building a user profile or set of actions/criteria that should trigger your ads. Think of it like this:

Traditional PPC Strategy:

  1. Define offer & call to action
  2. Decide on geographic target area(s)
  3. Build ad groups, ad copy & landing pages based on keywords that are directly related to offer/product/service

Future PPC Strategy:

  1. Define offer & call to action
  2. Decide on geographic target area(s)
  3. Define user actions or traits that should trigger your ad – location, gender, date/time, app usage, etc.

So Where Will It All End Up?

Obviously, I can’t say for sure. I do know this though, all signs are pointing to keywords having a much smaller role in where I see search going. In some ways this could be good – thinking about scenarios where a person might be primed to buy what you’re selling definitely has value. Relying less on keywords and more on these dynamic factors seems like it could move paid search into a more active space too, where ads could be served based on user actions/criteria and a search by the person would not even be required. Paid search could become anticipatory and suggestive, rather than just reactive to a query.

I think it is mostly exciting. I’ve been doing it the old fashioned way with keywords for a long time, and I really don’t want to see that totally go away, because I do think it still belongs in the mix for advertisers. But, if the platforms can really up their collective games and make personally targeted advertising a reality, the results for our clients could be pretty amazing. Let’s hope this wave of change is implemented by adding ways to set up campaigns and targeting and not by removing current options and forcing keyword-less campaigns. That would not move our industry forward.

I know this for sure, things will continue to rapidly change and I will roll with whatever comes next.

What do you think is on the brink for paid search? Share your thoughts and predictions in the comments or hit me up on Twitter (@NeptuneMoon).

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