Why Search Marketing Is Turning Its Back On SKAGs

Search marketer turns his back on SKAGs

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Take yourself back, it’s 2016, 3rd party data is dishing high fives, you’ve expanded those text ads and you’ve got an account full of your not-so-secret weapon, SKAGs. 

Life is good.

Even until fairly recently in fact, paid media experts including Google Ads freelancers at Growth Collective have sworn by SKAGs to deliver profitable search campaigns.

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SKAGs being Single Keyword Ad Groups, looking a little something like this…

AD GROUP: Single Keyword Ad Groups [EXACT]

KEYWORD: [single keyword ad groups]

AD GROUP: Single Keyword Ad Groups [PHRASE]

KEYWORD: “single keyword  ad groups”

NEGATIVE: [single keyword ad groups]

AD GROUP: Single Keyword Ad Groups [BMM]

KEYWORD: +single +keyword +ad +groups

NEGATIVE: [single keyword ad groups] “single keyword ad groups”


It’s a complex web of hyper segmented ad groups, providing you with complete control over the distribution of your budget, bids, and ad copy.

In return, you see perfect quality scores, cheaper CPC's, and a solid visual over what exactly is moving the needle in your account. 

Ultimately, better results.

And make no mistake, SKAGs got you results.

I’ve been fortunate enough to scale a tonne of search campaigns and if I didn’t adopt that very SKAGs approach, I don’t know if things would have panned out the way it has.

So I join countless other media buyers when I tip my hat to SKAGs.

However, it’s now 2022, and automation is hot.

The landscape has changed phenomenally and the once adored Single Keyword Ad Group is no longer fit for the purpose.

The best campaigns are now structured in a way that champions automation, working in harmony with AI to drive conversions.

Simply put, AI thrives with:

  1. Access to good conversion data
  2. As little limitations as possible in the targeting for serving the right creative, to the right customers at the right time. 

When the AI thrives, conversions thrive.

Simple right?

Well… sort of.

You do still have to be smart with your data. 

“As little limitations as possible” is where the complexities come in.

Complexities that are eased through testing, but still, It’s not just a case of casting your net as wide as possible and watching the conversions roll in.

Data still needs to be managed effectively.

You just need to ensure you are pivoting away from the super granular account setups, over to a strategy that embraces developments in machine learning. 

Let’s explore how this shift in the landscape has come to be and what you can do to ensure you are evolving your search marketing efforts along with the product itself.

Product Evolution

Looking at a search campaign from years ago is a little bit like hearing that dial up modem sound.

Is this really how we used to do it?

Setting bids manually, monitoring estimated cost per click metrics, impression shares, broad match modifiers, bid adjustments, ACTUAL keywords and hundreds of ads with tiny tweaks.

All in the name of isolating variables for A/B split testing and gaining complete control over your ad account.

Things we had to do as Google Ads specialists because the AI didn’t support us in the way it does now.

And although the migration away from these products has been steady with the changes to keyword match types and super reliable automated bidding strategies over the past few years, just to name a few.

With the discontinuation of expanded text ads coming up on June 30th 2022, you could say that search campaigns no longer benefit from the level of hyper-segmentation that SKAGs provide.

expanded text ads discontinued

In fact, I, and a lot of other search marketers would say exactly that.

SKAGs are redundant, and here’s why.

Close Match Variants

Keyword match types have been drastically redefined since their genesis.

The introduction of close match variants for exact match keywords in particular has changed the game for search marketers.

Close variants allow keywords to match searches that are similar, but not identical to the targeted keyword.

So building out an exhaustive keyword list and then housing each keyword in its own ad group no longer provides any real value.

Why build out all those ad groups based on small keyword variables if you can no longer control Google’s distribution of those variables?

For me, this is a welcomed addition to Google Ads and is a perfect example of how media buyers and AI can work hand in hand to connect with prospects.

Media buyers leveraging AI’s expertise and AI leveraging media buyer's expertise.


Automated Bidding 

The advancements in automated bidding strategies are incredible.

Bidding that is driven by your performance goals just makes sense.

Automated bidding

In the same way CTR is laughed at as a vanity metric in reporting, CPC is really a vanity signal for prospecting to be based.

Both are important for optimisation purposes but both equally not worth the Google Ads robot chasing.

Providing KPI’s are met of course.

Automated bidding leverages your conversion data (as well as the conversion data of every other advertiser on Google Ads) and tailors bids based on each individual user’s auction.

Essentially, 9.99 times out of 10 there is no reason to use manual bidding.

And because you don’t need to manually update bids when using automated bidding strategies like Target CPA/ ROAS.

Advertisers are no longer seeing the real benefits of the SKAG level of segmentation.

Responsive Search Ads

Okay okay, all of this in isolation doesn’t completely kill SKAGs… you can still have control over which ad is shown.

And that is a huge contributing factor to the effectiveness of SKAGs.

But when we bring responsive search ads into the mix, even the control over the exact ad users see is gone.

Responsive search ads allow you to test various headlines and descriptions against each other in one ad.

Google then serves a combination of assets that is best suited to each user in real-time.

If you really wanted to, you could setup your ads in a way that only includes three headlines and two descriptions, pinning each field to your desired position.

But you shouldn’t.

The AI doesn’t like that.

And if the AI doesn’t like it then I wouldn’t even so much as give it a passing thought.

You’ll either have limited service to the best prospects or be paying over the odds for traffic.

Either way, you’re not maximising your return on investment.

From my experience, responsive search ads are super powerful and deliver far greater performance than expanded text ads anyways, so this is a welcomed update.

They all are.

All of these changes have resulted in better performance.

Automation simply scales higher.

The best search marketers have learnt to adapt and pivot their setups away from SKAGs.

Adopting a new campaign structure that uses automation to facilitate business goals as opposed to wrestle with them.

Single Theme Ad Groups

Based on research, best practice advice from reps, and extensive campaign testing, I personally have completely shifted to a Single Theme Ad Group approach, or STAGs if you will.

Here, keywords are grouped together by homologous themes. I.e. segmentation is creative driven rather than keyword driven.

This way you can control the close variants while affording automation the license to go out and do its thing.

This also enables you to create better responsive search ads with better ad strengths, therefore increasing CTR’s, lowering CPC’s and driving more conversions.

A simple but powerful switch in campaign structure.

As referenced before, the motivation behind this switch is championing automation. 

The best campaigns effectively manage the data it feeds the AI and serves it creative assets that convert prospects into customers.

AI performs best when we are:

  1. Leveraging conversion data
  2. Providing little limitations to the AI for serving the right creative, to the right customers at the right time. 

Closing Thought

There is more than one way to peel an orange and ultimately, if your structure works, then your structure works.

But one thing is becoming increasingly clear, SKAGs are no longer fit for purpose in the new age of automation.

And will become even more so as time goes on.

One day, search marketers will almost certainly need to be experts at using creative as the most effective form of targeting, so the more comfortable they are with this now the better it will serve them in the future.

STAGs have been highly effective for me so i’d definitely recommend testing them and placing a big focus on finding the messaging that resonates best with your market.

AI is here to stay so you better buddy up and tell STAGs that it can’t sit with us.

Alex Pitts
Former company
About Author
Alex is a data-centric performance marketer who partners with ambitious brands to drive huge brand scale via YouTube Ads.
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