Are We Reaching the End of the Keyword Era?

For years, pundits have been prognosticating the death of the keyword, and through it all, the keyword stayed strong, powering the lion’s share of ad dollars on the Internet. This time, it seems different, though — the humble keyword may actually be going by the wayside. And because of it, search marketing practitioners are going to need to develop a new set of skills to adapt. In this article, I’ll explore the evidence that is mounting and what we, as marketers, can do to stay on top of what’s replacing it.

Product Listing Ads (PLAs)

Retail has always been a leading category for Google and the other search engines. Large retailers have bought millions of keywords on Google and turned those buys into huge revenues. However, in the past year or so, Google has been replacing standard keyword driven text ads in retail with Product Listing Ads (PLA), graphical units driven by a product feed. A recent AdGooroo study showed that the top 20 retail advertisers are spending 63 percent of their search budgets on PLA and only 37 percent on text ads. Clearly the scales are starting to tip in retail and that will likely continue across other verticals as Google continues to bring new ad formats to market.

Attribution Modeling

In the early days of search, most advertisers leveraged the last-click attribution model to prove the value of their keyword buys, and as such, keywords received the bulk of the credit for online conversions. However, with the advent of more sophisticated analytics systems, it is becoming much more common for advertisers to use multi-touch attribution models, which give significant credit to earlier touches in the conversion path. While this doesn’t render the keyword inconsequential, it raises the profile of other channels. Performance marketers can’t continue to rely on Google as their sole source of conversions, and newer attribution models are now demonstrating that.

Mobile Apps

The early days of mobile only served to solidify Google’s dominance, as consumers just replicated their Web browser behavior on their mobile devices. A recent Forbes article shows that nearly all mobile activity has shifted to applications, or apps. With this move to apps, behavior seems to have fundamentally changed away from keyword search to social networking, app browsing, and voice search. All of these new behaviors will necessitate different advertising models than traditional keyword buying.

Audience Buying

The ability to target specific consumer audiences through the use of massive and complex data stacks is a rapidly growing theme in online advertising. Most advertisers would prefer to think about the type of people they want to target, as opposed to the keywords they have to buy, to hit that target. Recent moves such as Remarketing Lists for Search Ads (RSLA) by Google and Bing’s addition of first-party data to its ad targeting system, show just how much advertisers crave profile data in order to efficiently price impressions/clicks. While this doesn’t necessarily degrade the importance of purchasing keywords relevant to your business, it does indicate that there are other features of a user that could be equally, if not more, important in the mind of advertisers.

Goodbye Pure Exact Match

Recently, Google pulled the plug on the ability to target “exact” keywords through AdWords. While this seems like a minor change, since Google will now only match your keywords to “close variants” of those keywords, it does seem like the first step toward the future of Google.

If you remember, Google recently introduced Enhanced Campaigns, which mashed together keyword traffic from different types of devices. It also stopped providing keywords to analytics tools, virtually eliminating the practice of keyword-based SEO. All of these moves start to chip away at full marketer control over where and when their ads show up. Couple this with Google’s investment in PLA and Dynamic Search Ads, and you can see a keyword-less world starting to emerge.

In summary, there are many changes happening in the performance marketing world that point to the decline in importance of the keyword buy. While keyword search is still a multi-billion dollar industry, its influence is beginning to erode at the hands of a number of new channels and techniques. For all of us in the search community, this should serve as both a wake-up call and an opportunity to broaden our skills. Search marketers have always been at the forefront of data-driven performance marketing…there’s no reason that can’t continue in this new and exciting world.

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A screenshot of visual search on Pinterest. On the left is a picture of a copper angle-poise lamp, with the words 'Visually similar results' above it. Down the right-hand side are a number of pins showing similar lamps.
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