SKAGs are ad groups that only target one keyword. They were all the rage a few years back, but today’s PPC marketing landscape demands a broader focus on single topics instead.

Here, you’ll find: 

  1. What SKAGs are
  2. Why they aren’t as effective as they once were
  3. How single-topic ad groups (STAGs) bring more ROI
  4. The importance of negative keywords in every PPC campaign

Name a marketer who isn’t plagued by nightmares of wasted ad spend. 

And let’s be real: Nothing blows more money than ad campaigns targeting too many unqualified leads. 

So Google came up with single-keyword ad groups (SKAGs) to make ads more effective, relevant, and profitable for brands. These SKAGs dominated the marketing scene up until a few years ago.

But now? The heyday of their efficacy has come and gone. We wanted to know more, so we tapped into the expertise of HawkSEM CEO and PPC marketing veteran Sam Yadegar to elaborate. 

Below, he gives us the lowdown on the SKAGs vs. STAGs (single-topic ad groups) debate and shares why effective digital marketing strategies have moved beyond SKAGs. 

What are SKAGs?

SKAGs are single-keyword ad groups. This means that an ad group must target only one keyword, no matter how many ads are within that ad group. 

Ad groups are collections of specific ads categorized by a common theme. While ad groups can target multiple keywords across different ads, SKAGs involve only using one keyword per ad group.

For example, you might have an ad group with three ads crafted within one ad group to promote your new product or service. 


(Image: Adobe)

But your SKAG can only target one keyword across all three ads. You might pick the most popular keyword. On the flip side, single-topic ad groups might target a wider range of topically related keywords.   

As for their functionality…

How do SKAGs work?

With SKAGs, each keyword gets its own ad group. 

Let’s say you offer immigration legal services for both Americans and Canadians looking to work in the opposite country. You might create one broad ad group with multiple keywords under a similar theme like “American visas for Canadians” and “Move to the US as a Canadian.”

But if you opt for a SKAG strategy? 

You wouldn’t target multiple keywords within the same group of ads. Instead, you’d create multiple ads within one group that target only one keyword, even if the keywords are close variants. 

  • Ad group 1: American visas for Canadians
  • Ad group 2: Move to the U.S. as a Canadian

Looks pretty organized, right?

The idea here is that SKAGs speak more directly to individual searcher intent, making ads more relevant and thus promoting better clickthrough rates (CTRs), quality scores, and conversions. 

In SKAG campaigns, you’d target “exact match keywords” to ensure your specific keywords and respective ads show up on the search engine results page (SERP) of whoever types them into the search bar. 

However, every marketer knows that PPC strategies have a limited shelf life. This is especially true when you work with a platform like Google Ads, which constantly releases updates. 

That said, their use has dwindled over time.

Are SKAGs still relevant? 5 drawbacks

The short answer? No. They’re too expensive, time-consuming, and risk you missing the mark on a qualified audience. 

Of course, this wasn’t always the case. As mentioned above, SKAGs were once used to capture more relevant audiences and boost CTRs and conversions. 

But these days? 

A few factors deem them inefficient for ROI and general operational efficiency. 

Let’s break it down: 

1. SKAGs are incredibly time-consuming  

Think about how long it takes you to set up an account structure on Google Ads. Once you plug in each keyword, bidding strategy and amount, and all your ads? It easily consumes chunks of time in your marketing schedule. 

But if you make separate ad groups for every keyword? 

Hours will turn into days as you scramble to create new search ads for each keyword. And don’t forget to factor in your headline, meta description, landing pages, and ad copy. 

No marketer has the time, and even if they did, all those hours spent to create the SKAGs would eat into potential ROI. 

2. SKAGs result in duplicate keywords 

Say your ecommerce brand sells a hundred different female apparel products. So you make separate ad groups for each category of clothing, as well as each item, down to the last color. 

We predict two issues here: 

  • You’re human, and it wouldn’t be uncommon to overlook a duplicate keyword or two. 
  • SKAGs create separate ads for keyword variants, which means you’d bid against yourself. This also duplicates your ad groups. 

All of this combined will cause keyword cannibalization, which involves too many duplicate or similar keywords across your marketing assets that negatively influence your rankings. 

Therefore, testing your SKAGs is a must. But…

3. SKAGs are expensive to A/B test 

We all know the importance of A/B testing, right? 

In case you don’t, it’s a PPC strategy that tests ad elements for certain metrics, like landing page experience, ad copy effectiveness, visual user experience, and more. The goal is to see which elements are most lucrative before you commit to it for the long haul. 

Now, a sweet spot for A/B testing is usually a couple of weeks for each element. 

But what if you need to test hundreds or thousands of ads? All of a sudden that A/B testing budget grew exponentially. This is because you’d need to test different elements within each ad in one of way too many ad groups. 

And that can get messy.

4. SKAGs are chaotic for your Google Ads account

Here at HawkSEM, our skilled PPC experts keep a close eye on all ad campaigns, down to the last click. 

We do this with help from our proprietary tech ConversionIQ, so we never miss a beat. The platform shows us direct attribution figures for traffic and conversions to specific ad assets, including keywords. Plus, it displays all this data into digestible dashboards that HawkSEM clients can access at any time. 

But here’s the thing: it’s easier to miss crucial factors (including high- and low-performing keywords) with SKAGs because you need so many of them. Our well-equipped marketing agency doesn’t use SKAGs for many reasons, including this one. 

Now imagine how difficult it’d be for small businesses to manage each search term report, or monitor search volume, conversion rates, and bounce rate for each ad’s landing page. SKAGs make it overwhelmingly tedious. 

In fact, SKAGs disorganize your Google Ads campaigns unnecessarily, making it difficult to maintain a big-picture lens of your PPC marketing strategy. 

Still, the main reason why SKAGs aren’t an ideal option for your ad campaigns has to do with Google Ads and its constant updates.

5. Google Ads broadened match types

In February 2021, Google Ads  expanded keyword targets that come with phrase matches. For starters, they include variations of word order within long-tail keywords—even if you select “exact keyword match types.”

It also started to include more keywords as a match if its algorithm reported it had the same meaning as the original. 

“Google continues to learn and better match search intent [from search queries] with search results,” says Yadegar. “It’s taken its own liberty in serving ads and being less concerned with match types.”

So, how can we address the new limitations of SKAGs? 

Why STAGs win over SKAGs for PPC marketing

SKAGs reflect a preference for relevance in your ad groups, but Yadegar says Google’s changes to match types call for a different strategy, achieving the same relevance with specific topics instead:

“While historically we used to literally only have one keyword in each ad group, given the new match type changes from Google,” explains Yadegar. “We tend to be a bit more ‘single topic per ad group (STAG),’ which may contain a handful of different keywords as opposed to just having one.”

Take our example from earlier. Instead of separate ad groups and ads for “American visas for Canadians” and “Move to the U.S. as a Canadian,” these would be categorized under the same topic: Canadian immigration to U.S. 

But how do you know which topics your audience cares about? And which topics will result in more conversions and thus more ROI for your brand?

organization hierarchy concept, business man manage complex logi

(Image: Adobe)

“The answer is always on the SERP,” says Yadegar. “Our team goes through a deliberate research process searching multiple keywords and identifying whether they are actually separate topics or just a variant of each other.”

But are same-variant keywords a no-go? 

Yadegar suggests that if they’re a variant, it’s best to put them in the same ad group.  

For an award-winning digital marketing agency like HawkSEM, we subscribe to the latest SEO and keyword software to help generate the most accurate keyword insights for every client. 

Two of our favorite tools?

  • Keyword Cupid: an SEO keyword clustering tool that discovers relevant content topics and accompanying keywords with with AI
  • ConversionIQ: our agency-developed marketing software, which tests and collects data on various keywords, topic clusters, and accompanying metrics from a wide range of content assets over time. 

But the process isn’t without its challenges. What if we find hundreds of potential new keywords for each topic?

How many keywords should each ad group have?

We’ve established that topics trump single keywords. But when is it too much of a good thing? 

After all, you want to avoid the very issue that SKAGs were designed to tackle in the first place. 

“There’s no hard and fast rule here,” says Yadegar. “But if you naturally still stay very tight and thematic, keywords usually don’t have a large amount of variants.”

Ideally, you want to stay between 5 and 20 keywords under one keyword topic per ad group. 

The importance of negative keywords

Google thinks it knows best when it comes to matching search intent with search results. The problem? Even the search engine titan can miss potentially irrelevant keywords. 

“That’s why negative keyword management has become more important these days,” says Yadegar. 

For example, a swimsuit ecommerce store might sell a wide variety of women’s swimwear. But if Google includes “Speedo” in a broad match when the brand doesn’t even sell men’s products, then that brand wastes precious marketing dollars on targeting irrelevant leads. 

In this case, the keyword “Speedo” should be included in a regularly updated negative keyword list. Negative keywords are manual keyword insertions you plug into your ad campaign so it doesn’t target those particular search terms. 

Can’t see the ROI yet? 

Check out our educational client, California State University – Northridge (CSUN), which witnessed epic results after we revamped its negative keyword list. 

The client wanted to recruit more students to a wider variety of their program offerings. Along with ad copy optimization and enhanced cost-per-click (CPC) bidding, negative locations and keywords helped us accomplish the following for CSUN: 

  • 50% reduced cost per acquisition (CPA)
  • 50% increase in year-over-year (YoY) revenue
  • 2X increase in conversion rate

Top benefits of STAGs

We chatted about some drawbacks to SKAGs, but what makes STAGs the better option? 

  • Heightened return on ad spend (ROAS)
  • Lower CPC and effective marketing budget
  • Less intimidating Google Ads account structures
  • Minimal chance of keyword cannibalization
  • Increased reach and web traffic with broader keyword targets

As you can see, STAGs pose less risk and boast higher ROI, which is why HawkSEM prefers them to SKAGs.

The takeaway

SKAGs just don’t cut it in today’s evolved PPC world of automated keyword inclusions and Google Ads targeting. 

But that doesn’t mean you should charge out of the gates and target every keyword under the sun. Ad relevance is still a vital requirement for effective ad groups and campaigns, and single-topic ad groups help brands achieve it. 

Still, the keyword research required for an effective keyword list for a specific topic must be chiseled to perfection.

And most brands don’t have the software, horsepower, or unique skillset for effective keyword research. That’s where a top-3% digital marketing agency like HawkSEM steps in. 

Our roster of seasoned PPC experts brings years of experience with Google Ads campaigns. Collectively, we’ve structured thousands of campaigns with relevant keyword topics that generated game-changing traffic and conversions. 

Need an ally on your side to dive into the research and formulate a strategy that raises your bottom line? 

We’ve got the technique (and results) to back it all up, which span diverse client industries like finance, education, SaaS, ecommerce, and more. 

Ready to bring your campaign conversions from zero to hero? We’re your caped crusader and STAGs are our sidekick.

Contact HawkSEM for Free Consultation