Keywords and Paid Search Audiences

For about two years, paid search audiences replacing keywords are targeted in the gossip pool of blogs. Keywords will not be by these audiences even though they have grown in depth and popularity.

This so called fame is a bit underestimated. Paid search marketers are pimping this idea as wholesomely as possible. They seem to be blind to the fact that paid search already has a very strong heartbeat with its audiences who have placed it on a shrine with a thousand candles.

It could be argued that even though audiences have created a blinding light with this popularity (and reasonable success), there is also a rise in what is actually its weaknesses as well. It turns out that all the praise was too soon and not the great technique paid searchers were praying for it to be.

The reason for this blog is to debate against the idea that audience targeting will ever, in this life or the next, replace keywords in a paid search.

Now, before pulling out my sword, beheading an immortal and screaming, “there can be only one,” I will try to circumvent the number of angry readers by acknowledging a crucial point. I am in no way attempting to construct a false dichotomy. Yes, I stand behind the fact that the keyword is currently and has been the most valuable method of targeting for a paid search marketer – but, I also hold these truths to be self-evident – it can be very strategic in search bidding to also use audience targeting.

In fact, stirring over this in my head once again, we might as well state that this post is a response to what I have seen become a false dichotomy – that keyword targeting is somehow subpar to audience targeting and should be replaced. Insanity…. Insanity, I say. Let me tell you why.

An omniscient marketer’s point of view

The finest illustration I’ve seen regarding the center of inept ability for audience targeting came from an older traditional marketer who most likely had never used a keyword planner – ever.

He said, “I have to teenage children,” beaming with pride. “Because they are 18 months apart in age, they are in the same demographic targeting group. Both young women, so they might as well be the same person, especially since they are equal in income under my care. Geographically, they live in my house – same person. They even share the same friends…socially targeting… the same person.”

“However, their personalities are completely different. One is a tomboy who’s into sports and outdoors and spends most of her time in sneakers and blue jeans. The other will never part from her makeup and dresses and she is very artistic.”

Marketers deploying audience-targeting for winter dresses would see them in their marketing list and would:

  1. Categorize them as two high school girls in the same geographical area and with the same income
  2. It would be obvious (to the marketers) that they both should be very interested in what they are selling
  3. Make only one sale
  4. Wonder why

The issue isn’t with the actual targeting but rather not understanding that not everyone colors within the lines of a designated marketing plan.

During September 2015, a brilliant marketer – Aaron Levy – (you should follow him) developed an incredibly under-shared blog enlightening these weaknesses in an alternative way: What You Think You Know About Your Customer’s Persona is Wrong

The article begins by courageously introducing the topic of audience targeting by labeling it as a more undefined part of the galaxy than we had previously thought. Kinda like Captain Janeway on the Star Trek USS Voyager… we have a great ship but boy are we way far away from Earth. He showed several ways that audience targeting can be inaccurate, actually using real data (no Star Trek pun intended) to articulate his conclusions.

Be brave – question audience targeting

To be clear, audience targeting has become a standard because it genuinely has value (great data…when accurate!). Fueling ads with the wisdom we receive about personas is a powerful tool to utilize.

So, you wonder why I’m gathering all of this arsenal for a powerful attack contra the almighty audience targeting. I admit it – I’m setting you up. This is my feeble attempt to have you admit that audience targeting absolutely has weaknesses and we should blow out some its candles on the shrine. Also to remind you that we have a tried-and-true formula that easily fits with demographic targeting. Targeting is what paid searchers have effectively utilized for years.

The almighty – keyword.

Where audience targeting pales in comparison with the law of averages (i.e. at some point, there has to be a person in the demographically targeted list that is genuinely fascinated by what I am selling) and keyword targeting shines bright like a diamond in revealing individual intent.

Keyword focused marketing dominates what audience targeting can never, ever do…

Keywords: The brick houses of personal intent

A keyword is still my preferred method of targeting in paid search because it divulges individual, intimate and historical intent. I use those words carefully… they were intentional and worthy of a bit of discovery.


Keywords are a strong targeting method because they are crafted by a single person. I’ll go out on a limb and say that not too many times in history have a group of people huddled around and input information at once. Keywords are developed in the mind of the individual which gives them potential and makes them frighteningly powerful.

Assumptions are what feeds audience targeting…and remember that saying about the first four letters of the word… essentially, you are grouping people who “probably” think the same way in a certain demographic area – and you are assuming they have no unique tastes. For example, one daughter is a tomboy and one is artistic.

Keyword targeting is blind to demographics and that’s a good thing. It doesn’t care if you came from a good family, have an education or love kids.  As long as you love me… err, um… I mean, it don’t need your stinking demographics. It’s only interested in you, individually.


The next feature in powering keyword deliciousness is what is revealed about a person, intimately. Now, whereas using information about a group of people helps to narrow that group to individuals, the personal aspect of targeting keywords to an individual helps us understand what they are thinking – individually.

All marketers aim to provide information in a way that will help them truly discern the purpose for which an individual’s heart beats. This is truly the most powerful technique of marketing. Getting to the heart of things – and viola… keyword targeting!

Just visualize this: a keyword is a connection. A person is entering into a computer their inner most wants and desires. For split second when this person is entering a search, you will be connected to them. A person is revealing to you what is on their mind, in that moment. That is power that should not be underestimated.

When a person lets Google know they want to “find out how to start a bakery”, that is telling your client, a distributor for Wolf signature red knob ranges, that this person wants to buy a stove…to bake a bunch of stuff…to sell – and your client can display an ad matching their actual intent – can you dig it?

Paid keyword searches are the preacher at the wedding between personal intent and advertising. Marketers of the past would have sold their souls for this! It’s not random and it’s certainly not luck. It is absolute soundness of technique directly derived from an individual and where they live. We are linking directly to a person – intimately – who is literally typing in (to us) what they are interested in knowing.  

Historical (AKA, temporal)

The final puzzle piece of keyword targeting that is like no other is the historical aspect. Anyone worth the time of day in marketing knows the saying, “timing is everything.” Intent is the Siamese twin of timing in keyword targeting. When is this person thinking of opening a bakery? Exactly at the point in time when they type in that search.

It’s not like you are going to hunt these people down and put a huge billboard in their front yards about what you are offering. You are merely providing pertinent information to their query at the most important time in history for that search – exactly when they want to learn more.

Write this on your bathroom mirror to remind yourself every day – Timing. Is. Everything.

This will be kinda like stepping in gum

Things are going to get sticky. Summarizing: a “search” is performed when a person reveals intimate information about themselves with the intent on finding information immediately. Because of that, I argue that keyword targeting outmaneuvers audience targeting in paid search.

I hold these truths to be self-evident: Paid search is an evolving, dynamic industry. A search reminds me of “space – the final frontier”… used, “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before”… err…um… It all involves the mainstay of the marketing industry – communication. Communication on the Internet requires words (until emojis become an official language) and words can be used like a net instead of a fishing pole.

I would be remiss if I ignored authentic questions (which if you’ve ever read the comment section on political Facebook post will arise). As spectacular as the information I’ve provided is, you are most likely formulating some of the following questions.

  • How do you explain keywords and low search volume?
  • What if the algorithm changes and kills keyword targeting?
  • Social ads fit into your picture how, exactly?

I’ll stop typing after I answer these questions.

Explaining low search volume terms

Keywords that fall in the low search volume category totally suck (excuse my bluntness). I am really not schooled enough to know how much data is out there regarding it but they are all-up-in-my-face this past year in comparison to 2010.

Not sure about what’s cause of this; perhaps I’ll find out and write another blog… but the truth of it is, it’s becoming more difficult to be creatively original and target valuable keywords when hundreds are being retired due to low search volume.

If I wasn’t paranoid, I’d say take this as a sign for Bing and Google to “begin the take over” – resistance is futile. They’ll refer to it as ‘automating for our good’ in keyword targeting. At a minimum, SMBs will experience the wrath of LSVs far harder than big business. In this purported future, keywords would remain, they just would not be led directly by PPCers. Boo/Hiss.

Declaration of the search engine

I’m pretty sure I’ve made it clear in this article how much power search engines have. As much as I embrace a world with keyword targeting and as much evidence as I have shoved in your face, it would still be fairly easy for Bing or Google to murder it in broad daylight with a machete and no one could do a thing. Louder boo/hiss.

Language functioning, queries and keywords are what run paid search. In the future I imagine this would play out like an automated solution in which keyword targeting is a dynamic system working in conjunction with audience targeting.

Around a two years ago, at a Hero conference in London, Bing executive Tor Cockett said they, “had no plans to sunset the keyword as a bidding option.” As we live and breathe, please lather this all over Google and let’s all pray it rubs off.

Internet of Things (IoT) devices

Lastly, let us be aware of the fact that nothing (except cockroaches) will be around forever. Perhaps devices like Alexa will become mainstream and roadblock the actual traffic to Bing/Google search bars. For example, if you ask Google for the lowest price on laundry detergent via a button on your washer or better yet, your washing machine can order it for you without a search effort, searches will decline.

For right now, I still think we’re a ways away from this so put your freak-out mode on hold. Until we have actual Minority Reports, I wouldn’t panic.

We still use our computers for e-v-e-r-t-y-t-h-i-n-g – work, education, dating and our mobile devices when we aren’t in front of our computes. They are absolutely the primary go-to for daily functions in our lives. Mobile devices are probably more heavily queried for various daily tasks.

The social consequence

Social is a whole different kind of animal when used in the context of search. As such, I already know it will effect keyword searches (but not in a terrible way). Regarding product queries, the social effect absolutely pulls a level of traffic away. Social ads are blowing up in popularity because they work. Statistics don’t lie when they show people are purchasing way more from social ads than ever before and marketers are sprinting to be out ahead of them.

You can compare paid search and a social search together – it’s definitely like comparing square to triangles. Different incentives and reasons for using search engines are of interest.  

Targeting an audience in a social setting works because that particular social network has remarkably accurate and specific information for individuals. There are many people who use Facebook to find out about a specific item they need and that is as social targeting as it gets. It’s these elements of social search that make it unique and valuable. Audience targeting for keywords and social targeting for search compliment that uniqueness.

Idealism Personified

So, as long as search exists, so will keyword targeting, as long as the cost to manage it does not rise exponentially and search engines don’t murder keyword bidding for a programmed solution.

Stay vigilant – the keyword is not dead. Focus – move it along with your match types.

I want to end with a crucial point I laid out in the beginning. I wouldn’t want anyone to think my purpose here was to build-up a false dichotomy. Remember, my intent was to respond to what I have seen become a false dichotomy. In other words, the belief that audience targeting is more beneficial than keyword targeting and will replace it in the near future.

In my opinion, the all-powerful keyword is still the most valuable tool for the paid search marketer. Also, if you are trying to compliment your role in bidding, audience demographics is the way to go.

Remarketing lists for search ads would benefit by adding additional layers on remarketing audiences for both Bing and Google in search queries. It would be remarkable to be capable of this one day with huge amounts of audience data. As I’ve state before, if Bing ads would strategically use its LinkedIn acquisition to provide a way for us to layer on their audiences into our keyword framework, the b2B angels would rejoice.

Either way, I hope you walk away from this article with me having demonstrated the keyword is alive and essentially still the best tool in the paid search marketer’s bag of tricks.

Fair Marketing