Best Practices for Structuring Ad Groups in Google AdWords


What's the most effective way to structure your ad groups within an AdWords campaign? What factors should you consider when organizing your AdWords campaigns into ad groups? What best practices can we learn from the AdWords pros?

Properly structured ad groups can make or break your AdWords campaigns. They are the key to achieving the three most important PPC goals:

  • Targeting the Right Ads at the Right Customers
  • Optimizing Performance
  • Streamlining Account Management

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy. No foolproof algorithm for structuring ad groups that can achieve these goals in every situation. There are, however, important strategies, or best practices, that you can learn. Understanding which rules of thumb apply in given situation is the key to AdWords success. In this post, we look at some best practices for structuring ad groups for text ads running on Google's Search Network.

Best Practices for Ad Group Structure

Ad Groups, Keywords, Search Terms and the Structure of Text Ads

In order to set up ad groups effectively, we first need to be clear about the role of ad groups and how they define the relationship between search terms, keywords, and text ads.

What is an Ad Group?

As you probably know, ad groups are the second level of organization in an AdWords account. At the top level, an account is organized into campaigns. Campaigns determine when and where ads can appear and have an overall budget. Ad groups are collections of related keywords, ads, and bids.

AdWords Account Structure

Ad groups work best when focused on a particular theme. For example, a sporting goods retailer might have campaigns organized by sport. That enables them to manage budgets by season, promoting baseball in Spring and hockey in Winter. Within a campaign, the ads are further organized into ad groups that are defined by the type of equipment. For example, the baseball campaign might have separate ad groups for gloves and bats. This enables the retailer to bid on keywords related to gloves for their glove ads. So they can bid on searches for keyword "catchers mitt" and show ads for people looking to buy catchers mitts rather than ads for aluminum bats.

This organization is important because it ensures that you show the right ads to the right customers. In addition, if the keywords you are bidding on are not relevant to the contents of your ads, this will be reflected in a low quality score indicating that your ads are not performing well in auctions.

Keywords vs Search Terms

Keywords are defined by advertisers. Search terms are entered by Google Search users. Here is an example taken from the AdWords Help document About the search terms report:

David is looking to buy a Valentine’s Day bouquet online. He types "red roses" into the search box on "Red roses" is the search term. Let's say you're the owner of an online flower business. Because you have included the word "roses" as a keyword in your AdWords campaign, your ad may be eligible to show on David’s search results page.

The keywords in your ad group are matched to a user's search term based on the match type. There are four match types: broad match, broad match modifier, phrase match, and exact match. In order to set up ad groups properly, it is very important to understand match types, so if you need a refresher, read the AdWords help document: About keyword matching options.

As we will discuss shortly, there are important best practices related to using match types (as well as negative keywords) to ensure that the most appropriate ad shows for each particular search term.

Structure of a Text Ad

An AdWords text ad on the Search Network has a headline comprised of two 30-character phrases. Beneath the headline is the display URL which may contain up to 2 optional path fields. Underneath the display URL is room for an 80 character description field. The ad may end up having several additional lines of text comprised of optional ad extensions.

AdWords Text Ad Structure

In the example below, you can see this structure. The first headline field is "Megalytic for Monthly Reports" and the second one is "Impress Your Clients". The display URL is "" and there are no path fields. The description is "#1 Agency Reporting Tool. Client reports & dashboards. High volume reporting." Everything beneath the description line is text that comes from ad extensions.

Sample AdWords Text Ad

The Purpose of Ad Groups: Matching Ads to Search Terms using Keywords

The purpose of an ad group is to match your ads to customer searches using keywords. When the customer types a search term into Google, AdWords matches that term against your keywords and shows an ad from an ad group containing the matching keyword.

It is important that your ad text is a good match for the customer's search term. Otherwise, the customer won't click on it (or Google won't even show it, no matter how high you bid). For example, if your keyword is "chocolate donut", putting it in an ad group for "power drill" ads won't accomplish very much. AdWords will assign a below average ad relevance and the ad will never show.

So, how do you ensure that your ads are relevant to the keywords in your ad groups? One obvious way, according to Google, is that you should consider having your ads mention at least one of your keywords in its headline. This ensures that the ad is directly relevant to the search and improves the likelihood of a click-through. In the example above, the ad is used in a branded keyword ad group, so the brand keyword "megalytic" appears directly in the headline.

Although your description should also align with the keywords in the ad group, it is most important to focus on the headline. Headlines that are directly relevant to the search terms greatly improve the chances of your ad getting clicked.

So, using keywords in the headline is one example of a best practice that is easy to understand and implement. This is a simple best practice, something we might characterize as a "rule of thumb".

Best Practices for Ad Groups

In addition to simple rules of thumb, there are a variety of best practice strategies that AdWords professionals employ to ensure high performance. But, like the simple rule about putting keywords in the headline, all the strategies are focussed on ensuring that the right ads are shown to the right customers based on their search terms. The strategies we examine in this post are:

  1. Google's Advice
  2. Query Mapping
  3. Keyword Themes
  4. Single Keyword Ad Groups (SKAGs)
  5. Alpha-Beta Ad Group Pairs
  6. Text First

Google's Advice

Google's advice on ad group structure is to bundle related ads together with related keywords into an ad group so that all of your related ads can be shown to customers searching for similar things.

This is good advice, as far as it goes, but the devil is in the details. What are "related keywords"? For example, would you say that "catcher's glove" and "baseball mitt" are related keywords? If you are running a general purpose ad for "baseball equipment sale" maybe they seem related. But, as the user doing a Google search for "catcher's glove", are you likely to click a generic ad for "baseball equipment sale" or are you more likely to click on something with a more specific like "largest selection of catcher's gloves"? You are probably more inclined to click on the specific ad.

This brings up the first challenge of defining ad group structure:

How narrowly related should the keywords in a single ad group be?

Another bit of advice from Google is mentioned above, having your ads mention at least one of your keywords in its headline. Beyond this, Google goes on to recommend having at least 3 ads in each ad group and using optimized ad rotation.

This brings up the second challenge of defining ad group structure:

How do we map keywords to ads to ensure that our most relevant ad is shown to a customer based on their search terms?

Query Mapping is a best practice that addresses this second challenge.

Query Mapping

Query mapping is an optimization technique that you apply to your ad groups after they have been running for a while - not when you are first setting them up.

The general idea is to review the search terms report to determine which ad groups are being triggered by which search terms. Then, identify situations where the wrong (or sub-optimal) ad group is being selected. Finally, take corrective action by adding negative keywords to ensure that the best ad group for the search term is always selected.

I first read about this technique being formally titled "Query Mapping" in an article by Amy Bishop in Search Engine Land: Is Your Account Leaking Money? The Importance Of Query Mapping. Amy gives this example to illustrate the best practice.

Query Mapping Example - Pink Puppy Collars

In this case, a pet store notices that the search term "pink puppy collar" is triggering two different ad groups: Puppy Collars General and Puppy Collars - Pink. As the data shows, this store is getting a better conversion rate and CPA from the more specific "pink" group where they have ad text that specifically mentions pink collars.

The solution that Amy describes is to add [pink puppy collar] (exact match) as a negative keyword to the Puppy Collars General ad group. At the same time, she adds [pink puppy collar] to the Puppy Collars - Pink ad group. This change pushes all the traffic from this search term into the Pink ad group and improves the CPA and conversion rate of the Puppy Collars campaign.

Query Mapping is sometimes also described as "Negative Keyword Sculpting" because it involves using negative keywords to shape the flow of traffic to the ad groups.

Bishop admits that Query Mapping can be time-consuming, and it is not necessary for all accounts. However, in situations where you have a combination of broad match (or modified broad match) and more specific, but similar, keywords, then this is an important technique for optimizing performance. We address this case in more detail, below, in the discussion about Alpha-Beta Ad Group Pairs.

In addition, many AdWords pros have commented on the effectiveness of this best practice for managing shopping campaigns.

Keyword Themes

Google advises that we bundle "related keywords" together in our ad groups. But how narrowly related? One way to answer that question is with the strategy that I call "Highly Granular Keyword Themes" or "Keyword Themes" for short. In this approach, each ad group focuses on a narrow theme that drives keyword selection. The theme is focussed on the intent of the searcher as expressed in his search terms, and building the ad groups around their intention.

For example, a used car auto dealership that is running a weekend sale might have an ad group named "Weekend Sale" dedicated to that sale along with an ad promoting the upcoming sale that drives clicks a landing page describing the sale. Because the dealership also buys used cars which they refurbish and resell, they have another ad group named "Buy for Cash" targeted at searchers who are looking to sell their used cars.

Consider the phrase match keyword "used cars". Which ad group should it go in - Weekend Sale or Buy for Cash?

Using the Keyword Themes strategy, the dealership would not bid on the keyword "used cars" even though it describes their primary business. Why? Because the phrase doesn't correspond to narrowly themed search intent.

The search term "cheap used cars" matches the keyword "used cars" and it indicates a searcher with the intent to buy. But, the search term "used car book value" also matches the keyword "used cars" and it indicates a searcher with the intent to sell a car. As you can see, the keyword "used cars" matches a variety of search intentions, so it should not be used at all.

If you are interested in exploring Keyword Themes in more detail, check out the section heading Create Ad Group Themes to Nail Relevance in this CXL blog post.

Single Keyword Ad Groups (SKAGs)

Taking the notion of Keyword Themes one step further, the Single Keyword Ad Groups (SKAG) best practice teaches that each ad group should be based on a single root keyword. Johnathan Dane describes this approach in great detail in this excellent post: 19 Reasons Why Single Keyword Ad Groups (SKAGs) Always Win

SKAG is different from Keyword Themes because it focuses more on specific words than on themes. In describing SKAG, Dane asserts that there is an advantage to having separate ad groups for similar keywords like

  • online college
  • online university
  • online degree
  • web college
  • web university
  • web degree

even though those keywords are all part of a narrow theme.

The reason that SKAG argues for splitting these into separate ad groups is so that you can match the ad text (headline and display URL) with the exact words used in a customers search, thereby maximizing the odds of a click and optimizing quality score.

Yes, this does lead to creating hundreds of ad groups in many sorts of campaigns. But, proponents of SKAG claim it is worth the effort because the payoff can be a significant drop in cost per click, cost per conversion, and a boost in quality score and click through rates.

Skeptics will point out that keyword insertion is easier and can accomplish many of the same goals without needing to create hundreds of ad groups.

Still, SKAG is one of the hottest and most heavily promoted ad group strategies out there. Read Johnathan Dane's article to make sure you understand it. Then, get some of the competing points of view from this debate at SMX West 2016 or watch this video debate from The Paid Search Podcast.

Alpha-Beta Ad Group Pairs

The Alpha-Beta Ad Group Pairs strategy (or simply Alpha-Beta) combines the Keyword Theme or SKAG strategy with broad matches that cast a wide net. There are two types of ad groups in this strategy: alpha and beta.

An alpha ad group focuses on a narrow keyword theme that delivers quality traffic. The corresponding beta ad group generates related search terms to uncover new keywords. Alpha groups have only exact match keywords. Beta groups use modified broad-match keywords.

This strategy was popularized by 3Q Digital's David Rodnitzky and is explained in detail in this blog post by Chris Hoover. Chris talks about alpha and beta campaigns, but many practioners - myself included - like to do the alpha/beta separation at the ad group level.

In the example from his blog post, Chris includes these broad-match keywords for a beta ad group in a campaign for a hypothetical law school targeting prospective students.

  • +Law +School +Preparation
  • +Law +School +Degree
  • +Study +Law +Online
  • +Study +Law +Night

The idea is to use these broad-match keywords to capture search terms that give the advertiser ideas about how prospective students might be searching for a law school. After gathering data for a while (maybe a week), they look at the search terms and identify those that match the target (prospective students) and those that do not. For example, "online legal advice for schools" is not the kind of search a prospective student would do. So, that search term becomes a negative exact match keyword. On the other hand "online law school tuition" is on target. The exact match [online law school tuition] then becomes a keyword in an alpha ad group.

In this way, you optimize by directing high-value search term traffic into alpha ad groups, where it is more likely to convert. Meanwhile, the traffic to beta groups is decreasing as negative keywords are added.

You can use either the Keyword Themes or SKAG strategies, discussed above, for the alpha groups. Note that the use of negative keywords to keep traffic out of the beta ad groups is the same strategy described above as Query Matching. This illustrates how the various best practices borrow ideas from one another and differ mainly in terms emphasis.

Getting back to the Alpha-Beta strategy, before you create any alpha groups, you should start off by running the beta ad groups to generate keyword ideas. The best keywords you discover form the alpha ad groups. Eventually, you can shut down a beta group when it is no longer uncovering any useful search terms. But, continue to create new beta groups so that you always have ideas for new alpha group keywords.

Text First

All the strategies that we've discussed so far focus on the keyword structure of Ad Groups. In contrast, the Text First strategy suggests that we start with ad text (not keywords). Define the message that we will present to the customer first. Let that message define the ad group, and then include keywords that will map relevant search terms to those ads.

Proponents of the Text First approach note that it is called "Ad Group" for a reason, not "Keyword Group", and ads are what the customer sees, so we ought to start with the text.

How is this accomplished? Well, there is fairly universal agreement that an ad group should be focused on a theme. The Text First idea is to define that theme primarily with ad text and select keywords as a secondary activity to map customer search terms to the ad that you want them to see.

Let's consider again the example from the Keyword Themes strategy where we created an ad group named "Buy for Cash" based on the search term "used car book value" matching the keyword phrase "used car". If we were coming at this problem from a Text First angle, we start by recognizing that we want to reach customers who are looking to sell their cars and are searching for buyers on Google. What might appeal to them?

First, a headline like "We'll Buy Your Car" matches the potential customer's search intent. In this blog post by Dan Shewan for WordStream, the process of writing headlines that match search intent is called "Mirror the User's Objective". Another good headline could start with "Get Cash for Your Car Today" which would mirror the objective of someone who needs to sell their car right away to meet a pressing financial need.

In fact, it turns out that if I do a search on "sell my car", I see text ad headlines just like those.



To proceed, create 2-3 headlines matching a particular user objective. These will form the basis for your ad group. Flesh out the ad text by following the advice in any number of popular blog posts on the topic.

Next, use the modified broad-match approach from the Alpha-Beta strategy to create a beta ad group from "+sell +my +car". As data accumulates, you can review the search terms that converted with those ads and spin them off into alpha ad groups.


Every AdWords pro has their own approach to structuring ad groups. In this post, we've tried to identify a few of the best practices that have consistently produced good results. There is no single right approach, so pick one that feels comfortable to you, and use that as the basis for developing your own personal strategy.

Written by mark