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The Diminishing Value of Keywords

One concerning factor that has always being nagging in the back of my mind is what happens when your keywords value constantly diminishes over the life of a campaign?

Typically clients are pushing for improved ROI from their digital campaigns so what happens when their primary keywords are tracking the opposite direction and ROI is falling?

I took a snapshot of AdWords (search only) data and decided it was time to research more about the concept of diminishing value and did it exist? For this post analysis the data that was analysed consisted of 22,354 clicks over 2.5 years but was just based on their single highest traffic keyword. 

I picked a single keyword to speed analysis and standardise the data set as many keywords did not run consistently or have enough clicks.

Also unlike several of their other keywords I could have used I found they focused on this keyword with a significant daily budget to ensure it was showing most hours of the day.

Also I used AdWords data as the shift in ROI seems far clearer cut in PPC than SEO, but also its data is more consistent as AdWords offers much more control over max bids, total budget and landing page optimisation. 

The first insight to notice was that the average CPC showed a 48% increase in cost during that time, this was not a problem for this particular client as their campaigns spend grew at 400% during that same period of time. 


What were some of the increases in campaign cost?

  • Non-competitors expanded business model  to directly compete
  • More offline/online competitors piled into PPC campaigns
  • Existing competitors got smarter with their PPC campaigns
  • Overall the vertical got far more competitive as target market shifted online

But what about if they were not able to increase the campaign spend as rapidly to cover the increase in average CPC rates, would they have to stop advertising? There are often a number of businesses that operate on the arbitrage model and cannot afford such a large reduction in their margins per visitor. 

How Does Rise Track with Budget?

Rise in average CPC tracks almost perfectly tracks the growth in campaign budgets over 2.5 years, which is concerning unless you can continue to increase your PPC budgets you may struggle to continue to expand your digital channels. 

It also shows how Google is manipulating the actual cost of AdWords traffic consistently overtime, so you need to ensure your conversion rates continue to improve to counter the diminishing value of visitors.


There is also a time when you have to stop focusing on a particular keyword because it’s either become too competitive to be cost effective or user behaviour has shifted so much around that term that it’s no longer a commercially viable keyword.

What About Falling Interest?

One external factor that is out of your control is as your audience adapts and becomes more educated about your products is the shift in what keywords people are using.  It also appears as consumers mature there is also the increasing number of online brands that are stealing away traffic from generic search terms. 

One interesting point to explore in more detail would be the shift of search terms towards local language alternatives and more niche searches. 

A lot of this shift in search behaviour is driven by display advertising and offline advertising that you may not always have as much control over.

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Cheap Flights

One of the key target terms for travel affiliates, airlines and travel agents is “cheap flights” but you can see the search volumes are dropping over the past 8 years. 

Looking at the keywords that are now driving traffic it appears that the search terms are fragmenting and the rising search terms are mostly focused around branded searches for airlines know for cheap flights such as Southwest & EasyJet. 

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Credit Cards

One of the key target terms for banks and financial affiliates is “credit cards” but you can see that its traffic has also fallen as a key search term over time, but “credit card” has increased slightly. 

This could be easily assumed that consumer spending patterns have changed and they now look for single credit cards rather than multiple cards, along with rises in searches for “prepaid credit cards”.

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The keyword “travel” is another massive vanity term for any travel agency, travel affiliate, travel guide, travel blogs but you can see that consumers have adapted their behaviour are not just typing travel into Google as much anymore. 

There is a shift in travel search terms to be more focused around travel brands, travel portals and travel information as consumers become more specific about their search intentions.

Are you still focused on a single keyword?

The key message is to understand how your single keyword strategy maybe starting to fail you as consumers adapt their search behaviours and brands continue to steal away more generic search traffic. 

If you are relying on a single keyword to drive a majority of your sales/traffic you are putting excessive risk both around over optimisations of that keyword but also risk dying out like the dinosaurs.



  1. Peter Mead July 24, 2012

    Hey David,

    Just on that point of online brands taking more and more generic keywords out of the realms of and SEO for that gerneric term.

    So should companies be rushing to trademark as many niches as possible to broadend their footprint and stomp on compeditors?

    Peter Mead

  2. David Iwanow July 24, 2012

    Hello Peter,

    I would say companies should be looking to build out content so they are known for more than one thing. If you are a website that focuses on cheap flights, why not have content around how to get cheap flights, when is cheapest to travel… also have an email list of people who look for cheap flights and market to them so you rely less or Google organic traffic.

    Sure if you have the resources to expand your brand to have a broad but focused footprint that can also work but many players don’t have that long term view/focus.


  3. Mark Martel July 27, 2012

    You can’t use Google Insights for Search to draw conclusions about how the *absolute volume* of searches for a keyword is changing over time because the graphs are based on data that has been normalized (against total search volume) and scaled.

    A downward slope for a keyword like “credit cards” could mean that “as a percentage of all queries on Google,” the fraction is declining over time (say from 0.01% to 0.0075% of all queries). At the same time, the total volume of searches for a keyword might actually be increasing (because total searches on Google increased say by 40% from one period to the next).

    For some additional detail about this, please read:

    Disclaimer: I work at Google in AdWords marketing.

  4. Ranking Signals August 6, 2012

    I think it’s pretty much common sense that the value of PPC (and SEO) will diminish in the coming years as more marketers enter the game (unsophisticated marketers will accelerate the decline!). PPC and SEO are just like anything else – to maximize your ROI on an ongoing basis, you have to accurately track your results and continually test new (niche) strategies (within PPC and SEO or new forms of marketing). Once the herd catches on, the value/return plummets.

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