Google’s latest close variants change has search marketers rethinking keyword match types
Here's what some marketers are saying about the move to include same meaning queries in exact match close variants.
Marketer reactions to the news that Google is yet again degrading the original intent (much less meaning) of exact match to include “same meaning” close variants is ranging from pessimism to ho-hum to optimism.
Expected impact on performance
“The impact of this will probably be most felt by accounts where exact match has historically been successful and where an exact match of a query made a difference in conversions — hence the reason you’d use exact in the first place,” said digital consultant and President of Netptune Moon Julie Friedman Bacchini.
Friedman Bacchini said the loss of control with exact match defeats the match type’s purpose. Many marketers use exact match to be explicit — exacting — in their targeting and expect a match type called “exact” to be just that.
Brad Geddes, co-founder of ad testing platform AdAlysis and head of consultancy Certified Knowledge, said one problem with expanding the queries that can trigger an exact match keyword is that past changes have shown it can affect the overall performance of exact match. “The last change meant that our ‘variation matches’ had worse conversion rates than our exact match and that we lowered bids on most exact match terms. This change might just drive us from using it completely, or really hitting the negative keywords.”
Like Geddes, Andy Taylor, associate director of research at performance agency Merkle, also said they saw an increase in traffic assigned as exact match close variants with the last change, “and those close variants generally convert at a lower rate than true exact matches.”
Yet, others who participated in the test see loosening of the reigns as a positive action.
One of the beta testers for this change was ExtraSpace Storage, a self-storage company in the U.S. with locations in more than 40 states. The company says it saw positive results from the test.
“The search queries were relevant to our industry and almost all of our primary KPIs saw an overall improvement,” said Steph Christensen, senior analyst for paid search at ExtraSpace.
Christensen said that during the test they did not do any keyword management, letting it run in a “normal environment to give it the best chance to provide the truest results.” She says they will continue to watch performance and make adjustments as needed after it’s fully rolled out by the end of October.
Advertisers as machine learning beneficiaries or guinea pigs?
A big driver of these changes, of course, is machine learning. The machine learning/artificial intelligence race is on among Google and the other big tech companies.
Google says its machine learning is now good enough to determine when a query has the same intent as a keyword with a high enough rate of success that advertisers will see an overall performance lift.
Another way to look at the move, though, is that by opening up exact match to include same meaning queries, Google gets the benefit of having marketers train its algorithms by taking action on query reports.
Or as Geddes, put it: “Advertisers are basically paying the fee for Google to try and learn intent.”
Geddes’ point is that this change will help Google’s machine learning algorithms improve understanding of intent across millions of queries through advertiser actions and budgets.
“The fact that Google doesn’t understand user intent coupled with how poor their machine learning has been at times, means we might just move completely away from exact match,” says Geddes.
Of the example Google highlighted in its announcement, Geddes says, “If I search for Yosemite camping; I might want a blog article, stories, social media, or a campground. If I search for a campground — I want a campground.” (As an aside, from what I’ve found it appears Google doesn’t even monetize “Yosemite camping” or “Yosemite campground” results pages that it used as examples.)
Expected workflow changes
One big thing Google has emphasized is that these close variants changes allow advertisers to focus on things other than building out giant keyword lists to get their ads to show for relevant queries. Rather than doing a lot of upfront keyword research before launching, the idea is that the management will happen after the campaign runs and accumulates data. Marketers will add negatives and new keywords as appropriate. But this reframing of the management process and what amounts to a new definition of exact match has marketers thinking anew about all match types.
“The further un-exacting of exact match has me looking at phrase match again,” says Friedman Bacchini. “I definitely see it impacting use of negatives and time involved to review SQRs and apply negatives properly and exhaustively”.
Taylor agrees. “This change places more importance on regularly checking for negatives, but that has already been engrained in our management processes for years and won’t be anything new.”
Geddes said that advertisers might come up against negative keyword limits, which he has seen happen on occasion. Rather than relying heavily on adding negatives, he says they may consider only using phrase match going forward.
In addition to having ads trigger for queries that aren’t relevant or don’t convert well, there’s the matter of having the right ad trigger for a query when you have close variants in an account already.
Matt van Wagner, president and founder of search marketing firm Find Me Faster, says the agency will be monitoring the impact before assessing workflow adjustments, but is not anticipating performance lifts.
“We’ll watch search queries and how, or if, traffic shifts from other ad groups as well as CPC levels. We expect this to have neutral impact at best,” says van Wagner, “since we believe we have our keywords set to trigger on searches with other match types.”
Along those lines, Geddes says it will be critical to watch for duplicate queries triggering keywords across an account to make sure the right ad displays. It puts new focus on negative keyword strategies, says Geddes:
Google will show the most specific matching keyword within a campaign; but won’t do it across the account. So if I have both terms in my account as exact match (“Yosemite camping” and “Yosemite campground”), with one a much higher bid than the other, my higher bid keyword will usually show over my actual exact match word in a different campaign. That means that I now need to also copy my exact match keywords from one campaign and make them exact match negatives in another campaigns that is already using exact match just to control ad serving and bidding. I should never have to do that.
Update 9/14/18: Google says that the scenario above would not happen because exact match works at both the campaign level and account level. So if an advertiser’s exact match keyword with the same string as the query is eligible to show for that query, then it will be preferred above all others, including other exact match keywords which are close variants and set at a higher bid. This logic applies across the entire account, not just within the campaign, so advertisers do not need to copy exact match keywords and make them negatives in another, says Google.
Measuring impact can be challenging
The effects of the change will take some time to unfold. Taylor says it took several months to see the impact of the last change to exact match close variants.
It’s difficult to calculate the incremental effect of these changes to close variants, in part says Taylor, because some close variant traffic comes from keywords – close variants or other match types — that are already elsewhere in the account.
“Google gives a nod to this in its recent announcement, saying that ‘Early tests show that advertisers using mostly exact match keywords see 3 percent more exact match clicks and conversions on average, with most coming from queries they aren’t reaching today,’” Taylor highlights with bolding added.
Another complicating factor, particularly for agencies, is that the effects of these changes don’t play out uniformly across accounts. Taylor shares an example:
An advertiser saw traffic on one of its key brand keywords shift to a different brand keyword several months after the close variants change last year.
“The normal reaction might be to use negatives to get that traffic back over to the correct keyword, but we were getting a better CPC and still getting the same traffic volume with the new variation,.
It didn’t make much sense, especially given Google’s continued assertion even in the current announcement that ‘Google Ads will still prefer to use keywords identical to the search query,’ but if the clicks are cheaper, the clicks are cheaper. This also speaks to how there’s not really a universal response to deploy for changes in close variants, aside from being mindful of what queries are coming in and how they’re performing.”
Performance advertisers go where they get the best results.
“At the end of the day, the question is if poorer converting close variant queries might pull keyword performance down enough to force advertisers to pull back on bids and reduce overall investment,” said Taylor. “Generally speaking, giving sophisticated advertisers greater control to set the appropriate bids for each query (or any other segment) allows for more efficient allocation of spend, which should maximize overall investment in paid search.”
Geddes says their “priority is to make sure our Bing Ads budgets are maxed and that we’re not leaving anything on the table there. If our [Google] results get worse, we’ll also move some budgets to other places. But this might be one where we really have to do another account organization just to get around Google’s decisions.”
After the change has fully rolled out and they have enough data to act on, ExtraSpace’s Christensen said they will evaluate again. “Since we have such a large [account] build, when we do decide to make any changes we will have to show how we can do this at scale and maintain performance.”
Bacchini calls attention to the current misnomer of exact match and said Google should get rid of exact match altogether if it’s going to take away the original control of exact match. “It is particularly sneaky when you think of this move in terms of less sophisticated advertisers,” said Bacchini. “If they did not click on the ‘Learn More’ link below the formatting for entering in match types for keywords, how exactly would they know that Google Ads does not really mean exact?”
Related reading: Frederick Vallaeys’ column, How keyword match types work after the new close match variants change.