Google’s updated phrase match simplifies keywords and worries advertisers
What advertisers are gaining and losing under the new treatment, and what they can do to prepare for the rollout.
Google’s recently announced updated treatment of phrase match to include broad match modifier (BMM) traffic is the latest in a series of changes its made to its keyword match types. These changes place the emphasis on machine learning and automation over manual inputs from advertisers.
There has been a mixed reception from advertisers, with some acknowledging how similarly BMM and phrase match have behaved, and others denouncing the change as a move to strip away more data and controls from advertisers so that Google can extract as much profit from auctions as possible.
While the updated phrase match speaks to an overarching trend, advertisers still have to ensure that their campaigns are performing, and to that end, PPC experts have also provided tips on what to do ahead of the change and as it rolls out.
Updated phrase match is a tradeoff for advertisers
Google has repeatedly stated that the match type changes it has made help businesses reach more customers and save time, but advertisers are in disagreement about whether the tradeoff between automation and control and data transparency is really in their best interest.
What advertisers may be gaining. Eliminating BMM may help advertisers save time simply because they’ll have fewer options. The amount of time spent optimizing campaigns is often an issue for smaller accounts, said Matt Van Wagner, president of Find Me Faster, caveating, “The rub of it is that machine learning doesn’t really help small accounts, it really only helps bigger accounts.” “I think this actually exacerbates economic inequality because the larger advertisers can afford to invest in things in a way that the smaller ones can’t,” he added, “And smaller ones don’t have enough data to be able to get machine learning advantages.”
“At best, this may simplify data collection for advertisers as phrase and modified broad have been matching similarly since the advent of close variants,” Amy Bishop, owner of Cultivative, told Search Engine Land. “The thing advertisers are gaining is a match type solution that better mimics how match types currently work,” said Kirk Williams, owner of ZATO Marketing, who views this change as being ultimately positive.
The way advertisers have been using BMM may also play into how the change will affect their campaigns. “We see many advertisers put a plus in front of every word in their keywords rather than selectively identifying which words should not be changed,” said Frederick Vallaeys, cofounding CEO at Optmyzr. An analysis of 162 million keywords, conducted on February 5 by Optmyzr, found that:
- 89% of advertisers use broad match modified keywords.
- 55% of advertisers who use broad match modified keywords always put a plus in front of every term in their BMM queries (e.g.,. +video +games +for +xbox).
- 95% of all broad match modified keywords contain a plus in front of every term. Only 5% of keywords are more selective about adding a plus to terms (e.g., video games for +xbox).
Prior to the upcoming change, adding a plus sign to every term in a BMM keyword told Google that all those terms had to be present in the user’s search query. This is similar to how the phrase match type functioned, except that phrase match was stricter on word order. “That means a majority of advertisers today already have been treating broad match modified like Google will start to treat it soon,” Vallaeys said, adding that advertisers who have been more selective about putting a plus in front of their terms will need to monitor their campaigns closely as the new treatment rolls out.
What advertisers may be losing. Before the change, phrase match respected word order, but the updated phrase match will only respect word order when it’s important to the meaning. “In this sense, the advertiser is losing this, and should monitor their search terms (those they can view) to guard against broader matching than was allowed previous to the update,” said Williams.
While this is unlikely to have major performance implications for most advertisers, “there are folks that will see negative implications because there are certain industries where word order completely changes the context of the query and this is going to be a painful change for them,” Bishop said, adding, “Google promises to take this into account but it’s very clear with close variants that, while continually improving, contextual matching just isn’t perfect.”
Advertisers may also find that the new updated phrase match lacks some of the advantages that BMM once provided. The new treatment will be more restrictive than BMM, which means that accounts that heavily relied on BMM keywords may lose traffic. Additionally, “broad match modified was just a great way to do keyword discovery,” said Michael Henderson, CMO at SuretyBonds.com, “And so, combining the loss of that with the limited search query reporting, it just makes that part of the process so much more difficult.”
Many of the PPC professionals that spoke to Search Engine Land for this article expressed frustration over the increasing lack of transparency on Google’s part. “With this change coming after the masking of search terms, it will make it more difficult to monitor the implications of what is now matching,” Bishop said, “So although I don’t see this change as having major implications for performance, I view it as another step away from advertiser control, which is really frustrating.”
Are these changes better for advertisers or for Google?
To some advertisers, Google’s recent updates (the aforementioned limited search query reporting and now updated phrase match) suggest that the company is prioritizing its own revenue over the best interests of the businesses that advertise on its platform.
“With the recent changes that Google has made, it seems like a bit of a (very) thinly veiled attempt to take back control from advertisers,” Bishop said. “You can’t optimize against what you can’t see, and you certainly can’t optimize against controls that have been taken away,” she also said, suggesting that the diminished ability to optimize can result in wasted advertising budget that ultimately ends up boosting Google’s bottom line.
“Google controls the economics of the auction with its quality score and ranking calculations — if it controls everything, it can just sort of turn a dial and profitability goes up,” Van Wagner said. “And so I do think that Google is getting closer and closer to that point and by pushing less control and more machine automation, that means they’re choosing who wins auctions — it’s a rigged game,” he added.
By pushing advertisers towards its automated advertising capabilities, Google has been able to collect more data, which it uses to improve those features. “I do not believe Google is making this decision specifically with short-term profit in mind,” Williams said, acknowledging that the loss of search term visibility and reduced advertiser controls do raise concerns over the company’s motivations.
“This is simply a logical progression in their ever-changing match type behavior that mirrors changes in other areas (audiences and bidding, for instance), pointing towards a world in which Google uses the millions of signals under its control to make auction time decisions for which the limited, human advertiser is unable to make as technology and machine learning bidding solutions progress,” said Williams.
Additionally, Google has stated numerous times that roughly 15% of searches it receives every day are new. Without some level of campaign automation, advertisers would not be able to tap into that traffic.
How advertisers can prepare for updated phrase match
It’s crucial that advertisers are aware of their baseline performance before Google begins the new phrase match treatment. “It’s a good idea to export your current data and take a look at how phrase and modified broad match perform in your accounts currently to get a sense of what to expect once this change rolls out, in case your strategy will need to pivot,” Bishop said.
Advertisers that have been reliant on BMM will need to be particularly vigilant about this change. As mentioned above, Google expects that advertisers predominantly using BMM will see a decrease in clicks and conversions. “A smaller set of advanced advertisers who have been selectively putting the plus in the words that mattered most [instead of applying it to every term in the keyword] will need to monitor this closely,” Vallaeys said. Google also said the majority of the decrease will likely come from these applications of BMM. Additionally, the consideration for word order may also filter out searches that might have previously matched to BMM.
“What we’ll be doing is basically trimming out all broad match modified terms as soon as we can,” Van Wagner said, “Because the more searches that are still going to broad match modified (versus phrase, versus regular broader or exact), the less we’ll be able to analyze what Google really means by these changes.”
Advertisers that are currently reliant on phrase match may experience the opposite effect: an increase in clicks and conversions due to the new, additional queries that are eligible to match.
“One thing I always recommend is doing regular searches in Google for the keywords you’re bidding on to see what Google is recommending, in terms of suggested keywords and making sure those align with your goals as an advertiser,” Henderson said. If the new phrase match treatment is capturing poor matches for your ads, you can add negative keywords to help decrease wasted budget.