Google announced last night that, starting in September, they will no longer respect the intentions of advertisers to have AdWords exact and phrase match function as they have historically. Instead, both match types will now bring in traffic on close variants by mandate.
Google originally gave advertisers the option to allow their exact and phrase match keywords to trigger for plurals, misspellings and close variants a couple of years ago. At the time, RKG pulled together some data that showed that performance for even close variants of one another can perform very differently and, as a matter of practice, RKG has not used the option.
When 'near exact' and 'near phrase' were first released, Google offered that testers found that they increased paid search clicks by 3%. With the latest announcement, Google claims that the 'vast majority' of its advertisers are already using close variant matching and receiving 7% more 'exact' and 'phrase' clicks as a result.
RKG's original tests suggested that both of those figures would be high for our accounts, largely because we are already capturing the close variant traffic through other keywords and match types. So what's the problem?
Although we want to capture most of the close variant traffic that would fall under 'near exact' and 'near phrase', we want to pay the appropriate amount for it, and this change will only make that more difficult and less transparent, particularly in light of Google ceasing to pass queries via referrer this April.
To consider an example, our previous analysis found that a singular version of a search phrase matched to a keyword for the plural version, generated a sales per click that was about 50% lower on average than when the match was exact.
Before this change, advertisers could add both the singular and plural keywords on exact match, count on their bidding algorithms to set the right bids for each, and call it a day. Now we're faced with the uncertainty of how Google will treat such a scenario.
Will they see both keywords as equivalent and only serve the one with the higher bid? Will advertisers need to segregate plurals from singulars, misspellings from correctly spelled keywords, etc. into their own ad groups with scores of previously unnecessary negatives? Will the negatives actually be honored? What if we have both keywords, but one is below the first page bid threshold? And so on.
Google's announcement and support page on how they pick the keyword to serve when there are similar options seek to assuage some of these concerns, but they don't completely close the door on undesired ad serving behavior.
Google notes that, "the AdWords system prefers to trigger ads using keywords that are identical to search queries, so you can still use misspelled, abbreviated, and other close variations of your keywords" - emphasis mine. How strongly does the system 'prefer' identical queries? We'll have to see once more of our keywords have the option to serve for any given query.
There is also a key exception that, "On rare occasions, the system will prefer to use a keyword that is cheaper, which means it has a lower actual cost-per-click (CPC) and has a higher Quality Score and a higher Ad Rank." This sounds great, right? Cheaper clicks! But, this can lead to the exact kind of keyword performance data dilution that we are trying to avoid with the use of exact match, and the cheaper keyword may not be as well-optimized to convert the query.
Negatives should be effective in preventing the most egregious keyword matching behavior, since they are, and will remain, truly 'exact', but programs that have close variant keywords in the same campaigns and ad groups will need to think about restructuring in order to apply the negatives in the way they want -- how is this less complex?
While this change may only be a nuisance for many programs, others, particularly those who are most dependent on head terms, may need to overhaul the entire structure of their accounts to ensure that this change doesn't tank performance. It all depends on how things work in practice.
For all sophisticated advertisers though, it is very unfortunate when we lose control in the name of simplicity. We are always looking for more controls, not fewer, especially since Enhanced Campaigns opened up the possibilities. More controls allow us to be more effective with our search program, and in the long run, the more effective we can be, the more we will invest in the channel.