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Google’s “Close Variant” Announcement – Why You Shouldn’t Panic

7 MINUTE READ | August 18, 2014

Google’s “Close Variant” Announcement – Why You Shouldn’t Panic

On Friday, Google announced that – come late September – all exact and phrase match keywords would be opted into “close variant” matching. At that time, advertisers will no longer have the option to opt out of this now familiar search feature.

For those not familiar, close variant keyword matching enables the AdWords system to match Exact or Phrase match keywords in advertisers’ accounts to user queries very closely resembling the keyword itself. The main categories of “close variant” queries are – plurals, misspellings, abbreviations, accents and acronyms. So, for example, under close variant logic, AdWords could match both “men’s polo shirts” and “men polo shirt” to the exact match keyword [mens polo shirts].

Previously, advertisers could opt out of close variant matching on their keywords – meaning the keyword above would only ever match, 100% predictably to the search query “mens polo shirts.” Now, Exact and Phrase match are more opaque, in that close variants of that keyword can also trigger ads against them.

Why So Serious?If you read some of the industry blogs and news sites out there Friday, you might think some kind of Biblical plague had befallen paid search, with the sacrifice of the Exact match type being the main event. This is over-dramatic, to say the least. True, this is not a change more sophisticated advertisers would have requested – it takes away an element of control and removes the 1:1 relationship between queries and Exact match keywords within accounts. Despite this, the reality is that the actual performance impact to well-structured, well-optimized paid search campaigns should be fairly minor.

Reasons to be Cheerful – 1, 2, 3

  1. Many advertisers have been leveraging close variant matching already – since it was first released in April 2012, all new campaigns in AdWords have been automatically opted into close variant matching. So, chances are, many advertisers have been leveraging it without even realizing. And they haven’t shut down AdWords and run for the hills.

  2. Done right, traffic will go up with stable conversion rates – while there are exceptions (specific keywords or niche sub-verticals), PMG has found that advertisers get a slight bump in traffic from close variant matching, with no discernable change in conversion rates. Google’s estimate of 7% incremental traffic seems high – no doubt because they take averages across ALL AdWords accounts, including that vast majority that are horribly managed (if you’re reading this, I’m sure yours does not fall into this camp). If we were to look at only well-maintained programs with solid keyword coverage, that percentage would likely be around half of what Google reports. We do agree with Google that conversion rates should remain stable if rolled out correctly – this is consistent with our findings with PMG’s clients.

  3. Google will still prefer to map individual queries to exact keywords – this one is important. What this means is that, if you have the exact keyword in your account that matches to the user’s query, Google will still prefer to map that search to that exact keyword in your account, rather than close variant match it to another (even if the close variant KW has a higher bid). This is similar to how Google treats different match types of the same keyword today, and ensures accounts with solid keyword coverage should continue to see predictable query mapping to their keyword set.

Some Precautions & Recommended Next StepsAs you have probably gathered, the key message here is that this change should NOT severely impact advertisers…provided they have well-structured, well-optimized accounts. Below are some measures you can take to improve your program and ensure it’s well equipped for the close variant change coming late next month (unnecessary Game of Thrones reference – winter is NOT coming).

  • Ensure your keyword coverage is solid – although there is now less need to have super granular keyword build outs that cover all possible variations (see below), it is still important you have all significant, traffic-driving keywords built out in your account. This will not only ensure maximum control of queries>keywords>ads (and top Quality Scores), it will also minimize the impact of this change on flow of traffic through your account.

  • Watch your match types – as mentioned, this change only impacts Exact and Phrase match types. Broad and broad match modified will not be affected. Both of these match types already use this matching logic, plus additional, expanded query matching. The impact of this change will therefore be felt primarily on Exact and Phrase keywords. The ability to optimize these match types in isolation – for example, increasing budget availability to account for likely rise in traffic post close variant – is vital. We continue to recommend reporting on match types separately, segmenting them in your account structure, and optimizing them differently based on their own distinct characteristics and performance.

  • Crank up those SQRs – hopefully you already know how important it is to be diligent with your Search Query Reports (also known as Search Term Reports). These reports show the true health of your program, in a way a keyword, ad group or campaign-level report never can. Queries represent what goes on “below the surface” – they are what really drive the campaigns. Keyword performance is merely a reflection of how well queries are being channeled within your campaigns. And now – with this change – the importance of understanding your queries just got even more vital. No longer can you exclude Exact match keywords from your SQR activities – you need to include them to see what close variant queries are matching to your Exact match keywords. But, here’s the beautiful thing – SQRs will tell you which queries are close variant matched vs. regular Exact or Phrase match, making it a lot easier to identify negatives you need to add for either exclusion or “directional” purposes.

    Google's Close Variant
  • Build fewer keywords – one of the big benefits to the close variant feature is that you don’t need to build out as many keywords. With close variant matching taking care of things like plurals and accents, you can leave those secondary variations out of your builds and instead focus on the real, natural keyword strings (no more “mens pants”, “men pants” and “men’s pants” type triplications! Hoorah!). This will allow for more lean accounts, easier management, and quicker reporting.

  • Monitor the before & after – while we are very optimistic about tangible impacts of this roll out, there will be changes. Once Google announces the exact date of this change, be sure to mark it on your calendar and that you have solid, match type level benchmarking in place before it hits. Once it takes affect, monitor the changes in your account and optimize as necessary to account for shifts in traffic mapping and any expansion of your query matching.

To caveat all this – as with any Google change, no one knows exactly what the impact will be. You should always be very diligent in your reporting and analysis around such changes, to ensure you properly understand their impact on your own program. However, this is a “devil we know,” and one most of us already know well, having encountered it in many shapes and forms over the past few years. In fact, it’s really more of a mischievous leprechaun than it is a devil – properly managed, this little tyke can actually help you find more gold at the end of the AdWords rainbow.

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Posted by Chris Sinclair

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