Close Variants Update – Google Follows Up Slap in the Face with Hair Pulling

03.21.17 // Maxwell Hoffman

Blog post co-authored by Max Hoffman and Mike Nierengarten

Google’s latest announcement “Close variants now connects more people with what they’re looking for”  is just another step in Google’s continued land grab for advertisers’ cash. Mike previously wrote about Google essentially ending phrase and exact match in Google’s Slap in the Face. Google’s most recent change amounts to hair pulling – incredibly annoying without much damage.

Google again is taking control from its advertisers and expanding how it treats exact match keywords. Rather than simply including close variants, Google is now allowing for extra words, rewording, and reordering for exact match keywords. Clearly, Google has lost all concept of the definition of “exact”. Exact match keywords can now include queries with added prepositions, conjunctions, articles, and “other words” Google deems relevant. They will also match with reordered words. For example, [marketing software] will match with folks looking for software for marketing.

While the change means advertisers may need to manage fewer keywords, this is an added headache where advertisers will need to add negative keywords in response to Google’s change. For example, Obility’s client FinancialForce now has to worry about appearing in results for queries for Force Financial, a separate company.

Furthermore, by convoluting what qualifies as exact match, reporting and analysis become equally muddy. Advertisers more and more must rely on search term reports to determine what queries are generating qualified leads – search term reports where Google continues to provide less and less information.

A Disturbing Trend

While messing with keyword targeting is irritating, messing with ad text is infuriating. Google is currently testing “Ads Added by AdWords” where Google will take elements of your existing text ads, keywords, or information from your landing page and create new text ads. Google will then run those ads in your existing ad groups.

Machine learning is an incredibly powerful tool, and it’s amazing what Google, IBM, and others have done with image recognition, language translation, and predicting who will skip bail, but no advertiser wants to be the initial part of the test where the machine continually fails. As Google DeepMind’s Deep Q demonstrates while learning Atari Breakout, the beginning of machine learning is utter failure.

Few companies have the bandwidth to lose the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars required for Google’s automated ads to succeed. Playing a million games of pong, reviewing a billion images, or scanning thousands of diagnoses have limited real world impact while the machine is learning. Machines learning while spending millions of ad dollars, on the other hand, directly impact advertisers’ bottom lines.

Furthermore, Google’s definition of success, a high click-through rate of ads on a high volume of queries, is often at odds with advertisers who want to pay only for qualified clicks. Skilled paid search managers will use ad text to prequalify visitors and discourage poor quality traffic.

Eventually, machine learning will provide substantial insight into what ads can be effective, and paid search managers can utilize this information to create better ads. But, in the meantime, no one wants to be the guinea pig for Google to learn.

Counteracting Google’s Close Variants Punches

Google’s small change requires significant preparation. Proactive negative keyword targeting is a must. Advertisers need to do their best at predicting for which irrelevant queries Google will serve ads. These queries should be added as negative keywords. Following the launch, advertisers should pay close attention to increases in impressions and spend from exact match keywords (consider tracking in Excel).

  • Advertisers should also begin moving away from Dynamic Keyword Insertion in ads. The Close Variant keyword placed in ad messaging could hinder click-through rate issues, and cause irrelevant spend to the advertiser’s account
  • Review your exact match keywords and determine if reordering or the adding of connection words affects your target keywords. Add negatives as necessary
  • Review close variants in your Search Term Reports to identify other variations currently being triggered that could be affected by these changes. Be sure to add those as negatives
  • Review the quality of the search query being triggered by exact match keywords to ensure the intent remains the same
  • If you are targeting an exact match keyword and a reordered exact match keyword, continue to do so. Google will give preference to the keyword that matches the query
  • Get ready to update your scripts. The scripts you had in place for the previous close variant update may need to modified to exclude reworded search queries

Advertisers should also immediately opt out of Ads Added by AdWords.

About Maxwell Hoffman

Max Hoffman is a Sr. PPC Manager at Obility. He has been with Obility for five years, helping B2B companies with long sales cycles drive pipeline, increase sales, and track marketing's contribution to revenue. Hoffman manages online advertising accounts for technology and traditional B2B companies including Pentaho, Apttus, and PlanGrid. View all Maxwell Hoffman’s posts >