A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (or roughly three years ago), Google decided to do away with exact match keyword targeting. You can still bid on exact match terms in AdWords, but you can’t stop AdWords from opting you into closely-related queries in the process. AdWords got rid of the option to opt-out of close match variants on keywords in the fall of 2014. The reasons, no matter what side of the aisle you sit, can be debated ad nauseum. But what cannot be debated are the effects that this has on keyword matching.
Impact on keyword matching
A few months ago, when looking into my clients’ campaigns, I noticed a change in queries associated with exact match terms. They seemed less like variants of the keywords I was bidding on and more like broader, similar-intent-based keywords. Queries like “car rental” on exact match were now matching to “rent a car.” Granted, the intent is the same, but the advertiser’s lack of control seems to have grown larger.
Looking through the last 12 months of search queries on exact match terms, there was a slight change over time. For a couple of accounts, May 2017 is when advertisers’ reins seemed to loosen a little more. For other accounts, this occurred as far back as last fall. What was once a running list of plurals and misspellings being deemed close variants slowly became a list of similar-intent queries with misspellings around the original keyword and the broader intent of that keyword. Is this a case of the algorithm getting smarter and being able to understand a person’s intent and better accommodating that? Or is this Google finding ways to create larger auctions with more advertisers?
It used to be that advertisers had to keep a close eye on the accounts they manage, diving deep into search query reports for relevant keywords to expand into, tightly controlling pure broad match terms to mine for relevant keywords and spending time combing through Google’s keyword planner for the right set of keywords. Advertisers still need to keep a close eye on their accounts — Google has simply taken a couple of those things off their plate. With keywords automatically opted into close match variants, Google’s machine learning will find similar auctions that your keywords can show for. As the reins of keyword matching have been eased, so too has our own oversight.
Advertisers have had little choice but to allow Google to place more people in more auctions over the course of time through their close variant matching. This helps all three participants in an AdWords auction. AdWords has an increase in the number of advertisers trying to get into an auction, thus making it more competitive and expensive. Advertisers have a wider range of auctions available to them with less work to be done on their end. Finally, the user who has typed in the query has more advertisers that are relevant to his or her intent. Again, who benefits more is merely a matter of on what side of the aisle one sits.
The good news in this new, intent-based, close variant world is that there is always a better way. With proper vigilance by the advertiser, this unspoken easing of close variant keyword matching can be navigated and properly managed.
Taking back the reins
It is important to ensure that you have tightly-knit ad groups. The smaller the keyword set within the ad group and the more similarly intent-based that keywords within the set are to each other, the easier they will be to manage. I used to be of the mindset that all keywords within an ad group should be similar in intent, but that you can have 10 to 12 keywords and their close variants within the same ad group. No longer is that possible. Ad groups should not contain more than six to eight keywords at most, with the majority of ad groups having even smaller keyword sets than that.
Once these ad groups are set up in this structure (with smaller, tighter-knit keyword sets), search query reports are a must. Weekly search query reports should be run for the first three to four weeks to ensure that the basics are covered. Once the ad groups reach a level of stability, set a cadence of once every three to four weeks to look for close match variants that your exact match keywords are matching with. Set up exact match forced negatives in those ad groups to negate them. If they perform, have those keywords in their own ad groups.
The key is to have ad group-level forced negatives to ensure that you are only bidding on terms within the account and all queries are being properly funneled to the appropriate ad group. Since the slightly looser definition of “exact match” took hold on a few of my accounts this past May, I discovered several instances of queries within campaigns matching to multiple keywords. That means, in those instances, I was potentially bidding up against myself, driving up my own CPCs.
This new, similar-intent world can easily be managed with some initiative to get ahead of your keywords and negatives list, followed by the vigilance to constantly monitor it once it’s stable. It’s easy to let exact match terms go unnoticed in search query reports, but it’s important to monitor those, as well, as that could mean a significant difference to overall performance. If 80 percent of your account comes from 20 percent of your keywords, most of which are exact match, it would serve you well to ensure that those are always up to snuff.