POV on Google’s Latest Changes to Exact Match

Need to Know

  • Significant changes are coming to Google’s exact match, impacting function words & word order.
  • Advertisers in heavily regulated verticals (e.g. legal, financial, and pharmaceutical) are more likely to be affected.
  • Proactive negative keyword curation will be critical for advertisers & agencies moving forward.

History on Match Types

To fully understand this latest change, advertisers must understand the history of exact match. Originally, exact match meant exact match – if a search query contained a typo, a plural, an adverb, an abbreviation, different word order, Google would not match the query to the keyword advertisers were bidding on unless they had that specific variant in their keyword set. That required advertisers to build out long lists of exact match keywords, with all variants, and continually mine search query reports for further variations to incorporate into exact match keyword lists. Though time-consuming, this gave advertisers total control over what keywords triggered their ads.

In 2012, Google introduced “close match variants,” which captured queries with typos, plurals, and misspellings, and matched those variants to exact and phrase match keywords, taking some onus off of advertisers to build out incredibly extensive keyword lists. Up until 2014, advertisers who wanted tighter control could opt out of close variant matching. However, in 2014, Google removed the opt-out button altogether. Bing announced shortly after that they were making the same changes.

The Latest Changes

On Friday March 17, 2017, the Google AdWords blog announced more changes to the way exact match keywords will be matched to search queries. Specifically, they will be “expanding close variant matching to include additional rewording and reordering for exact match keywords.” Google has said that this change will go into effect for English and Spanish in the next few months, with other languages to follow throughout 2017. The new changes impact function words and word order.

Function Words:

Google will ignore, add, or change function words to exact match keywords when it detects the meaning will be the same. Function words are articles, conjunctions, prepositions, “and other words that often don’t impact the intent behind a query.”

Google AdWords Exact Match

Word Order:

Where Google detects the same meaning of an exact match keyword, but words in the query are in a different order, it will still serve an ad. No words will be added to a re-ordered keyword.

Google AdWords Exact Match

What Has Not Changed

Phrase match and broad match (including modified broad match) will not be affected either. No changes have been announced to the way negative keywords are matched either.

Impact of Changes

To understand the impact consider the different user intents that can be caused by reordered keywords or a change in function words. A branded search signaling high levels of interest can become equivalent to a non-branded search. For example, “Boston College” is a branded search from a user signaling high interest in a specific higher education institution. “College Boston” is more likely a non-branded search from a user who is in the early or middle stages of their research, looking for college in the Boston area, of which there are many. While a click on “Boston College” is probably extremely ROI-efficient for the institution in question, a click for “college Boston” is likelier to have higher CPCs and much lower user intent and conversion rates.

Changing a function word could also significantly impact the meaning of the keyword. For example, “personal injury lawyer for car crash” vs “personal injury lawyer in car crash” are quite different intents (and the first keyword is likely to cost much more than the second.)

In all of the above examples, treating these queries as identical could reduce efficiency and relevance for advertisers.

Who is Impacted

Any advertisers to whom word order and function words are important is impacted by this change. Google has said that their machine learning algorithms are sophisticated enough to discern between differing search intent, e.g. “flight from SFO to JFK” is not the same as “Flight JFK to SFO.” However, advertisers and agencies should continue to closely monitor search query reports for exact match keywords in the weeks and months following this change.

Advertisers in heavily regulated verticals (e.g. legal, financial, and pharmaceutical) are more likely to be affected because the legal risks of running on an incorrect keyword in these industries are higher than in other verticals.

It is also important to note that Google will still prioritize exact variants of exact match keywords over close variants, so advertisers with campaigns that include a wide variety of exact match keywords are less likely to be affected.

What Advertisers Should Do

As Google prepares to roll out these changes, advertisers and agencies should proactively implement negative keywords for unwanted function words or word order that changes the intent of the search query. Advertisers should continue to mine their search query reports for potential negatives.

Advertisers and agencies should also review their top exact match keywords to build out a list of all possible permutations of multiple word exact match keywords, and then review to identify any that don’t fit the business needs, and subsequently add those as negatives.

Advertisers can also utilize phrase match as this match type will retain the word order requirement and will not be adding/excluding function words to your keyphrase. However, phrase match does allow for additional words before and after the targeted keyword, so advertisers should be careful and thorough with negatives here as well.

Point of View

Google has positioned this change as a convenience for advertisers, who now won’t have to build out extensive keyword lists. Smaller and less advanced search advertisers are most likely to reap that benefit. Smaller search advertisers may not have the resources to devote to building out a truly comprehensive keyword list or frequently monitor the search query reports for additional positive keyword variants. This change will help them match against additional queries without investing time in building out keyword lists.

Advertisers with local components (such as travel) will also benefit from this change. Those advertisers who would otherwise be building out enormous positive exact match keyword lists to include all function words and word order variants will now have this burden eased.  Similarly, advertisers with lower brand awareness could potentially take advantage of some confusion in word order or variant.

However, for most advertisers and agencies, this means becoming increasingly vigilant with keyword variants, only now they’ll be negative variants, instead of positive. This change also means that more exact match keyword bids will enter auctions, increasing competition, and potentially driving up CPCs.

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