President of Internet Marketing at 9thCO, a Canadian digital agency focused on B2B lead gen as well as ecommerce development and marketing.
Back in September, Google announced changes to its keyword matching technology. While the announcement might seem innocuous, the changes may be having serious consequences for marketers both big and small.
Google claims that these changes improve keyword matching precision, give advertisers better control and attract more relevant, high-performing traffic using fewer keywords — but there’s a downside. While the changes may sound copacetic, the reality is that they present a major risk to advertisers and have the potential to completely destroy marketing budgets.
Let’s get a clearer picture of what exactly is happening. On Sept. 23, Google updated us with the news that it was rolling out improvements to its keyword matching technology, as well as changes to the rule on how keywords are selected within advertisers’ accounts. Google stated that “the updated phrase match simplifies match types by combining the control of phrase match, and the expanded reach of the discontinued broad match modifier. The new phrase matching behavior is more expansive than the former phrase match, and slightly more restrictive than the discontinued BMM.”
Basically, when people search for anything on Google, the search will no longer trigger ads for only the queries (i.e., keywords) and phrases they explicitly specify. Instead, phrase match keywords will trigger ads for so-called close variations. Shockingly, the same is even true for exact match.
This means advertisers will likely see greater search volumes, but it also means you can no longer control the keywords that you want to spend money on, and these “close variations” can quickly draw unwanted traffic to a client’s site.
Why Is This Happening?
According to Google, these updates work in advertisers’ best interests. As described, they should allow us to no longer worry about multiple match types, as our campaigns can reach more bottom-of-funnel searchers with fewer keywords, by using technology that improves understanding of language and intent. Basically, the idea is to allow marketers to scale campaigns more easily without doing the work to cover every search term in their campaign.
This change also represents a not-so-subtle nudge by Google, gently but directly pushing advertisers to hand over the keys to Smart Bidding. The rationale is that there’s no longer any need or advantage to having multiple keywords with different match types. Ostensibly, this new winning combination of automation layered over broad match keywords has enough intelligence to cover all match types and produce better results than even exact match.
Who Is Impacted And What Are The Consequences?
So far, everything discussed may sound like it’s a huge benefit to the industry overall. We’ll have more control over searches, higher traffic, and it seems easier to expand and manage campaigns. In reality, the changes can drastically impact marketing budgets and tank campaigns. For businesses that are running Google Ads and need to meet specific ROI targets, the increased volume of irrelevant or less-than-relevant queries can obliterate their budgets.
On the other hand, if you’re using specific keywords, you could find that this modification is skyrocketing broader industry searches, resulting in higher spend and a reduced click-through rate. Not to mention your already precious budget will be wasted on keywords that are not as relevant as Google’s algorithm believes them to be. For example, you may want to bid only on the term “social media agency” in order to attract midsize prospects looking for agency-level expertise. But phrase match may also bid on the close variant of “social media consultant,” which often denotes a lower-cost contractor. Thus, you would be wasting your click budget on an irrelevant website visitor.
The push by major platforms like Google and Facebook to use automation and machine learning can be great in some instances, but when it comes to areas that impact qualified leads, for example, the changes can be detrimental. A platform cannot inherently differentiate between a good qualified lead and one that is spam or not useful. While these are incredibly useful tools that allow advertisers to be more nimble and scale more rapidly, they are also incredibly wasteful if not carefully implemented and controlled.
First, it’s important to conduct a Google account audit for yourself. Review all exact and phrase match (close variant) search terms. This is an ongoing optimization tactic that can prevent exposure to irrelevant search terms. Second, track your spending and compare irrelevant search terms to relevant search terms. By doing this, you can see the exact ways in which this change has impacted your efforts.
It’s crucial to analyze your data, understand the nuances of your target market and weed out what falls outside of it. For example, if you’re a digital marketing firm, you should understand that anyone searching for consultants probably has a different mindset and isn’t likely to become a client. Be careful with your keyword selection, but most importantly, be extremely aggressive with negative keyword selections.
Do What Works for You
While Google claims that these changes will enhance performance and lead to improved campaign control, it’s valid to be wary of the updates. The way around falling into a trap and blowing out budgets is to leverage the tools that are available to you and use them to your advantage, instead of simply enabling automation and handing over control to the platform.
Google Ads still has incredible tools that can benefit your marketing efforts, but knowing how and when to use them is more important than anything else. Don’t be afraid to question new advances in the industry and think critically about how they will impact your business in the long term.