Google has announced that starting in September 2014, advertisers will not be able to opt out of my not so-favorite feature of Close Variants. AdWords is a lot like Vegas in that the house always wins but this is a pretty blatant Google money grab. If the situation is as dire as the documentation indicates, your exact and phrase keywords are about to become modified broads and all your research and design work is about to be trashed by el-Goog.
Last week, Google announced that they are planning to apply close variant matching to all exact and phrase match keywords and that they are removing the ability for advertisers to opt out of this “feature”. So Google has decided that you can have any opinion you want as long as you agree with them.
Historically, the phrase & exact match keyword settings have been used to help control the quality of traffic and protect advertisers from burning through their budget on low-quality searches.
Phrase match keywords, indicated by quotation marks required a search to contain the given keyword in order at some point during a person’s search. Exact match keywords, as indicated by square brackets took this one step further by requiring the search to match exactly to a given keyword.
While we’ve never been crazy about the Close Variants option, at least when it was introduced we had the “if you don’t like it, change the channel option” of opting out of this feature even if said option was very-well hidden.
The primary pitch that Google has used to justify this setting is that this made it easier for advertisers to manage their account (by not having to add every typo variation known to humanity) and that it could lead to increased conversions (as a byproduct of being eligible to show up for more searches).
Starting at the end of September, this “feature” is no longer going to be optional. Per Google’s blog posting:
This planned adjustment means there is one less option to control traffic quality. While Google pitches this as a way to get people more conversions while spending less time on account management, our suspicion is that the reasoning for doing this is not as altruistic (more revenue for Google) as they make it appear on the surface. Just because Google has every right to try to generate as much revenue as possible, it concerns us that one of the byproducts of this is less control for advertisers regarding which searches (and quality of searches) that their ads show up on.
Now, you may be asking yourself, what exactly is a close variant anyways? Based on this support article, the definition given is:
“Close variations include misspellings, singular and plural forms, acronyms, stemmings (such as floor and flooring), abbreviations, and accents”
It would be one thing if this applied to just misspellings (the typical search terms report is loaded with these) and singular/plural forms. However, some of the other elements of this we’re not too crazy about.
For example, the aspect of acronyms raises a red flag by itself. Just because an acronym does apply to an advertiser’s keyword, does not mean that their industry has exclusive domain over this section.
One possible scenario based on this definition is if Google determines a specific acronym matches up to an advertiser’s exact or phrase match keyword, this by itself could reduce the quality of traffic as several acronyms have dozens and in some cases hundreds of meanings. Based on the acronym section of close variants, a retailer selling PlayStation Portables could have their ads showing for people looking for the Pennsylvania State Police, whether they like it or not.
The same goes for abbreviations. It would be one thing if a specific abbreviation applied to only a given relevant keyword. As we all know, the English language never has and never will be this simple. Based on the ambiguity of abbreviations within the English language, it is conceivable that your phrase & exact match keywords will be more likely to be shown to people searching for products or services unrelated to your business solely because they share the same acronym.
While Google’s documentation claims that this is a time-saver, we would argue that it actually is the opposite. In reality, the time that was spent looking for plurals & typos (and then some) is time being re-allocated to screening out unrelated searches that now qualify as “phrase” & “exact” match keywords.
The thing that concerns us with this change is what Google refers to as a “close variation” and “easier account management” looks more like a “full frontal lobotomy” to the AdWords System. We have lots of accounts that are very carefully researched and designed with exact and phrase keyword models that will shortly be as dumb as a modified broad keyword.