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Understanding Exact Match Changes: A Bellwether for a changing Industry?8 min read

8 min read

With the commotion that unfolded after the latest slew of PPC updates starting to die down, our Head of Paid Search, Adam Rose reflects on what these mean and what impact they may have on the industry.

The PPC world has recently seen quite the range of hard-hitting and occasionally *scary* updates:

Bing: Announced they would be adopting a trademark policy similar to that of Google, and on the 27th of March Bing Ads removed restrictions on using keywords in global markets (cue the cease and desist letters), but hardly a huge surprise.   

ISIS – apparently terrorist groups are one of the key beneficiaries of Google’s AdSense program, producing regular content which advertisers can place their products against. However, they themselves might not be too happy with the low degree of relevancy between their video content and the ads being served against them. 

Google’s match type change – The big one! Huge uproar. And it’s little wonder why…

With more than 10 years in PPC, I’ve been around long enough to see countless new product releases, changes to policy, changes to controls and then complete U-turns on certain decisions the engines have made. When I first started out, what really drew me in was the control and transparency that PPC offered advertisers, far more than any other marketing channel could at the time. Life back then was simple: you chose the keywords you wanted to bid on, submitted the advert you wanted to display when somebody searched for your keyword and finally you set the maximum bid you were willing to pay per click! You then bidded up or down, changed your ad-copy and adjusted targeting methods in any way possible to help your  Quality Score that tiny bit. Oh the days!

Since then, the industry has moved on leaps and bounds but the one thing which remained at the heart of AdWords and PPC was the degree of control an advertiser had: if an advertiser only ever wanted to pay to appear on the search term ‘flowers’, between 9 am and 5pm, on a desktop device in London, then they could, plain and simple. That was the simple beauty of it, and whilst marketers might still have wished to branch out and test new products, features, targeting methods and match types, they could (and most of us did),  but there was always that option to just want to target that one specific keyword. 

Ultimately, you had control, and Google gave you that control as the advertiser.

Nostalgic thoughts over – let’s fast forward 10 years to present day…

Hearing the news that advertisers were seeing their adverts appear against abhorrent and obscene content shocked the industry to the extent that advertisers decided to hit Google where it hurts most, in the pocket! The BBC, Guardian, M&S and many more pulled advertising from one of Google’s rising stars of paid media – YouTube. It was hardly surprising, as what established brands had come to know, love and trust was the ability to control their advertising and dictate where and when their ads showed.

 Hearing about Google’s latest product change shortly after came as quite a shock to myself and many others in the industry.


Google’s Match Type Changes over time

In May 2012 Google launched a campaign option which included ‘plurals, misspellings and other close variants’ – a setting which enabled advertisers to branch out their exact keywords to a whole host of additional search terms. Whilst this may have been useful for those who didn’t know how to control their campaigns, it was an option that many of us in the industry rarely touched, preferring the readily available phrase, broad and BBM match type options.

Whilst we recognized the importance of changing search behaviour and the increasing importance of voice search, we were still the ones who chose to expand out to it when we wanted – ultimately, we had control.

In August 2014 I wrote a blog post about a further change to the system, whereby Google would eliminate the ability to ‘opt out’ of this setting, and instead automatically include close variants as part of ‘exact match’.

Despite being a big shock to many in the industry, somehow Google implemented it without much friction. This marked the first time that Google limited the extent of the control available to advertisers, as well as the ability to ensure that specific exact match terms bid on were indeed the only term that ads would be run against. In retrospect, judging by SQR analyses we conducted, it seems that the change didn’t have a significant impact on advertisers, and was quietly accepted as the norm.


Google’s Latest Match Type Update…

On Friday the 17th March, Google decided that forcing ‘close variants’ on exact match wasn’t enough. Over the coming months, we are set to see further changes whereby exact match will ignore word order & function words.

What does this mean?

Bidding on the term [Samsung 7 phones] on exact match would no longer result in your ad just appearing for this one specific term. Instead, your ad would serve against the term ‘7 Samsung phones’ as well: two very different search terms, with two very different results!

According to Google, early tests indicate advertisers could see up to 3% more exact match clicks on average whilst maintaining comparable click-through and conversion rates. This is great news and some promising results, however advertisers should surely have the choice over this option and the ability to opt into it should they wish!

I acknowledge that this might just reflect my personal view, however, numerous conversations with others in the industry seem to indicate that many others also feel like this is one step too far. Contacts at Google have themselves intimated a certain degree of surprise at the changes, seeing it as a move away from the days of clear control which brought advertisers to the platform in the first place. The timing of this update also feels slightly incongruous; why choose to announce changes which diminish targeting control at the same time as there is significant hullabaloo surrounding the lack of control on YouTube?


SO, What can be done about it?

Take a stand?

As a marketing channel, AdWords forms a significant part of an advertiser’s marketing mix, one which we are increasingly dependent upon to drive relevant traffic to the site. Whilst the change is frustrating to many, it’s unlikely to cause advertisers to pull out of the auction; the consequences would be felt almost immediately, as well Google knows.

Whilst it’s highly unlikely we’ll see any action similar that on YouTube, it stands to reason that Google would take note of the growing frustrations from within the industry, especially at such a pertinent time.


Make the most of it?

For now, yes. Advertisers will need to ensure they’re fully prepared and ready to take full advantage of the change once it’s released. Frequent SQR analysis will be crucial both to monitor the new queries one matches out to, but also to flag to Google when completely irrelevant searches do occur, despite them claiming to recognise this (‘LAX to JFK flights’ for instance).

Negative expansion is going to be front of mind for many and whilst setting up scripts to automatically apply these (based on poor CTR in comparison) is one route to take, a major disadvantage of this method is that there may well be search terms you appear against which are highly relevant but just suffer from low CTR due to the low ad rank and position.

It will also be important to bear in mind that limits to negatives will be reached much faster, particularly if these are automatically applied via a script.

According to Google, AdWords uses a set of preferences to determine which keywords to use when multiple keywords in the same account are eligible to match to the same search query. The system preferences rank in the following order:

  1. Use identical keyword to trigger an ad
  2. Use exact match keyword
  3. Use keyword with the highest Ad Rank

What this should mean is that provided you have the exact term active in the account (which matches the search query exactly) this term should trigger the ad over time, rather than a close variant with a higher bid.


Given the feedback from Google on how it prioritises keywords it triggers, advertisers should consider the following steps:

  • Ensure keyword builds are as comprehensive as possible
  • Flesh out keywords and negatives through regular SQR analysis
  • If certain keywords are performing poorly either
    • Drop their bid and reduce position, or
    • Block them completely with negatives (Having them as inactive with no negatives  allows other close variants to appear instead)

Whilst this change may have struck fear into the heart of many a Paid Search marketer, it’s unlikely that Google will be changing their position anytime in the near future. As with so many other releases, ensuring familiarity with how and why the system works the way it does (as well as going through your Search Terms Report with a fine toothed comb), should allow you to maintain an edge over the competition.