In late 2018, Google made an unprecedented change to its keyword matching on Google Ads, allowing machine learning to identify queries which had the same meaning/intent, but were entirely different to the keyword you had actually selected. For example, if you were bidding on the keyword ‘office christmas party venues’’, you could feasibly now show up for ‘office festive party locations’. Google would have identified that the words christmas/festive and venues/locations were interchangeable in this context, and had the same intent.
There were immediately several obvious concerns for advertisers, one being how much we could rely on a machine to get something as complicated as language intent correct. There is also the basic principle of wanting to just bid on the keywords you’ve selected without interference. There may be a reason that you want to bid on the word christmas, and not festive, whether that’s historical data, vanity or simply gut instinct.
Nonetheless, the change was implemented, and to mitigate some of the above concerns, Google limited the change to only affect ‘exact’ match keywords, so the words couldn’t appear in a different order or with additional words tacked on the beginning, middle or end, it had to be a straight swap. And to be fair, in 2019 to date, we haven’t really seen a huge change in the daily search query reports we run (in order to exclude keywords), just the occasional rogue query which raises an eyebrow.
Within the last week however, Google have announced that they are rolling out the close variant ‘same meaning’ rule to phrase and broad match modifiers too. This means that queries can be swapped out, but also have their order moved around and additional words added to the string, as long as it is deemed to have the same meaning overall. The examples given in their help section are included below:
So what are the implications of the change? Most obviously, more time needed on checking through search queries and adding negatives. But the bigger picture here is that Google are moving towards a point where being super prescriptive over your keyword targeting is no longer an option. They want us to start focusing on who the person is, and what their intentions are, eventually seeing the query as just one indicator of this.
What the response will be from advertisers probably depends how quickly change is implemented. If keyword matching gets less tight incrementally over the next couple of years, and additional targeting options rolled out, then it may be adopted relatively pain free, provided the results are positive. Too quick, and people may feel that their budgets are better spent on other platforms that already have this type of audience-first infrastructure in place, such as Facebook. Keyword targeting is, after all Google’s bread and butter, and the reason it has dominated the online advertising market for the past two decades.
In reality, Google are smarter than that, and we expect the impact of this latest development to be gradual. One thing is for sure though, those who like to have their campaigns tightly arranged by keyword are going to need to start being more flexible, or invest additional time into managing the impact.