Rob Laver
Rob Laver Senior PPC Manager

What Google’s dramatic change to search query reporting means for the future of advertising

Rob Laver
Rob Laver Senior PPC Manager

At the start of September, Google started informing advertisers that it would no longer be reporting on all search queries which had triggered their adverts. It was a very quiet announcement, just a notification on the interface that could easily be missed:

Based on the small amount of information provided, this is potentially the biggest change to Google Ads for years. Not really in-keeping with the level of effort Google went to let people know then. So why is that? What does it mean in reality? We’ll break down what we know so far below.


What’s Actually Changing?

The first thing to clarify is that search terms are different to keywords. When you select a keyword to bid on, you tell Google what level of flexibility it has to find similar phrases, and display your advert to those people too. This is done through match types. Let’s look at an example:


KeywordMatch TypeSearch Terms Matched
mens trainersExact

mens trainers

mens sneakers

mens trainersPhrasemens trainers

cheap mens trainers

mens trainersBroad Modifiedmens trainers

mens sports trainers


On Exact, it’s typically only the keyword you’ve selected which gets matched, but there is flexibility for Google to target ‘same meaning’ queries, such as the example above where it would consider trainers and sneakers to be interchangeable in terms of intent (more detail on ‘same meaning’ available here). For Phrase and Broad Modified, the restrictions are loosened and Google can target your adverts at a broader list of search terms, e.g. with words inserted either side of the phrase, in the middle or both. 

Typically, advertisers will use a combination of Exact and either Phrase or Broad Modified for their campaigns, to ensure a balance is struck between reach of the activity and relevance. This system relies on Google handing over the data on all matched search terms, so when irrelevant queries pop up, (for example if you didn’t want to appear for ‘cheap mens trainers’), you had the opportunity to remove them from future activity.

Now however, Google says it will only show you data for queries which are searched a ‘significant’ number of times. They haven’t defined what ‘significant’ means, but we can be pretty sure that if a query only gets one impression and one click going forward, we won’t see it anymore, it’ll just be categorised as ‘other’.


How Does This Impact Campaign Performance?

For some advertisers, terms which only get one impression and one click make up a good portion of their monthly spend. It’s where a lot of low cost per click opportunities lie. By removing the ability to see the wording on these, Google is essentially tying one hand behind our backs and saying ‘trust us, we know what we’re doing’. See below an example of the spread of search terms for one of our accounts:

Of course, we’re not suggesting that all of those queries in the right hand column will be irrelevant, but it’s 31% of spend that we can no longer drill down into, because they only received one impression. Some queries will always be removed even with the most sophisticated automation and algorithms. What if a search term is entirely in line with the business, but not something the advertiser wants to focus on for example, how is Google going to account for that?

Why This Is Happening Now

This is the million pound/dollar/euro question. Google has long been investing in technology which automates elements of the advertising process, and this could just be seen as another move in that direction. It’s very possible that there comes a time where you no longer select keywords you want to target at all, but instead just define your target market and let Google find those people through its array of products and placements. An advertiser’s job at that point is to focus more on the content of what goes out, rather than where to. But we’re still some way off that.

More cynically, it’s been suggested in debates following the announcement that Google are looking to claw back revenue lost during the Covid-19 pandemic, by artificially inflating cost per clicks on search terms which never would have been competitive before.This also serves another theory we’ve seen which suggested that Google have essentially penetrated the advertising market as far as they can and need to start finding ways to make additional money from existing advertisers.

Whatever the reason, it has ruffled some feathers, to put it politely.


What To Expect Next

So what now? Naturally, advertisers need to see what the impact actually is on the data they receive first. Google’s extremely poor briefing on the situation means we’re slightly in the dark for now, but we should start to see industry wide comparisons being made soon enough.

There may be those who think now’s the right time to start looking at other search engines, such as Microsoft who haven’t (yet) made this move, or Amazon and eBay. But it’s worth bearing in mind that Google still dominates the market, so barring a substantial change in user behaviour, advertisers still have to get in front of people where they most commonly appear.

The most likely next move on Google’s side though is to roll out additional ‘smart’ features to help streamline the targeting on Google Ads. Whether this will have been planned all along or is just in response to the backlash on this latest change, we may never know. But it will help us to understand what they are thinking long term, and that means we are in for an interesting end to 2020, that’s for sure.


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