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Google Adwords Killed “Exact Match” – But Does it Matter?

Google actively updated and changed its search parameters throughout August and September. First, Authorship met its end and then “exact match” was retired and replaced with “close variant” for AdWords.

The option to bypass exact match and close variant was available in PPC accounts. However, now, users can no longer opt out of close variant.

News of the death of exact match has created a buzz that includes outrage in the PPC community, as well as in the world of search engine optimization (SEO). Some have gone so far as to create petitions and letters against the decision in hopes that Google will recant their statements and changes.

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For PPC users, this change causes great concern because, in terms of a keyword list, this makes advertising strategies much more clouded and less precise. The anger in the AdWords community is not just over a sudden loss of control, but also over the budget leakage that this change eventually causes.

Nevertheless, we are going to explore how this change affects us and prepare ourselves for a future without exact match. In fact, these changes may actually benefit our PPC accounts.

The Love Affair with Exact Match

Exact match was a method of ad targeting that Google used to determine when to display your ad. If a person searching on Google typed in the exact phrase you provided, they would most likely see your ad.

For example, if you used “Marvel Comics” as your keyword, people who searched for exactly that phrase would be shown your ad. People searching for a variation, such as “Marvel Movies,” “Marvel Comic Books,” or “Marvel TV,” would not be shown your ad.

Exact match was perfect for people who adjusted their bids based on diversity and who liked knowing just where on the Internet their ads were going to be displayed. In essence, the precision targeting of exact match could guarantee that the person seeing the ad was someone who would be interested in what the ad was displaying.

On the basis of a searcher typing in the specific key phrase or keyword that you provided to AdWords, it was assured – practically guaranteed – that they were in your target audience and would therefore be more receptive to your ad.

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The majority of AdWords users loved exact match because it allowed them to bring in peripheral customers with little devoted resources. As a result, they found more time and resources to focus on producing the best product for their ideal customers.

Google Axed Exact Match

Due to the generally opaque nature of Google’s decision-making, reasons for any change or update are almost always left to speculation. Inevitably, conspiracy theories and rumors abound. While the reasons for the death of exact match may not yet be clearly listed, we can speculate or attempt to determine the cause through the clues left behind.

The clues point to there being quite a number of reasons for Google axing exact match. Primary among them is the fact that the average person isn’t a spelling whiz. It’s nothing to be ashamed of! Between the tiny nature of mobile keyboards and our fast-paced schedules, exact spelling isn’t a major priority.

According to Google’s official blog for AdWords, about seven percent of Google searches have a typo or two. The longer the search query, the higher the percentage climbs. Google claims that close variant will provide a better match, reach more people, and give you greater control with less complexity. But, is that really why exact match was sent to the chopping block?

Seven percent of queries is a very low percentage to use as the basis for changing the fundamentals of something as big as AdWords, isn’t it? And why make the change so late in the year, as opposed to January 2015 or a little later in the new year? Changing such a fundamental element of search could really mess with some fourth quarter reports.

Some speculate that it could be Google trying to inflate the numbers of close variant falsely in order to convince people that the switch is a good idea. While Google is a massive corporation, I don’t believe they are playing at anything so evil.

Over the past year, algorithm updates have focused on improved search experience and high quality output from websites. It seems more accurate to assume that close variant really does offer more value than exact match.

By the looks of it, Google is also trying to transition into what amounts to a “keywordless” future – a future where the search engine can determine your intent based on your query and then rank pages by how closely they resemble that intent.

It’s hard to tell exactly where Google intends to take its search engine in the future, and SEO’s future for that matter. For now, we all have to adjust to close variant.

PPC Accounts Today and Tomorrow

Now that exact match is gone and we’re stuck dealing with the new close variant way of doing things, how should we deal with the loss? What are some of the improved or new methods that we can wield?

Focus on landing page optimization.

Theoretically, it may be a bit harder to point people to your website without exact match, but that doesn’t mean it should be harder to retain them. Optimizing your landing page can help with retention, and it can even bring in three to five times as many gains, according to Larry Kim of Wordstream.

You see, the keywords and variations that you build onto your page will actually “pop” for searchers with the intent of finding the information you’re presenting. Check out a landing page example below:

nice looking landing page

Focus on optimizing ad copy.

Optimizing ad copy has a similar effect in that it can give you six times the gains. Top quality ad copy should already be at the top of your priority list. But, just in case it’s not, refocusing to generate top quality ad copy can virtually wipe out any negative aspects of losing exact match.

Focus on negative keyword expansion for more exact search results.

Having an extensive and thorough negative keyword list is incredibly helpful, more so now than before the death of exact match. Negative keywords can help prevent unnecessary budget leakage. In the dimensions tab, study users’ search terms for an idea of which close variants are causing budget leakage. Place those terms causing the most budget leakage into a negative keyword list.

Extract various keywords from one phrase.

Refine the negative keyword list based around a phrase search, as opposed to a single keyword. Close variant works in the same way for negative keywords as it does for positive. Correlate the search term data with the actual keywords you target.

Cut down your keyword list to make it more manageable.

Cutting down your keyword list allows for two things. First, you’ll spend less of your budget on the keyword or phrase itself. Second, and this is important for close variant, you’ll spend less of your budget minimizing the collateral damage from budget leakage to irrelevant terms.

If, for example, you choose to use three keyword phrases instead of one, and every keyword or phrase has four close variants with varying degrees of relativity, then you will inspect and monitor 12 close variants to determine what can be added to the negative keywords list.

So, cutting down your keyword list makes it easier and less time-consuming to manage now that your negative keyword list will have a much larger impact on results.

Stop focusing on keywords as the be-all and end-all.

Google is putting the kibosh on the era of the keyword. The latest search algorithm update rewards sites that more closely match the meaning of the search than the keyword associated with it. It’s an interesting move to say the least, as intent is hard to judge by text alone, and keywords can sometimes be related to the intent of the page.

With the Hummingbird update, it is evident that Google is aiming to move away from keywords. This could be viewed as an attempt at getting better quality by denying the misuse (deliberate or otherwise) of keywords to pollute SERPs. Time will tell if this move is a step forward, or the beginning of the end.

Try separating your best keyword into its own campaign with its own budget.

In an experiment in PPC campaign optimization conducted by Kiko Correa, he noticed that the more keywords he gave to AdWords, the more confused it became, and the more his search volume shrank.

When he separated the highest performing keyword into its own campaign, the ROI spiked at over 30 percent, with a revenue increase of over 60 percent. Without adding keywords or taking anything away from SEOs, visits, revenue, and transactions, Correa saw an organic increase by 11, 41, and 46 percent, respectively.

Separate your highest performing keywords into their own campaigns with their own budget, and you will see an increase in revenue, visits, and transactions. Don’t rely on AdWords to do all the work for you, because sometimes AdWords completely misses the point.

A “Keywordless” Future Is on the Horizon

Google has seemingly always tried to do best by its users. In its infinite pursuit of the ultimate search engine algorithm, Google is actively moving away from keywords and phrases. Whom does this brave new world benefit? For whom does Google envision this utopia?

In Google’s perfect world, the answer to both of those questions is the same. The users are the target audience and the demographic of choice. Unfortunately for Google, almost everyone in the world uses search, but not everyone harbors the same idea of search engine nirvana.

So, as Google deftly maneuvers us toward a future search engine that uses no hard set keywords, do we all stand to benefit? The first step toward this future, close variant, has its supporters and critics, but the concept certainly paves the way to better rankings and find-ability for those of us who focus on quality content and what our audience wants.

Close Variant Presents Noteworthy Benefits

Is close variant the apocalyptic harbinger of search engine destruction that the majority of SEOs, bloggers, and the like are claiming? Probably not, but time will tell. For now, let’s do what we can and examine close variant as objectively as possible:

Broader reach.

By nature of the parameters of the search being wider, close variant allows you to have a wider reach than exact match. Close variant allows matching on misspelled words and very close iterations to the keywords within the ad campaign. For example, a search for “baby clothes” would return the following queries:

  • “babby clothes”
  • “baby clothing”
  • “baby cl othes”
  • “baby cloths”

Normally, these variations would not show up without close variant turned on, and you would lose out on potential customers because of a simple mistake or typo. Of course, some of these queries may not be typos, and may actually have an entirely different intent behind the search.

Control minus the work and complexity.

With one keyword or phrase possibly encompassing multiple phrases and words via misspellings, abbreviations, etc., close variant allows you to have more control with less manipulation. Unlike exact match, which requires every possible variation, misspelling, or abbreviation to your keyword or phrase, close variant uses all of those elements naturally.

You no longer have to spend hours making and adding to an endless list of possible exact phrases that could be used in a search by your target audience. You simply focus on negative keywords. Narrow your visitors by specifying keywords you don’t want attributed to your key phrase or word. It’s less work, less complex, and carries a lower cost.

Easy pivot to a better keyword.

It’s easier to pivot to a better keyword or phrase – one that has more queries or a better ROI – with close variant. Since AdWords still has a bias toward words that are identical to search queries to trigger ads, you can still use other close variations of your keyword.

Say, for example, that “Bayern Munich” is performing better in search queries than your chosen phrase of “Bayern Munich soccer team” or “Football Club of Bayern Munich.” You can add the better performing keyword or phrase to the existing campaign or launch it as its own keyword in an entirely separate campaign. Then, any close variations of “Bayern Munich” will be added to your search, allowing more people searching for the German powerhouse club to see your ad and visit your site.

The rise in voice search via mobile must also be considered. Voice recognition software is still fairly basic, and autocorrect can fail so spectacularly that there are entire websites dedicated to these incidents. As stated earlier, and as is the basic premise of close variant, the exact phrase doesn’t have to be typed out in order for your ad to be seen. Typos, and horribly misunderstood voice commands by Siri, are all acceptable as long as they are close to your keyword or phrase.

Our “Keywordless” Future

We’ve established that the axing of exact match will most assuredly alter the way we use AdWords and incorporate keywords and phrases into our websites. If the petitions created by critics manage to make a bold enough statement and Google reverts to a close variant option, we can go back to business as usual.

Let’s face it, we all like options, and we don’t like it when “the man” takes our options away. We feel wronged, and we tend to declare independence as quickly and loudly as possible! However, losing exact match isn’t the end of the world. When people have the fewest options is when they become the most creative. So let’s think like MacGyver and explore PPC success with one less option.

The change from exact match to close variant is a non-issue for about 97 percent of accounts that don’t use any type of “keyword stratification.” And, since Google (in reality) makes the rules we all live by in cyberspace, we must consider that this is the new norm. It’s not likely to revert.

We’ve touched on the benefits of close variant, and adapting could be as simple as slapping on some virtual duct tape and rerouting our major efforts.

There is no doubt that Google is going to continue its pursuit of search engine perfection, whether we like the changes or not. We can adjust and thrive or remain rigid and stagnate. Google’s intention is to create the best search experience for its user base, and nothing will stop them. But, it really will be okay. In fact, close variant may very well be the start of the beautiful user search to your website cycle.

About the Author: Asher Elran is a practical software engineer and marketing specialist. He is the CEO of Dynamic Search and the founder of Web Ethics.

  1. Cleofe Betancourt Dec 10, 2014 at 7:37 am

    You make some excellent points in this article, including highlighting best practices that many marketers may have fallen away from, or weighted with less importance, during the previous generation of Google Adwords strategy. As you’ve stated,this new generation of Adwords will require new tactics and strategy to succeed, and, unfortunately, marketers are left to figure it out.

    With the prominence of so many viable marketing platforms (Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Pinterest, etc) could Google’s decision backfire and drive away users? Only time will tell.

    • Cleofe, I definitely know what you’re talking about and yes, I think some of the popularity of AdWord is going away. Social PPC bite a good portion of the search market.

  2. The future of organic search is a separate topic from AdWords without exact match. While I agree that it is lost whether we like it or not, the fact is without exact match advertisers are definitely going to be paying for clicks that are irrelevant from buyers who are not looking for what they are selling. It won’t matter how optimized your pages are if they aren’t your target audience.

  3. Gail, just to make it clear, there is still exact match but now Google can include synonyms, misspelling, etc. I know, I know, this is not exact match by definition, but a lot better than canceling it altogether.

  4. Michael Chibuzor Dec 12, 2014 at 9:44 am

    You’ve share some great insights on Exact Match Keywords. The truth is that Google has never really encouraged over optimization. That’s what I think.

  5. Thanks for the article, Asher. Whether exact match is so vital or not, I think one lesson we can learn here is that one better watches out of alternatives to Google Adwords. If your marketing strategy breaks apart due to this change, you are in trouble. Question is, what alternates are there?

  6. The real problem Tian Tian is that there is no alternative to Adwords at this point. Monopoly´s are never good for anyone either to Google itself.

  7. Too bad they removed the money-saver exact keyword match.

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