How Google close variants brought broad match to every match type

The last couple of years have seen Google make sweeping changes to the definition of search queries which might be deemed close variants. In late 2018, Google announced that any query it deemed to have the same meaning as a keyword would now be considered an exact match close variant regardless of the actual words the query is comprised of. It then followed up on that update by expanding close variants for phrase match and broad match modifier keywords to also include same-meaning queries.

This has meant a meaningful shift in the control advertisers have over the relationship between the queries driving traffic to keywords, and over time broad match is fading in importance as close variants swallow up traffic.

Share of Google search ad traffic attributed as broad match down 50%

The chart below depicts the share of Google paid search clicks attributed to broad match in the match type column available in search term reports. This is the share of total clicks attributed to queries that had a broad match relationship with the keyword being targeted, regardless of the match type the keyword is set to.

As you can see, broad match share of non-brand clicks went from 28% in Q1 2016 all the way down to 14% in Q1 2020 so far. While shifts in advertiser strategy can certainly affect the share of traffic coming from a particular match type, the evidence suggests that the steady expansion to the definition of close variants is the more likely culprit.

Close variant share on the rise for both exact and phrase match

The chart below shows the close variant share of total exact match and phrase match traffic based on the relationship assigned between query and keyword in search term reports.

As you can see, close variant share went from 11% in the first quarter of 2016 to 40% in Q1 2020 so far. While close variant share of all phrase match clicks started at a much higher share of 38% in Q1 2016, this has also increased with the change rolled out in late 2019 and now stands at 55%.

All in all, Google’s updates seem to have significantly reduced the share of traffic that is considered broad match, pushing much of this traffic into close variants where keywords set to match types other than broad can now trigger ads for these terms.

As always, the problem with this has been the relevance of close variants to the keywords being matched. One way of measuring this is the relative conversion rate of close variants to that of true phrase and exact match.

In the case of exact match, close variants have a non-brand conversion rate between 10% and 20% lower than that of true exact for the median advertiser, though close variant and true exact conversion rates are nearly identical for brand keywords. For non-brand then, the inclusion of close variants in exact match traffic can reduce the efficiency of ad spend if poor-performing close variants aren’t weeded out via keyword negatives.

Conclusion

Paid search managers like control, and for years they had access to plenty of it in terms of keeping the search queries that triggered ads tight. Some advertisers chose to forego looser matches altogether by only launching exact match keywords.

But times have changed, and it’s now the case that essentially all match types can trigger ads for queries that might have once been considered broad matches. As such, the share of traffic that can only be triggered via broad match has declined.

There’s still a place for broad and broad match modified keywords to give advertisers a wider net to drag in showing ads for relevant queries which are either low volume or just haven’t been built out as exact match keywords yet. However, much of the traffic that was formerly assigned as broad match now falls under close variants.

In the big scheme of things, close variants are typically very relevant to the keywords they trigger. However, there are circumstances when the queries matched to keywords are clearly irrelevant, and for most advertisers close variants simply don’t convert at the same rate as true exact or phrase matches. Thus, the inclusion of close variants can result in less effective bid management.

Further, for advertisers operating under constrained budgets, they’d usually rather be able to spend all of it on the terms they’ve selected as opposed to being opted into additional auctions for variations which might require further effort to manage. Implementing scripts to automatically weed out close variants is one option to reduce workload, but does require additional effort that advertisers didn’t used to have to expend.

Most advertisers won’t weep for the death of broad match, the most commonly bemoaned match type among paid search managers because of the wider net it casts, which can sometimes lead to poor matches. But they do miss the days of total match type control, those wider nets now forced upon tighter match types which require extra care to manage.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


About The Author

Andy Taylor is director of research at Tinuiti, responsible for analyzing trends across the digital marketing agency spectrum for best practices and industry commentary. A seasoned marketer with 9-plus years of experience, he speaks frequently at industry conferences and events.

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