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The implications of recent Google AdWords changes to exact/phrase match targeting

Author's avatar By John Newton 18 Jun, 2012
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Practical tips to refine your PPC targeting

Recent changes to Google’s AdWords tool allow PPC marketers to set up paid search campaigns without populating long lists of plurals, abbreviations, acronyms, misspellings and stems.

In my last post, I mentioned the need to review keyword match types regularly to ensure your paid search campaigns remain profitable. The recent AdWords changes make regular reviewing even more important; especially for small and medium enterprises.

Here, ClickThrough Marketing’s Paid Search Manager, Saiqa Bi, looks at the implications of the changes, and the potential pros and cons for internet marketing.

A brief recap on Adwords functionality

Before we delve any deeper into what the recent to AdWords functionality mean for you, it’s probably worth a quick recap of what does what in AdWords:

  • Phrase match keyword targeting allows advertisers to target an ad to any search query that contains a specified target keyword or phrase. For example, if you choose to target the key phrase ‘dark chocolate’, your ads will show for any search queries containing the phrase ‘dark chocolate’ – such as ‘buy dark chocolate’ or ‘dark chocolate buy’ or even seemingly random questions, like ‘is dark chocolate healthier than milk chocolate?’
  • Exact match keyword targeting will only trigger your ads to show for search queries that exactly match your keyword. So, in this example, your ads would only display when someone searched ‘dark chocolate’ verbatim.

After setting up an account, advertisers used to have to generate and populate long lists associated with their keywords (either positively or negatively), such as plurals, abbreviations, acronyms, stems and misspellings. Accounts which didn’t do this background work generally didn’t work; either because they failed to capture the right traffic, or resulted in extraneous and expensive click costs on irrelevant search terms.

Advantages and disadvantages of AdWords exact/phrase match

Good paid search managers are well aware of the implications of irrelevant or negative results in a PPC campaign.

No travel agent, for instance, would want their paid ads to top the search results for a query like ‘worst travel agent’. But, with a phrase match campaign for the term ‘travel agent’, this is a real risk.

Phrase match allows paid search advertisers to ensure their websites return in searches for specific keyword phrases, like the term ‘travel agent’.  This means if someone searches for anything with the phrase ‘travel agent’ in it, your paid ad will return in their search results. Which is great if your ad returns at the top of the results for a “best travel agent” search – but not so great if your ad appears at the top of a ‘worst travel agent’ search.

As such, a lot of ‘behind the scenes’ work is necessary to optimise a paid search account so this kind of negative association doesn’t occur; involving populating lengthy ‘negative’ keyword lists, as well as inserting any potential keyword plurals, acronyms, abbreviations, stems and misspellings.

All this changed on May 17, 2012.

Potential implications of Google AdWords changes

Google has made changes to AdWords which, on the face of it, invite advertisers to trust Google with their paid ad budget. Google has altered its AdWords tool to try to make the arduous behind-the-scenes tasks slightly simpler for paid search managers.

The changes allow advertisers to set up accounts more quickly – as AdWords will automatically match plurals, abbreviations, acronyms and stems. For the hyper-cynical, this situation could be compared to handing your car keys and a blank cheque to a mechanic, and telling them to do “whatever they think is necessary” on your car.

Most motorists who’ve visited a reputable garage will have been offered extraneous and expensive work at some point. And they’d probably guess the likely outcome of this hypothetical AdWords scenario is potentially a lot of expensive and ultimately unnecessary work; work that is bound to plump up the pockets of the mechanic, but will leave your pockets empty.

That’s for the cynic, though.

Google AdWords continues to be a powerful and reliable traffic source for advertisers. For now, let’s look at the pros and cons of recent AdWords changes for small, and big business.

The pros and cons of AdWords changes to exact/phrase match

  •  Opting out - Google isn’t actually forcing this change on anyone. If you prefer the personal touch for your ad campaigns, you can still do the manual population of associated keywords yourself.
  • Plurals – Previously, advertisers would have to round out associated plurals – Google now does this for you. And it works both ways – for both pluralisation and singularisation. If you were targeting the keyword ‘London offices’, you’d have to ask Google to specifically target ‘London office’, too.  The changes will now ensure you target both in an exact match search. Which is arguably a good thing: London office has more traffic than London offices, so a campaign with this keyword freshly added is bound to see positive results.
  •  Misspellings – Around 7% of all searches contain a misspelling or typo. The longer the query, the higher the propensity for mistakes. In this example, we’ll look at targeting the keyword ‘holiday’. Under the AdWords changes, your paid ads will now also match to misspells, such as ‘holidey’ automatically. This is fine, because both natural and paid search results suggest that the user would be looking for a holiday – even if they can’t spell it. This change could save a lot of time populating misspelled associated keywords lists. Now, consider the search query ‘holeday’, another misspelling of ‘holiday’. This could still bring up obvious travel brands in the paid ad space, if AdWords recognises ‘holeday’ as a misspell of holiday.
    However, the natural search results are in stark contrast to the paid ad results: with ‘Rabbit Hole Day’ being mentioned a few times, for instance
    (Rabbit Hole Day is a modern nod to the work of Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland. Bloggers participating in Rabbit Hole Day throw away the rulebook for a day every year, on January 27, to celebrate the weird and wonderful world Alice found herself in after falling down a rabbit hole in the novel).
    The key question here is ‘What is the user looking for?’ If they are not looking for a holiday, are they actually interested in a half-hearted digital day for pretentious bloggers to ape the irrelevance and surrealism of one of the greatest fiction writers of modern times? They probably are. And if they are, then it’s unlikely they will click on your paid holiday ad – so worries about irrelevant click costs aren’t applicable. If they are looking for a holiday, then the irrelevancy of the natural search results (with such questions as ‘what the hell is Rabbit Hole Day?!’) will push them to the paid search results anyway, or they will switch to Google’s suggested search of ‘holiday’ (showing results for holeday/search instead for holiday).
  • Misspelling in a brand context – This is a much more complex area. Big, recognisable brands, like Marks and Spencer, won’t really suffer from brand association. Terms like M&S and Marks and Sparks will get searching shoppers the results they want.
    Some issues are worth considering, though. If you don’t do the legwork and get your negative keyword lists right, you may find yourself showing for some unsavoury search terms. Most brands would prefer not to be associated with negative terms in search, so constantly checking and refining your campaigns is an absolute must. Left unchecked, an AdWords campaign could end up creating more negative associations. Consequently, paid search managers should plan to spend much more time looking at SQRs, and refining their negative matches in future.
  • Stemming - Targeting the keyword ‘tyre repair’ could now also match to the stem ‘tyre repaired’. At first glance, the stem phrase might sound like an informational query and, therefore, traditionally an unwanted return.
    However, natural results indicate otherwise. Here, users could be thinking about where they could get a tyre repaired, they might want reviews from people who have had their tyres repaired, or, and let’s stretch our imaginations a bit, they may want to find a garage boasting services like ‘tyres repaired, exhausts fixed, windows replaced’. Stringent reporting should show you how this kind of phrase is used by searchers, allowing you to tailor your ads accordingly.
  • Abbreviations - Here's an example, purely designed to highlight this potential problem. Targeting the keyword ‘wicked’ is likely to now also match with the abbreviation ‘wkd’ (a word propagated mainly by heavy mobile users with a txt-powered aversion to vowels). In this example, a PPC campaign to sell tickets for popular musical 'Wicked' may mean paid ads also now appear in a search for Wkd, the many-flavoured alcopop. Again, refining negative keyword matches should mitigate this.
  • Acronyms - Targeting the key phrase ‘pay per click’ is likely to also match to the acronym ‘PPC’. Interestingly, Google AdWords’ own ads are showing against ‘pay per click’ but not ‘PPC’ at the moment which, under this new rule, should be happening. It is unlikely, but possible, that Google has opted out of its own product improvements!

Top Tips Summary: Effective PPC with Google AdWords changes

  • Monitor your Search Query Reports more frequently
  • Continually refine your negative keywords based on SQR data
  • Plot scenarios by brand and product
  • Opt out to avoid accidental negative association

Are the Google AdWords changes an improvement?

In the short term, the changes may add to the workload, as advertisers will need to monitor SQRs more frequently whilst carrying on with everyday PPC tasks, such as adding unwanted queries as negative keywords.

In future, the variations shown by these changes could help paid search managers capture traffic they may not have originally considered, leading to longer term rewards, more visibility and more targeted and tailored ads.

Either way, ploughing through a pile of client search query reports is going to become a lot more interesting! Some will argue that the onus is on Google to ensure it doesn’t return irrelevant results. After all, the search engine makes changes on an almost daily basis to try to deliver the most relevant results possible – so a sudden upsurge in irrelevant paid ad results isn’t going to help its business.

It’s up to Google to grow its revenue, and paid search is arguably its market to take. Whether the AdWords changes result in increased income for paid search advertisers, as well as Google, remains to be seen.

Thanks to Rob Cubbon for use of the AdWords recap image and Phoenix Online Media for the Google advertising image.

Author's avatar

By John Newton

John Newton (LinkedIn) is the Smart Insights commentator who writes on using Google Ads for improving paid search marketing and other search-related advice. John is Group Marketing Director at ClickThrough Marketing. He has been been working in marketing, both online and offline, for 15 years in companies which include Yahoo!, ITV and TNS Global. He has been worked in marketing roles, both online and offline, for companies including Yahoo!, ITV and TNS Global. He is interested in the creative application of common sense and a research-based approach to improve marketing results. John is also a CIM Chartered Marketer.

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