Google's Exact Match Expansion

In the early days search was strictly about keywords – long, long lists of keywords and keyword phrases in endless variations. But, as the channel has matured and technology has evolved, the focus has transitioned from simply identifying keywords to actually understanding intent. Getting at intent requires a more sophisticated and flexible approach to interpreting the consumer’s actual needs, and that seems to be exactly where Google is heading with an announcement they made late last week about an upcoming expansion to its definition of close variants for the exact match type.

In the coming months, exact match keywords will show ads on same-meaning queries, covering expanded variants including word reordering and function word addition or removal.

What exactly does this mean?

Since 2014, misspellings, stemmings, plurals, and abbreviations or acronyms have been included as close variants within the exact match type. With the roll out of this expansion, Google will now also allow for varied word order and the addition or removal of function words within close variants of exact match.

This update is one more step in Google’s continuation down a path that blurs the lines between match types. As the diagram above illustrates, the new exact match overlaps closely with phrase match.

It’s important to note that close variants will only match to exact keywords when the query intent is the same. This is especially relevant for queries in which the function keyword defines intent. For example, a search query for “flights to San Diego” would not match to the keyword “flights from San Diego” because the intent is clearly not the same.

Based on early tests, Google expects this expansion to affect only up to 3% of the current exact match traffic.

Why is Google making this change?

Google is making this change now for two primary reasons, both of which are intended to make life easier for both the searcher and the advertiser:

1. As the foundation of search marketing, keywords enable advertisers to be present and relevant during intent-driven searches. However, keyword strategies can be inefficient because they often require exhaustive lists of variations in order to capture one core idea. On the user side, this expansion will let consumers stay focused on simply finding what they are looking for without having to worry about the keyword order an advertiser may be targeting. On the advertiser side, it will save campaign managers time while simultaneously maximizing reach with the relevant audience.

2. In addition to how this expansion will affect traditional search, it is also at least partially in response to the rise of voice search, which is creating the need to increase coverage with minimal semantic drift. Google has stated that 20% of mobile searches are now voice searches. To capitalize on this trend, advertisers need an easier and more effective way to capture the conversational tone of a voice search, which is often quite different from a query typed into a box.

What can you do to prepare for the expansion?

For this expansion, Google’s slow roll out will take place over several weeks starting with 1% of the traffic matching to the close variants and increasing the volume slowly over the next couple of months. 

At iProspect, we will be auditing keywords on an account-by-account basis and taking the following actions to ensure this latest change has a positive effect: 

1. Monitor Performance: We may see traffic fluctuations after these changes roll out, so we’ll be tracking performance closely and making adjustments as needed (e.g. adjust bids or add negatives).

2. Leverage Negative Keywords: We’ll also monitor search query reports and leverage negative keywords to exclude specific keyword matches if needed.

3. Ensure Campaigns Have Adequate Budget: Because exact match keywords will match to a broader set of queries after this change rolls out the performance and competition on keywords may change. Where possible, we’ll ensure campaigns are not budget capped to avoid missing out on additional serving opportunities. 

So, what’s the long-term outlook?

Google has stated that preference will still be given to keywords that are identical to a search query. Based on the fact that CPCs vary across match types, with exact match typically having the lowest, we anticipate that (in the short-term at least) exact match CPCs will be on the rise. 

As Google continues to close the gap between match types and push us in the direction of a more universal and simplified approach to keyword management, we believe it’s possible that match types may eventually go away all together. As algorithms become exponentially smarter and adoption of digital assistants contributes to more voice search, we will have ever-greater clarity on the intent of the search query. This means that in the not-too-distant future we may no longer need those exhaustive lists of keywords that require a match type.