Farewell ‘Pure’ Exact Match, AdWords Will Soon Require All Campaigns To Use Close Variants


Today Google has announced that in late September, AdWords advertisers will no longer have the ability to de-select close variants. All campaigns will now include these variants, something that advertisers could previously opt out of. The way close variants will work is completely the same as it has been since 2012.

So What Does This Mean?

If you are a paid advertiser that enjoys having full control of their campaigns — someone who bids differently based on plurality and likes knowing exactly where their ads are displayed – my sincere condolences. In late September that option for precision targeting will be removed.

Let’s start with what “close variants” are. The close variants is a nifty feature set forth by Google that allows matching to occur on misspellings and very close iterations to the keywords that exist within a campaign. It’s a great tool for those who are looking to save time, gather more coverage and reach, and for those who don’t want to miss important queries that may relate to the inputted keyword. Each campaign is defaulted to have this setting flipped on, but currently can be turned off at a campaign level on the campaign settings page.

Keyword-SettingsMost campaigns are likely set up like this already. Once those that aren’t are migrated, they’ll be casting a wider net with the terms, likely reeling in some new profitable terms. A real-life example of a close variant would be an advertiser with close variants turned on using both an exact match term of “baby clothes.” The ad would then show for additional terms that the advertiser may not have known about or planned for. For instance, they may show up for:

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

In today’s PPC  world flipping off the close variants on this exact match keyword would only allow ads to show for “baby clothes” and nothing else. While this larger net approach of close variants has upside, many savvy advertisers stray from this as you simply can’t guarantee what keyphrases you may spend your ad budget on. The difference between the initial keyword of “baby clothes” and “baby cloths” is only a few characters off, but the intent could be worlds apart. To extrapolate on close variant matching, here are some real-world examples of close variant matching on keywords that could occur whtn the budget is constrained or if their is an opportunity for a lower cost click:

  • [cardiology] => [cardio]
    Query: “cardio prevention program”
    Keyword: “cardiology”
  • [fire] => [firefighter]
    Query: “german fire helmet”
    Keyword: german firefighter helmet”
  •  [surgery] => [surgeon]
    Query: “cosmetic plastic surgery anaheim”
    Keyword: cosmetic plastic surgeon anaheim

Yes, many of these matches are close in spelling but they are also very different in meaning. Someone looking for “cardio” likely isn’t looking for a heart transplant doctor, or “cardiologist. Additionally, many products have a major difference in intent between the plural and non-plural version of a term. For example, someone searching for “Ferraris” may be looking for photos or other information than the searcher who uses the term “Ferrari”. Other folks that sell products in bulk may see more success with the plural iteration of the keywords. While the close variants give preference to the specific keyword (plural vs. non, etc) that matches exactly, there are exceptions – such as showing the term with the better AdRank and has a lower bid. In short, you can’t inherently control which plural term and ad will show up for with close variants (unless you specifically negative out terms in an ad group or campaign).


While the changes made by “close variants” don’t seem that major — removing the ability to opt-out of this strict targeting is a big change. Once all advertisers are merged into this close variant world in late September, a ‘pure’ version of exact match on Google AdWords will be extinct. You simply will never be able to instruct Google to spend on a specific term and on nothing else as close variants will be applied to all match types.

For those users who have strayed from close variants, you’ll want to keep a close eye on your accounts and will likely have more work cut out for you when the switch occurs. New tasks will include having to dig into keyword ‘details’ reports to view spending on variants, adding many more negative keywords and of course you will have to negative out those old ad groups and campaigns that are exact match only. If you want to bid differently on plural vs singular (and be sure you aren’t overlapping) you will need to make multiple ad groups with the opposite plurality negatived out.

The beauty of exact and phrase match (without close variants) was that users could guarantee that a searcher used a specific phrase that triggered an ad. In this new all-variant ecosystem, this won’t be the case.

The silver lining in all this? With voice an mobile search, you’ll likely catch those conversions that you hadn’t before. While you may think that you  have everything figured out and that your campaigns are optimal, this matching will force you into deeper dives that hopefully uncover profitable PPC pockets.

We talked with WordStream‘s Larry Kim who sees some efficiencies that may arise from this change. Mr. Kim stated that the change is a non-issue for the 97 percent of accounts that don’t employ this close variation match type stratification.  As for those other advertisers, he stated that it may well be a good change as they can stop chasing the lower inefficiencies that can be found in exact match types (usually they max out at low double digit gains) and focus on strategy. It’s the strategy that can drive the bigger gains according to Mr. Kim. He stated that “Landing page optimization can drive 3-5x gains, and the top ad copy can drive 6x gains, this change will free us up and allow us to focus on that — the strategy, instead of compiling excessive keyword lists”.  He also mentioned that with the recent Hummingbird update and a shift towards more object based advertising (think PLAs) that we are heading towards a ‘keywordless’ world, and this is a step in that direction. While Mr. Kim saw the silver linings that could arise from this, he did question why the ability to turn this off was being removed.

For more information see the official AdWords blog post and stay tuned for more coverage here on Search Engine Land.

Postscript: See our follow-up reaction story on Marketing Land: Search Marketers Tear Into Google Over AdWords Exact Match Change.

(Stock image via Shutterstock.com. Used under license.)

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