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Our view on the retirement of PPC ‘exact match’

A couple of months ago, Google (very quietly) announced a pretty significant change to the role of keywords in paid search. I don’t think it’s overstating it to say that this little update heralds a new dawn for PPC. But before I get into justifying that statement, what’s actually changed?

I will explain through this example. The (crude) definition of exact match in PPC is that an advertiser will be eligible to show a PPC ad if the search query (what the user types into Google) exactly matches a keyword in their PPC account. So, if you have the keyword [vintage t-shirts] in your account, your ad will be eligible to show if this is exactly what’s typed into Google without getting too bogged down in the nuances of close variants and broad match (BMM).

The above example is no longer the case and fundamentally Google have much more control over whether they show your ad or not based on whether they decide whether or not what is searched for shares the same meaning as a keyword you have in your account based on their understanding of the intent of the search.

Carrying this example through then to crystallise the implications. You have the keyword [vintage t-shirts] in your account, the user searches for “cheap vintage t-shirts”. Would Google show your ad? Will they know enough about the intent of the search to accurately determine whether this is relevant. Would you want them to?

This sounds dramatic, and don’t get me wrong it is, but don’t underestimate Google’s machine learning capabilities and ability to do this. Also, in fairness I haven’t given many contexts around the controls we do still have around this. That comes below:                                                           

All Response Media viewpoint
What has been the initial impact?
Mostly, we haven’t seen any impact in overall performance on any of our managed accounts. We haven’t seen any instances of increased volume on any accounts (although that’s more aligned to our tactical use of BMM match types on 99% of accounts), we haven’t seen any impact on quality scores (was this adjusted in line with this update perhaps?).

We have however come across instances where Google has tried to place ads in irrelevant auctions for a couple of our advertisers, where they have incorrectly interpreted the intent of the search and attempted to put ads where we don’t want them showing. However, as per the below, it is something that we immediately corrected.

What has been our initial response?
It’s important to highlight at this point that we are still able to exert a fair amount of control here by essentially telling Google when not to enter us into auctions.  The subtlety being that control is now exerted through the day-to-day processes and less in the initial set up. This process is one of many we already adhered to as part of our rigorous PPC quality assurance (QA) process, albeit one we now have had to refine slightly and to do more frequently!

We have also been investigating solutions that automate some of this manual work with AdWords (and indeed Bing) scripts, the big consideration to highlight at this stage is that in testing these solutions, you have to be very careful not to throttle volume (i.e. we would still want to show an ad for a close misspelling). We love automation and anything that can help redistribute priority away from the ‘heavy lifting’ and into innovation, strategy and of course optimisation. But in this instance, we are starting to think that we probably shouldn’t overinvest in fighting against the tide on this.

Final thought
Yes, the update has removed some control and yes this requires a more rigorous QA process, but the writing has been on the wall for a long time now and for us it is a welcomed iteration of the channel.

All too often when we audit accounts, we see evidence of PPC practitioners focusing almost exclusively on building and refining keyword lists, naively believing that granularity = relevancy, and all too often do we find that performance (quality score) has been fundamentally compromised by this over-segmentation. Of course, best practice fundamentals must be observed but not at the expense of account nimbleness and not in lieu of an actual channel strategy.

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