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New Google Close Variant Changes Spotted in the Wild

By Oren Netzer, April 3, 2017

By now, you probably all heard of the upcoming changes to close variants definitions. This has been widely covered, but if you’d like to read up on it, here’s a great summary by Daniel Gilbert of BrainLabs.

Overall there seems to be lots of confusion and angst among paid search marketers and agencies with these upcoming changes and their impact is still mostly unknown. Since Google is known to test most of their changes in the wild prior to announcing them or releasing them, we decided to look at some of the paid search data we collect to see if we can find some evidence that will help us better understand the upcoming changes. While most of our findings were in line with the information announced, some of our findings were surprising and somewhat troubling.

Ignoring, Replacing or Removing Function Words

One of the expected changes Google announced is that they may ignore, replace or remove one or more function words in the search query. We did in fact find some of these cases, below are some examples. All the examples demonstrate spelling correction and plural/singular close variants that Google had been doing for a while, but also include a function word ignored, replaced or removed, highlighted in red. These close variant matches seemed fairly reasonable to us as they didn’t really change the intent or meaning of the original keyword in the examples we had found.

Original exact match keyword Close variant search query matched
[travel insurance over 75 years old] travelinsurance for over 75 yrs old
[auto glass rice lake] Autoglass in rice lake
[take away bracknell] Takeaway in bracknell
[client vpn] Cliente de vpn
[manchester airport hotels with parking] Manchester airport hotel & parking

Ignoring Geo-Location Words and Brand/Site Names

Now we get into the interesting stuff. One unannounced feature we spotted was ignoring location words and brand/site names in close variant matching. Consider the below search queries that were matched to the exact match keywords. The original exact match keywords did not contain a geo-modifier or a site name, and were matched with search queries that contained a geo-modifier or a brand/site name.

In Google’s announcement of the change, they said: “Function words are the only words that will be ignored”. We are not quite sure if what we are seeing is related to the new close variant change that Google announced or perhaps another change that Google is testing. This may very well be a feature that Google tested but decided not to roll out as part of the new close variant matching or perhaps planning to release it in the future. However, this provides an interesting insight into other changes Google hasn’t announced yet but may be considering. And one thing is for sure – ignoring these words can certainly alter the meaning or intent of the keyword and the matching query.

Original exact match keyword Close variant search query matched
[pay as you go sim card] pay as you go simcard uk
[proxy servers] proxy server slovakia
[bank] bank nj
[vpn servers] vpn server srbija
[family tree] myfamilytree org
[free genealogy search] www freegenealogysearch com
[houses for sale] housesforsale com

Other Words being Ignored

We did notice additional words that Google was ignoring in their close variant matching. We did not find a common denominator that will describe all these keywords, so we called them “other words”. Despite their unthreatening name, these words have the biggest potential to change the intent of the original keyword and matching query. Once again, we aren’t sure if this is some other test that Google is conducting or a change they considered but are not rolling out as part of this close variant change. One thing is clear – including these types of words in close variant matching further dilutes Exact match, leaving very little difference, if at all, between Exact match and Broad Match Modified.

Original exact match keyword Close variant search query matched
[band saw] bandsaw parts
[band saw] bandsaw woodworking
[best vpns] best vpn service
[foot switch] footswitch pedal
[fourways fish bar] fourways fishbar menu
[free virtual private network] free virtual private networks software
[free vpn servers] free vpn server list
[free vpns for pc] free vpn service for pc
[free vpns] free vpn sites
[kx 125] kawasaki kx125
[loans uk for bad credit] loan websites uk for bad credit
[papa johns] papajohns pizza
[proxy servers] proxy server sites
[sim card uk] simcard prepaid uk
[steak house] steakhouse restaurant
[top 5 vpns] top 5 vpn services
[truck cap] truck caps price
[uk sim cards] uk sim card comparison
[vita mix deals] vitamix blender deals
[vpn servers] vpn server list

Change in Word Order

As part of the changes that Google announced, they also announced that they may match a query to an exact keyword if the word order is slightly different. Interestingly, we couldn’t find any examples of this in the data we analyzed. We are not quite sure what the reason is – perhaps Google was testing this at a different timeframe, or maybe in data domains that were not included in our analysis.

Adapting to these Changes

Overall, changing the definition of Exact match to “sort of” match is concerning. After all, if you wanted sort of, you could have used other available match types. If you chose to use Exact match, you probably wanted it to match exactly.

Some of the evidence we found implies that this change may be more inclusive than announced, or perhaps some further changes are planned down the road that will further dilute the meaning of Exact match.

To avoid all these new close variants matches, you would need to add negatives to your account. There are some good recommendations out there on how to do this manually, but in general there are a couple of ways to do this:

  • Reactive – wait for the close variant change to happen, go through your search query performance report and add the new close variants captured as negatives to your account
  • Proactive – try to predict ahead of time which new queries Google will match to your Exact match, and add them as negatives to your account ahead of time

While both approaches have their pros and cons, they both require a significant amount of time and resources spent by the paid search team. At cClearly, we will soon be releasing a solution that will help you proactively predict the effect of the upcoming changes on your campaigns and address them with great accuracy and in an automated way, so that you can continue focusing on the day to day management of the search account, leaving the management of negative terms to cClearly.

To be notified about the upcoming close variant product release, please enter your contact information on our contact page.

What have you seen in your Search Query Performance Reports? Have you found similar examples? Other examples? We’d love to hear from you – please use the comments section below.

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