Close Variant Match Type: Time to Benchmark is Now!

close-variant-match-typeWith the recent announcement that at the end of September Google will remove the ability for search marketers to opt out of close variant matching for exact and phrase keywords, there is less than a month away to benchmark the impact of this change before it is gone for good.

When Google first implemented the close variant match type feature in 2012, which enables search queries that contain plurals, abbreviations and misspellings to trigger exact match or phrase match ads, 80% of search advertisers began using it (granted, using it by default since they have to manually opt out to disable it).  As a result, the permanent move toward eliminating the close variant opt-out feature will only affect about a fifth of search marketers.

However, for the 20% who are currently opted out of it, there are clearly reasons why.  It is likely that this group contains the more sophisticated search marketers who rely on every tool at their disposal to optimize search campaigns.  When it comes to exact match, in particular, moving high volume keywords to this match type has always been a core tactic to bring ROI in line.  For advertisers who are currently struggling to get non-brand text ads to work, taking away any optimization tactic that impairs their ability to do so means losing an element of control. This is similar to when enhanced campaigns was rolled out and marketers lost the ability to target tablets separately from desktops.  While this change to close variant matching is not as significant, the premise is similar in that another optimization lever will shortly be gone.  Another similarity of the close variant change to enhanced campaigns is actually a benefit in terms of streamlining the workload.  Enhanced campaigns eliminated the need to triplicate search campaigns to target all devices separately, and with close variant matching, the size of the keyword list can now be reduced since plurals, misspellings, etc. are no longer needed. Time previously spent building out keyword lists can now be put toward other optimizations which will likely have more of an impact on performance, anyway, such as landing page testing, copy testing, sitelinks at the adgroup level, building out negatives, etc.

Google estimates that there will be a 7% increase in traffic with close variant matching vs. that which advertisers are seeing now in their exact and phrase match campaigns.  Lifts in traffic are good, of course, provided the traffic converts.  Search marketers need to be mindful of this, especially as it relates to holiday planning, and with a solid month to go in order to understand the impact on performance before this feature becomes permanent, the time to start benchmarking is now.   If an advertiser has an open budget for holiday and is currently running a lot of exact and phrase match terms, a 7% increase in traffic may be fine to absorb.  However, for those advertisers with capped budgets for holiday, the investment needed for a 7% increase in paid traffic may be better spent elsewhere if it is proven that conversion falls off.  A key thing to look out for while benchmarking includes watching the budgeting by match type: volume will surely go up for exact and phrase match terms.   CPCs will likely go up slightly and conversion may dip.  Search query reports will reveal which were close variant matched vs. matched for exact and phrase, which is an opportunity to add negatives, where needed.

Since Google will continue to serve a keyword in current exact match form if it is a dead on match to the search term queried, all the current exact match terms in a keyword portfolio should help keep cpcs in line.  It is the new variations that will begin to trigger exact and phrase match terms to show which will definitely lift spend and probably cpcs in the current configuration of exact match and phrase match campaigns.

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