Andy Taylor – Search Engine Land News On Search Engines, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) & Search Engine Marketing (SEM) Tue, 08 Oct 2019 17:21:27 +0000 en-US hourly 1 With loss of Yahoo and image search, Google Shopping search partner traffic nosedives /with-loss-of-yahoo-and-image-search-google-shopping-search-partner-traffic-nosedives-323121 Tue, 08 Oct 2019 17:21:18 +0000 /?p=323121 While it is a small fraction of Shopping traffic, the partner network can help advertisers currently excluding this traffic to grow moving forward, particularly in a competitive Q4 holiday season.

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Click traffic from the Google search partner network took two major blows in early 2019. The first was Yahoo’s move to begin showing only Microsoft Ads-powered sponsored listings following a more than three-year stint in which some of Yahoo’s listings were powered by Google. The second was Google’s update to bring ads featured in image search out from the partner network and into the core Google Search Network.

Here we evaluate a sample of long-standing Tinuiti (my employer) advertisers to assess the effects of these changes to the share of Google Shopping traffic coming from search partners, the relative value and cost of that traffic, and what it all means for advertisers.

Search partner click share falls dramatically across device types

As you can see from the chart below, search partner traffic once accounted for a significant share of Google Shopping clicks, and in August 2017 was at 16% for desktop. In August 2019, that figure was just 3%, with share on tablets and phones at 2% and 1%, respectively.

The timing of the dip seems a bit delayed from what we might have expected given the details of the two announcements ostensibly driving this trend.

In the case of Yahoo, it announced in January that it would only serve Microsoft Ads, but the change was said to have rolled out through March. For image search, Google announced that it would be integrated into the core Search Network in late March. As such, April would have presumably been when much of the decrease occurred.

However, our numbers show that traffic share really took the biggest month-to-month dip from June to July. It’s not entirely clear why there seems to have been a delay, but the decline is certainly what we expected in light of these two changes, and it’s possible Google’s change to image search took longer than expected to roll out. There may have also been other less publicized updates to the partner network affecting these trends.

Some advertisers choose not to allow Shopping ads to show on the search partner network, owing to the lack of controls available in terms of bidding and where ads are shown. However, our research shows that the Google Search Partner Network is usually an efficient way to extend the reach of Shopping campaigns.

Search partner clicks convert at a lower rate than core search, but cost less too

Looking at the conversion rate of search partner traffic relative to core search, partners clearly convert at a significantly lower rate.

In July and August, search partner conversion rate improved relative to core search across device types. This makes sense if the image search change really did take a few months to roll out, since the transition of image search clicks from the partner network to core search would likely put downward pressure on core search conversion rate.

Regardless, the disparity in conversion rate might be enough to send some advertisers running to Shopping campaign settings to shut down the partner network. However, looking at relative CPC, search partner traffic also consistently tracks well below core search in the price paid for clicks as well.

All told, the median advertiser saw no difference in the cost per conversion of search partners versus core search network in August 2019. As such, opting Shopping campaigns into the partner network garners incremental traffic without harming ROI for many advertisers.


These updates meaningfully reduced the importance of the partner network to Google Shopping campaigns, and it seems unlikely that we should ever expect partner click share to regain its former heights. There just aren’t many properties out there for Google to partner with that can produce the kind of click volume that Yahoo and Google image search provide.

Still, it remains the case that the partner network is typically a worthwhile investment for retailers looking to maximize the reach of their Google Shopping campaigns. While it may only be a small fraction of Shopping traffic, it can certainly help advertisers that are currently excluding this traffic to grow moving forward. Particularly in the competitive Q4 holiday season, it would be a shame for brands to leave this opportunity on the table.

Of course, Google didn’t actually lose image search ad traffic, and those impressions and clicks are now just a part of its core Search Network. Advertisers that were already targeting the Search Partner Network shouldn’t have seen much of a change to overall Shopping traffic as a result of this update specifically, though the change may have forced competitors that were formerly excluding partners into competing for these image search placements.

Yahoo’s move did give Microsoft Ads traffic a boost, and while Google will likely continue to account for the vast majority of paid search traffic in the U.S., Microsoft Ads is still a crucial part of reaching searchers who might not turn to Google with their queries.

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Search query reports show a huge increase in Google close variant traffic /search-query-reports-show-a-huge-increase-in-google-close-variant-traffic-322047 Tue, 17 Sep 2019 12:00:55 +0000 /?p=322047 Here's a look at research based on the past year and how advertisers should think about close variants moving forward.

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Google made its most sweeping change to the definition of close variants ever late last year when it announced that queries would now be considered exact match close variants if they were deemed by Google to have the same meaning as the keyword being bid on. While limitations in the past put hard constraints on the types of words that could constitute close variants, this change made it so that a query with any manner of relationship to the keyword could match in this way, so long as Google’s ad serving technology deemed it to have the same meaning.

As such, many marketers were rightfully concerned about potential harmful effects that this could have on performance. Here we dive into how close variant traffic has trended since the update was fully rolled out to English keywords last October, and how advertisers should think about it moving forward with a fresh close variant update now taking hold.

Close variants skyrocketed for both brand and non-brand keywords

Looking at the median share of exact match non-brand traffic coming from close variants in Google search query reports for a sample of long-standing Tinuiti (my employer) advertisers, close variant share clearly took off in Q4 of last year and has remained elevated ever since. Close variant click share went from 26% in Q3 2018 to 35% so far in Q3 2019.

This share is based on the match type assignment available in Google search query reports, which is populated based on the relationship of the query to the keyword triggered, rather than the match type a keyword is set to. As such, it gives a sense for how more traffic an advertiser with keywords set only to exact match might expect from close variants than if exact match were restricted to true exact matches.

The trend looks similar for brand keywords, where close variant share of exact match clicks went from 5% last Q3 to 8% this year.

The concern for marketers is that these close variants might not carry the same intent as true exact match queries, affecting their value and how much advertisers are willing to spend for the traffic. Looking at the relative conversion rate of close variants, such concern isn’t without merit.

Non-brand close variant conversion rate typically 10%-15% lower than true exact matches

For the median advertiser, close variant conversion rate is regularly at least 10% lower than that of true exact match for non-brand keywords. The additional close variant matches unleashed with the Google change last October do not appear to be meaningfully worse in terms of conversion rate relative to true exact match than previous close variant matches were, given relative conversion rate has been relatively steady since the update.

However, this comparison is heavily impacted by the efforts of our account managers, who are regularly weeding out any poor-performing queries through keyword negatives to reduce any negative effects of close variants on account performance. These efforts also slow the growth of close variant click share.

In Q3 2019, non-brand close variants are converting at a rate 13% lower than true exact matches for the median advertiser studied, but median non-brand close variant cost per click is 2% higher than that of true exact match. Naturally advertisers would like to bring the cost of close variant traffic in line with the relative value of that traffic, but Google’s changes have made it more difficult for advertisers to ensure the best possible bid is being placed for the queries now bundled into close variants.

Fortunately, brand close variant conversion rate is identical to true exact match conversion rate on average for the median advertiser over the last three years. This indicates that Google is usually very good at identifying close variants that do carry the same intent as brand searches.

However, that’s not the case for every advertiser. Brand close variants averaged a conversion rate 33% lower than that of true exact matches in the worst-case example of the advertisers studied, and some brand names are more susceptible to inappropriate matches through close variants.

Knowing this, someone might want to get Jason Fried to sit down before he checks Basecamp’s brand search query reports given the types of close variants I imagine might get pulled in to match for a term like ‘basecamp.’


Close variant performance can vary by advertiser, campaign, keyword and specific close variant match. While most advertisers see these matches convert at meaningfully lower rates than true exact matches for non-brand keywords, some actually see higher conversion rate from close variants looking at this comparison account-wide. However, there’s likely no account where close variants are so relevant and tightly related to all the keywords being triggered that advertisers should simply allow them to take their course.

As such, advertisers must continue to regularly evaluate search query reports to find close variants that should be weeded out via keyword negatives to minimize wasted spend from any inappropriate matches. Google reiterated as much in their most recent announcement that same-meaning close variants will now be applied to phrase match and broad match modifier keywords.

Taking a look at the share of phrase match traffic attributed to close variants, the share is already quite high compared to exact match, but had been trending lower over time.

It’s unclear to what extent the most recent change has been rolled out given Google’s stated timeline in its July announcement of “in the coming weeks,” but it’s likely we’ll see an uptick in phrase match close variant share in the quarter to come. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on it as we head into the holiday season given how significant the increase in close variants was in the last Q4.

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Be smart, advertisers. Here’s how to approach rising Google brand CPC /be-smart-advertisers-heres-how-to-approach-rising-google-brand-cpc-317241 Mon, 20 May 2019 16:50:02 +0000 /?p=317241 While we are at the mercy of Google’s auction systems in determining CPC, we can install safeguards to ensure increases are controlled.

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Branded keywords, or keywords that include the name of the advertiser bidding on those keywords, have long been a source of controversy in the paid search industry. For years, many paid search managers grouped these keywords into reports that reflected total account performance.

This tends to overinflate the value of paid search campaigns since most brand queries are navigational and reflect a user that is already intent on buying from the brand searched for. As such, brand conversion rate is typically significantly higher than that of non-brand traffic and high brand return on ad spend (ROAS) can cover up underperforming non-brand campaigns.

These days, most advertisers are hip to the fact that they should be looking at brand and non-brand performance separately. However, there have been a lot of changes over time that might impact an advertiser’s brand keyword strategy, starting with a significant increase in the price of these keywords over the years.

The price of brand keywords ain’t what it used to be

Google has long given advertisers an advantage over competitors in bidding on their brand terms by way of quality score, which is generally very high for an advertiser bidding on its own terms and lower for competitors trying to show ads on those terms. This makes a lot of sense in terms of providing users with a quality experience since the query indicates that the user is probably most interested in going to the website for that particular brand and that Google should prioritize the brand’s listing as opposed to a competitor.

This quality score advantage plays a direct role in the price advertisers pay for brand keywords and has long suppressed average cost-per-click below what many advertisers might be willing to pay for brand traffic. However, that gap is becoming smaller over time.

Evaluating Merkle (my employer) advertiser data, average brand CPC rose more than 20% between Q4 2017 and Q3 2018 before final slowing over the last couple of quarters.

Google’s response to the increases that specific advertisers see typically references competitive forces encroaching on these auctions. That may well be true, but Google itself is responsible for the extent to which competitors can drive up brand CPC.

This goes back to the quality score advantage most advertisers have over competitors for their brand terms. Changes to advertisers’ relative quality score impact the ad ranks of those brands, which directly affects the CPC an advertiser must pay.

For example, say Google started giving competitors even worse quality scores for an advertiser’s brand keywords. If the advertiser were paying just enough to beat the ad rank of the closest competitor, this change should result in lower brand CPC, since competitors’ ad ranks would go down with worse quality score.

The opposite can certainly also happen, with Google giving competitors greater quality scores relative to an advertiser bidding on its brand terms. This would naturally increase an advertiser’s CPC.

Of course, Google’s response to unpalatable CPC increases is to call out the fact that advertisers have control over how much they pay for branded traffic.

Don’t like brand CPC? Just lower the bid of course!

Google is well within its rights to charge as much as it wants for brand clicks as long as advertisers are paying less than the max CPC assigned to those keywords. As such, shrinking the gap between the price paid for a keyword and the max CPC bid is one method of keeping CPC increases in a palatable range.

Advertisers that have already seen brand CPC go up significantly often combat the increase by testing out lower bids in a step-down approach to figure out how much traffic is lost at different levels. This can be useful in determining a bid that keeps the advertiser visible for as many brand searches as possible but also limits exposure to increases in CPC by reducing the gap between the bid and the average CPC.

However, the auction can change at any time with updates, either by competitors or Google, that throws a wrench into the conclusions reached from past test results, and a bid that gets an advertiser the vast majority of brand traffic today might not cut it tomorrow. Sometimes such increases can spawn from mistakes on Google’s end, but the search giant has become far less forgiving over time in making sure advertisers feel whole from such events.

Don’t ask for a refund

Back in 2016, brand CPC briefly spiked on phones before coming back down after an article of mine exposed the issue.

The increase was the result of an unintentional issue on Google’s end, and affected advertisers received a credit for the overspend from Google.

Fast-forward to 2019, and we recently saw a similar spike in brand CPC for some advertisers, attributed by Google to what it described as a ‘bug.’ CPC soon returned to normal, but there were no credits given out this go around, even for advertisers that saw dramatic increases in ad spend from the issue. Where keeping good relations with advertisers may have once led to a goodwill gesture to make good, Google now seems to favor the argument that as long as average CPC is below max CPC, spikes in spend are on the advertiser.

This transition in attitude only makes it more important for advertisers to control the gap between average CPC and bids to ensure there’s only so much wiggle room for a similar bug to ramp up costs since Google clearly won’t be saving anyone from itself. Setting logical budgets to cap brand spend based on campaign history and creating systems for intraday checks can also go a long way towards limiting the potential damage from surges in CPC.

I think it’s particularly true that advertisers need to be protective in these ways in light of Google’s recent decision to sunset average position.

Don’t let new metrics drive you to bid too much

Google announced in February that it would be eliminating the average position metric come this September. Instead of average position, it recommends that advertisers rely on impression and click share metrics in assessing how competitive a particular ad is in relevant auctions.

The announcement highlighted that average position is often a messy metric to use when assessing where an ad is falling on the page. However, as with most updates, it stands to reason that there might be some upside to Google in transitioning advertisers away from average position and towards metrics like absolute top impression share. This is particularly true for brand keywords, which are often judged based primarily on how well they take up the top possible placement in search results.

For example, some advertisers see a perfect average position of 1.0 for brand keywords but an absolute top impression share of just 75%. Once these brands no longer have average position to fly by, it’s possible that they’ll turn to bidding based on achieving as high an absolute top impression share as possible. Given 75% might not seem good enough, it’s quite possible this will lead to increased bids, which would, in turn, give Google more wiggle room in charging higher average CPC.

Knowing this, it might make sense for advertisers to assess brand traffic growth over time and make bid adjustments based on that. We find that Merkle advertisers typically see Y/Y click growth around 5%.

However, brand traffic growth is hugely dependent on efforts outside of paid search, such as print and television advertising. As such, it’s necessary to adjust expectations based on such efforts as well other big-picture factors such as shifts in overall market share and consumer demand for the specific offerings of an advertiser. This gets messy quickly but is at least one alternative data point to reference in assessing whether bids should get ramped up to maximize absolute top impression share.

Of course, none of this takes into account the role of organic listings in brand search.

Can I just not pay for brand listings? Maybe!

After years of debate, the answer to whether a brand can forego bidding on brand keywords altogether and still receive all the traffic from branded queries remains the same: it depends on the brand.

If the brand is big enough and the competition sparse enough that all or nearly all brand searchers end up making their way to the brand’s website without a paid ad, it should certainly consider turning off brand ads to save the money. However, most brands do see a dip in traffic and orders when turning off brand ads, and the only way to measure just how significant that dip might be is through testing – though again, changes to the SERP can render any past tests useless at a moment’s notice.

Advertisers’ appetite for bidding on brand keywords despite higher CPCs isn’t infinite, and there is a point at which brands should call it quits despite the potential for lost clicks and sales, though Google certainly doesn’t want to reach that point. While paid search marketers are somewhat at the mercy of Google’s auction systems in determining CPC, they can still take proactive steps to learn as much as possible about the incremental lift coming from brand ads and install safeguards to ensure increases in CPC are controlled.

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What the numbers tell us about the current voice search opportunity /what-the-numbers-tell-us-about-the-current-voice-search-opportunity-314810 Mon, 01 Apr 2019 18:19:32 +0000 /?p=314810 Since we can't segment voice from typed interactions in performance reports easily, it's helpful optimization for voice search overlaps with traditional search.

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Despite the rapid growth of voice and virtual assistant adoption, platforms like Google and Amazon have yet to provide businesses with the ability to segment voice interactions from typed interactions in performance reports. This makes it difficult to fully assess the role of voice search and virtual assistants at present, but there are some signals we can use to examine any changes in user behavior and the directional growth of voice interactions.

Since the early goings of voice search, a common belief has been that it would change the language used to interact with devices as searches would become more conversational. In reality, we’ve seen little change in the queries driving paid and organic impressions in many regards. Further, many recent reports indicate the commercial opportunity of voice interactions is still modest at present.

Queries haven’t changed much by some standards related to voice

In 2016  Microsoft research showed queries inputted by voice were typically longer than those inputted by text in terms of word count. As voice search grows, such research would indicate that the average length of queries would also grow.

However, looking at both the word count and character count of the queries triggering paid and organic Google results (using the paid and organic report) for longstanding Merkle advertisers predominantly in retail, we find little change over the last couple of years. This indicates that if voice interactions are growing in the share of paid and organic results they produce, these queries aren’t different enough in length from typed searches to impact average query length.

In support of this notion, Google data presented to agencies points to only small differences in query length between typed and spoken search.

The same article from Microsoft mentioned that searchers are more likely to include question words when using voice. However, looking at the share of queries triggering Google paid and organic results that include a question word, we’ve seen little change to indicate that voice search is increasing the number of queries framed as a question.

And yet, voice interactions are certainly growing, as myriad sources release data points on increased adoption (even if some of those data points are less than reliable). How can it be that the queries driving paid and organic search impressions aren’t changing in concert?

As mentioned, there may be so little difference in voice search compared to typed search in these regards that even if voice were to grow to account for most queries, we still wouldn’t see much movement in query length and question words. These differences could also change over time, given the early stage of voice interactions we find ourselves in, so that there aren’t consistent query attributes that are more likely to be voice search.

Additionally, the types of “searches” happening may not be very relevant for many types of businesses.

‘Voice’ is growing, ‘voice commerce’ less so

The term voice search is currently wielded very broadly, often used to indicate wide-ranging actions for everything from telling a device to call mom to plug in an address to navigational apps. Many of these actions that might be bundled as part of voice search would be more appropriately categorized as voice commands, in which the user isn’t searching for any information, service or product, but rather telling a device to do something.

As such, many data points on the growth of voice search reflect some interactions that wouldn’t be considered a search if they were completed by manual input using a keyboard or mouse. However, surveys are becoming more pointed in asking what types of queries voice searchers are using to assess better the commercial opportunity, which appears modest at present.

For example, a May 2018 shopper survey from RichRelevance showed that 70% of U.S. consumers have never used a voice assistant to search for a product, let alone purchase a product in this way

The Smart Audio Report from NPR and Edison showed that 16% of surveyed adults owned voice-activated smart speakers by the end of 2017, and that of those that did only 22% had purchased a new item using a speaker. This means that only about 4% of all those surveyed had purchased anything at all by smart speaker. This lines up with what internal Amazon sources told The Information in August 2018, pegging the share of Alexa users that have ordered something by voice at 2%.

Even estimates portrayed as bullish, such as OC&C Strategy Consultants prediction that voice shopping would grow to more than $40B by 2022, paint voice search as only a small slice of the total e-commerce pie. With $517B in e-commerce occurring in the U.S. alone in 2018, this prediction indicates that voice shopping is likely to account for less than 5% of e-commerce between the US and UK in 2022 given expected e-commerce growth rates.

Naturally, some product and service categories are more likely to be purchased by voice than others, so the opportunity is likely to be greater for some types of businesses than the estimated overall e-commerce share. However, even in the case of industries which might see a majority of purchases happening by voice shortly, it’s not clear at present that there are strategies specific to voice that brands should adopt to take advantage. Rather, it seems the best practices for voice search mostly overlap with existing best practices for search in general.

Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose

At this point optimizing for voice search looks a lot like lot optimizing for search in general. Marketers should be aware of what queries are growing in volume and cater to advertising and content strategies around that knowledge.

While the call-and-response nature of voice interactions has made it even more advantageous to be the number one organic result and Quick Answer, the advantage of such positioning extends beyond voice search. Optimizations made to get featured in prime locations for important queries are certainly valuable for voice, but don’t let voice search be the only determining factor in prioritizing such efforts.

That could certainly change quickly as Amazon and Google make potential updates to how results are served for these types of interactions, and certainly Google’s speakable schema markup is a step towards voice-specific optimizations. For now, however, the voice search opportunity appears modest and isn’t altogether unique in terms of how most marketers should approach it from an optimization standpoint.

With no clear reporting available, perhaps the biggest challenge regarding voice at present is quantifying the opportunity, and hyperbolic statistics showing incredible growth do little to show relative size vs. traditional search. In this sense, it’s good that optimization for voice search overlaps with that of traditional search since marketers have little to fly by in isolating for voice.

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Death of the keyword: What it is (and is not) for retail /death-of-the-keyword-what-it-is-and-is-not-for-retail-312012 Wed, 13 Feb 2019 13:00:27 +0000 /?p=312012 Are keywords dead, or slowly dying? Columnist Andy Taylor believes that's up to Google as it controls keeping keyword negatives strumming.

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It’s becoming a common refrain within the paid search industry to cry out, whether by blog post or tweet or conference presentation, that the keyword is dead! Buried! Six feet under in a memory box full of the paid search tools we used to have.

In truth, the importance of traditional text ad keywords is diminishing over time, particularly in retail. However, the death of the keyword has been put in terms that, for lack of a better description, I just don’t like, and I’m here to put them in terms that I do. Come listen for a while.

Strumming my pain with its fingers – The rise of Google Shopping

Retail advertisers should be well aware of the importance of Google Shopping by now, but here are some fresh stats to show just how important.

In Q4, Google Shopping spend grew 42 percent Y/Y according to Merkle (my employer) data, driven primarily by a significant rebound in click growth, particularly on phones.

As you can see from the chart above, text ad spend growth fell over the same time for the retail-heavy client set and digging deeper into the data it sure seems like Google is prioritizing the placement of Shopping ads over text ads.

On phones, Google Shopping Impression Y/Y growth accelerated from 59 percent in Q3 to 116 percent in Q4, as click growth went from 28 percent to 47 percent. Non-brand phone text ad impressions went from 26 percent growth in Q3 to 31 percent decline in Q4, as clicks fell 23 percent Y/Y in the final quarter.

For many retailers, text ads are now a small and diminishing part of paid search management as more time and resources are committed to Google Shopping. With Google Shopping based on product targeting as opposed to keywords, this has significantly reduced the importance of keywords for many retail advertisers.

Additionally, the smaller share of spend now attributed to keywords has increasingly led to growth in the use of Dynamic Search Ads.

Singing my life with its words – Dynamic Search Ads continue to grow as a keyword management tool

Introduced way back in 2011, Dynamic Search Ads (DSA) allow Google to determine which queries are relevant to pages on an advertisers website using Google’s organic web crawler. While Google initially launched DSAs as a way for advertisers to uncover any holes that might exist in keyword coverage, over the last few years Google has transitioned to advising advertisers to let any queries that DSAs pick up to just keep running through these keywordless campaigns.

I’ve made the case in the past that Google’s selling points for letting DSAs run with any queries they pick up aren’t that strong, and it remains the case that any query getting meaningful traffic through DSAs should probably be broken out as a keyword.

However, the steadily diminishing traffic share of text ads for many retailers has made keyword management less important relative to Google Shopping over the years. With more resources being poured into ensuring that Shopping campaigns are fully optimized, DSAs are becoming an increasingly important part of staying visible for new queries with text ads.

In Q4 2018, the median Merkle retail advertiser using DSAs since at least mid-2016 saw 20 percent of all non-brand text ad clicks produced by DSAs. That share can be even higher for advertisers with huge and ever-expanding product selections which make keeping keyword lists up to date a never-ending game of whack-a-mole.

With such a significant share of text ad traffic now heading to keywordless campaigns, the pulse of true keywords slows ever more, especially when taken together with the evolving nature of keyword match types.

Telling my whole life – Close Variants continue to expand the potential reach of existing keywords

With Google’s most recent update to the definition of queries that constitute exact match close variants, it opened up exact match keywords to traffic from queries with implied keywords, paraphrasing, as well as any query Google itself deemed to have the same meaning. While contests have been held to assign one best name for what exact match constitutes under the current definition, I think it can best be described as Vibe Match.

Taking a look at the share of exact match traffic coming from close variants for Merkle advertisers, we haven’t seen much movement since the October roll out of the change to U.S. search queries. That’s not to say new close variant queries aren’t impacting any keywords, but just that most advertisers don’t see monumental shifts in the number of clicks coming from close variants at this point.

Advertisers can still control which queries are targeted with keywords via keyword negatives, which is likely also playing a role in why our numbers don’t reflect much of a shift since analysts regularly update negatives for new queries. However, the definition of exact match is now so expansive that even the fairly high limit of 10,000 negative keywords per campaign might not be enough to fully control traffic.

If advertisers can’t feel confident that a keyword will trigger terms that the advertiser deems related to that keyword, it’s probably fair to say that part of the keyword has died. But if you love something, set it free, ya know?

Killing me softly with its song – Local searches primed to operate without keywords

A recurring theme coming from Google over the past couple of years has been the explosive growth of queries with local intent. One way that Google has served ads for such queries is by way of location extensions added to traditional keyword campaigns, which have been used since 2016 to trigger ads not only on Google searches but also on Maps searches.

While Google doesn’t provide easy segmentation of Maps searches versus traditional searches on, the “Get location details” click type comes from Maps and has been growing over time.

These clicks are coming from keyword-based text ad campaigns for many brands, but several developments stand to reduce the role of keyword targeting for local ads in the future.

For smaller businesses, the Smart Campaigns announced in mid-2018 use Google My Business information to craft ads for relevant searches in relevant geographies and do not rely on keywords. Local Services ads, which are aimed at businesses in a handful of service industries, are also keywordless and have steadily expanded to more geographies. And for advertisers which neither Smart Campaigns or Local Services ads are applicable, Google announced Local Campaigns last July aimed at providing yet another keywordless campaign option for reaching local searchers across Google properties.

The steady growth of local queries might have resulted in the increased importance of keywords over time, but with these developments, Google has signaled that the future of local search is unlikely to rely on traditional keyword campaigns.


Is the keyword dead for retail advertisers? At this point, I feel like a more accurate depiction would be that the keyword is dying rather than dead.

Dying because Google Shopping is soaking up more ad clicks than ever before, and DSAs are soaking up more and more of the remaining text ad traffic. Dying because the definition of keyword match types keeps expanding to the point that keywords don’t act the way advertisers think they should. Dying because Google seems set to point quickly growing local searches to keywordless campaign types.

Queries still matter and using keyword negatives to control the types of searches driving traffic from Google Shopping, DSAs, Close Variants and locally-focused campaign types will be an important part of campaign management moving forward. That is, at least as long as Google keeps keyword negatives alive.

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Google Shopping is largest growth opportunity for most online retailers in 2019 /google-shopping-is-largest-growth-opportunity-for-most-online-retailers-in-2019-309913 Wed, 02 Jan 2019 13:06:22 +0000 /?p=309913 Brands need to invest resources into feed management and utilize format variations to ensure they appear in as many relevant queries as possible.

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I’ve made the argument for the importance of Google Shopping many  times  now, but it still doesn’t feel like reality has truly set in for many retail paid search advertisers. Put simply, Shopping is the single most important aspect of paid search management for most online retailers today, and that’s only continued to become truer in the final weeks of the year heading into 2019.

Here are my thoughts on recent trends and how things stand to shake out over the next few quarters.

Q4 indicates Google’s runway for Shopping growth is far from over

As digital ad platforms mature, it’s expected that click growth will eventually wane as user growth slows and ads become fully optimized. This is also true of ad formats within a platform.

In the case of Google Shopping, Merkle (my employer) data from Q4 2017 to Q3 2018 seemed to indicate that Google was finally starting to run out of ways to increase the amount of Product Listing Ad (PLA) traffic. Average quarterly click growth was down to 18 percent, compared to average click growth of 38 percent from Q4 2016 to Q3 2017.

Then came Q4….

Through the first ten weeks of the quarter, Google Shopping clicks grew 34 percent Y/Y, a massive acceleration from Q3, as impressions skyrocketed. This was particularly true on phones, where impression growth went from 55 percent in Q3 to 111 percent in Q4.

It’s not entirely clear where all the new impressions are coming from but looking at the corresponding text ad trends it would seem they are at least partly coming at the expense of the older ad format. Non-brand text ad clicks decreased 26 percent Y/Y over the first ten weeks of the quarter, the largest decline ever observed for Merkle advertisers, with all device types registering record declines. As such, retailers should expect to continue to put more resources towards optimizing Shopping.

For all the talk of the “death of the keyword,” the query a user types in still matters, particularly in Google Shopping. Using keyword negatives and campaign priorities intelligently can help map Shopping traffic to the best product offerings with the most appropriate bids for the queries being searched, limiting wasted spend and maximizing return. This will continue to be the case in 2019.

It will also continue to become more important to take advantage of newer format variations such as Local Inventory Ads and Showcase Shopping Ads as Google diversifies its offerings to better meet the needs of users.

Newer Google Shopping formats continue to grow in importance

We’ve come a long way since Google initially launched Product Listing Ads to appear for product-specific searches more than nine years ago, and what began as a format aimed primarily at long tail queries has evolved to provide relevant, image-based ads for many different kinds of searches.

For example, Showcase Shopping Ads are aimed at targeting more general queries with listings that feature tile ads for specific retailers as opposed to specific products, allowing Google to feature Shopping ads even when a searcher’s query isn’t specific enough to know which specific products to show.

Participating Merkle advertisers have seen a steady increase in the share of Shopping traffic coming from these ads over the past year, and Google has even tested featuring a Showcase ad carousel below a traditional Google Shopping carousel on the same SERP.

showcase shopping ads chart

Local Inventory Ads are another Shopping variation that has grown steadily in traffic share over the past few quarters. These ads include information for when a product can be picked up at a local store and are aimed at queries that include local intent.

google ad line chart

Historically a challenge for many retailers to participate in due to the difficulty of maintaining local feed updates, Google recently announced new partnerships with point-of-sale inventory management providers to help local businesses that are unable to produce and manage local feeds.

Brick-and-mortar advertisers know that immediate, local product availability is one advantage they have over Amazon in a world where most purchases still happen offline, and Google is making it easier for these brands to push users to store locations via Local Inventory Ads. Advertisers with physical store locations that aren’t already involved should be exploring the possibility.

Speaking of Amazon…

Google will continue its goal of uniting retailers to compete with Amazon

It’s no secret that there’s a competition raging between Google and Amazon for the hearts and ad dollars of retailers. This is playing out on multiple fronts.

One such front is Google Express, widely seen as Google’s effort to compete directly with Amazon as a product marketplace. Google makes a commission from every sale, with rates varying according to product category, and participating stores are responsible for fulfilling orders.

While Google has long pumped Google Express ads into Shopping results via ‘house ads’ which featured Google Express as the seller on ad units, it fully transitioned in October 2018 to Shopping Actions transactional units attributed to the retailer fulfilling orders.

Reactions from participating Google Express retailers have been mixed. Reporting is currently limited and supplied directly from Google reps, while billing is fairly opaque in terms of breaking down the commissions owed for different product categories.

It’s difficult to assess how well these units are driving revenue for Google relative to traditional Google Shopping ads because of the limited reporting, but early numbers indicate it’s at the very least not a clear win for Google to show Shopping Actions instead of pay-per-click (PPC) ads. Recent performance reports also indicate that Shopping Actions are showing less frequently relative to PPC Shopping ads since just before “cyber weekend,” perhaps meaning Google is less inclined to showed Shopping Actions during the busy holiday season.

That could be for fear of missing out on revenue, or it could just be a result of which users Google shows Shopping Actions to and how much of the total search population they make up during the holidays versus other periods. Google has indicated they only show Shopping Actions in situations when a searcher seems likely to purchase from Google’s marketplace, and the best indicator of such a situation is probably whether a searcher has purchased from Google Express previously. As such, shifts in the share of searchers that are proven Google Express customers might be at least partially at play in holiday Shopping Actions performance so far.

How big the Google Express customer base gets will be the primary factor determining the upper bounds of how big Google’s marketplace and Shopping Actions can be. With Google only making money out of Shopping Actions clicks that lead to conversions, it needs to be sure the searchers shown these units will be likely to convert on Google Express. If it’s customer base growth stagnates, so too will Shopping Actions. This all bleeds into what participating retailers can/should expect from the platform moving forward.

If it takes off, I’d expect Google to significantly ramp up the presence of these ad units, as well as (hopefully) build on the currently limited reporting and management capabilities available. Participating retailers want the product to succeed but need more to work with if the selling points are intended to go beyond the potential for voice orders and FOMO because of competitors participating.

That said, Google is far from reliant on Google Express in continuing to court retailers competing with Amazon. As mentioned earlier, traditional Google Shopping Ads clicks are surging, and brands still see plenty of opportunity for growth from these ads. Why else would Amazon itself be investing in Shopping?


I don’t often like to make predictions, partly because I hate being wrong, and partly because no one ever gets credit for being right (still waiting for the masses to notice my way-ahead-of-the-curve Grinching of voice search back in 2016). But the people want vision!

In 2019, here’s mine: Shopping will continue to be the biggest Google paid search growth opportunity for most online retailers. As such, brands need to be investing time and resources into feed management and proven campaign optimization tactics like query mapping. Advertisers also need to be taking advantage of new Shopping format variations to ensure they appear for as many relevant queries as possible.

Over the coming year, we should also gain a greater understanding of Shopping Actions’ potential. If Google Express takes off (a BIG “if”), Shopping carousels could end up mostly made up of Shopping Actions sooner rather than later. Marketers should stay tuned in to how things are developing.

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Paid search trends to watch for the 2018 holiday shopping season /paid-search-trends-to-watch-for-the-2018-holiday-shopping-season-308441 Wed, 21 Nov 2018 12:30:22 +0000 /?p=308441 Shopping, local searches and audience optimizations are three of the biggest considerations to keep in mind.

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And here. We. Go…

With turkey carving set to commence on the morrow, the busy holiday shopping season is officially upon us (I’m a 40L for curious souls, love classic fabrics, timeless styles and cheese). As such, paid search marketers are gearing up for the next few weeks of data crunching, promotional scheduling and optimizations to make sure there’s more than coal awaiting them on Christmas Day.

By now you’ve hopefully got a solid strategy set and are ready to take advantage of the surge in online shoppers searching for gifts and gadgets aplenty. Still, here are a few key paid search trends to think about before the bird is out of the oven.

In retail, Google Shopping is king

I’ve written at length several times (here and here) throughout the years on the growing importance of Google Shopping for retail advertisers, but it just keeps getting bigger! In Q3, data from Merkle (my employer) showed Shopping accounting for 87 percent of all non-brand Google paid search clicks.

As such, retail advertisers must now focus a significant portion of their attention on these campaigns to get ready for the holiday season. Keeping close track of which products are driving traffic and orders and mining query reports for potential negatives and/or query-mapping optimizations is now an absolute must.

Advertisers should also be mindful of newer Shopping variations that are becoming increasingly prevalent in search results. For example, Showcase Shopping Ads have grown significantly over the last year, and went from accounting for just 1.6 percent of phone Shopping clicks for participating brands last Q4 to 5.1 percent in Q3 2018.

With Google increasingly choosing to show these units for more general searches, including in some layouts which show both Showcase ads and traditional Shopping units, having Showcase campaigns active and ready is more important than ever.

Another important variation of Google Shopping ads which stand to play a crucial role this holiday season are Local Inventory Ads (LIA), which give users information on when a product is available for pickup at a nearby store location. These units have also grown meaningfully in the share of Shopping traffic they account for over the past year for participating brands.

LIA trends can depend heavily on advertiser strategy during the holidays. Some retailers become significantly more aggressive with LIAs in order to push users in-store, while others maintain roughly the same strategy as pre-holiday. Still, many brands see LIA click share grow around Black Friday, as well as in the leadup to Christmas Day when users can no longer feel confident that items ordered online will arrive in time.

For advertisers that have LIAs active, being mindful of shipping cutoff days and shifting strategy to prioritize LIAs over traditional Shopping units can help provide a boost during key offline days.

However, LIAs aren’t the only local ads that brick-and-mortar brands should be mindful of during the holidays this year.

Users turn to navigational apps in the final days of holiday shopping

For the last several years, the U.S. Bureau of the Census has reported a jump in e-commerce share of total U.S. retail sales from Q3 to Q4, as shoppers seem to become more likely to order online during the busy holiday season. Even so, e-commerce sales still accounted for just over 10 percent of Q4 sales last year, as brick-and-mortar conversions continued to account for the vast majority of sales.

As many surveys and offline attribution techniques show, however, many brick-and-mortar sales are preceded by online research.

Users don’t just turn to traditional search engines in researching offline purchases – they also go straight to navigational apps, including Google Maps. While Google has yet to provide reporting to cleanly segment Maps ad traffic, click type reports provide some insight as the “Get location details” click type primarily comes from Maps.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve identified a trend that spans essentially all brick-and-mortar retailers studied that shows an increase in the share of text ad traffic attributed to “Get location details” in the days leading up to Dec. 25. This is what that looks like for one apparel retailer studied.

As you can see, Dec. 23 and 24 were by far the biggest days for Maps clicks. This trend indicates that shoppers modify their search behavior and go straight to navigational apps once they know shipping will be pricier or too slow to arrive in time. A similar uptick in searches probably occurs on other navigational apps as well.

Another trend to point out is that the share of traffic coming from these ads increased significantly from 2016 to 2017, something observed across our brick-and-mortar advertisers over the last couple of years. In Q3 2018, Merkle saw a meaningful lift relative to the quarters prior, so brick-and-mortar brands might be seeing even more traffic coming from these ads this year.

While Google announced Local Campaigns in July, at this point most retailers are still deriving Maps ad traffic from location extensions added to active keyword campaigns.

There’s not much control with this setup as there are no bidding or other targeting levers available specifically for Maps via location extensions, but one thing to certainly keep an eye on is offline attribution. Since Maps searchers are naturally more likely to head in-store than convert online, online conversion rate may start to slip as traffic from Maps grows. Being mindful of this throughout the holiday season will help ensure ads are being bid based on the full value they drive, both online and offline.

After Shopping and local searches, I’ve got one more big trend to keep an eye on this holiday season to help make your paid search campaigns glisten.

Audiences, audiences, audiences

It’s probably no surprise to you that audience segmentation has grown tremendously in importance over the past couple of years. Merkle advertisers that use audience targeting find 30 percent of all Google paid search traffic is now attributed to Remarketing Lists for Search Ads (RLSA), Customer Match or Similar Audiences.

One trend that might pop out from the chart above is the dip in RLSA click share in September. The decline started in mid-September around the time of the rollout of Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) 2.0 initiative, but share bounced back and returned to previous levels by the end of the quarter, where it’s remained ever since.

Talking with sources in the know, it does sound like ITP 2.0 could eventually prevent RLSA tracking and targeting for iOS and Safari 12 users, but that the erosion of RLSA for those users would happen slowly over time. As such, we shouldn’t expect too much of a dip over the course of the holiday season, but it wouldn’t be totally out of the realm of possibility.

In terms of strategy, advertisers should be trying to use these audiences to maximize the value of these shoppers who are already familiar with the brand. While that can at times mean bidding more aggressively to stay in front of these searchers when they’re researching, it’s important to keep in mind that last click attribution often inflates the true value of ad clicks from these audiences, since some audience members would end up converting anyway.

In addition to bidding adjustments, modifications to ad copy and landing pages can help place the most effective offers and experiences in front of users based on interests displayed during past interactions with the brand. With RLSA audiences now allowed to include website visitors from as far back as 540 days, forward-thinking advertisers that created holiday shopping-specific audiences from last year’s Q4 shoppers can call on those audiences this season for optimizations.

I do think it’s important to note that there’s a lot of misinformation floating around on the use of audiences, with some in the industry going as far as to say advertisers should only target remarketing audiences in paid search since those users have higher CTR and conversion rate. While a small share of advertisers might want to pursue such a strategy, most brands would be ill-served by turning off ads to anyone other than those searchers that are already existing customers. In terms of incremental value, often ad clicks tied to non-audience members can have the biggest positive effect for an advertiser’s business.

There’s no silver bullet for all advertisers to use to effectively target audiences in paid search during the holiday season, as every brand is different. That said, brands should be aware of how these audiences have performed in the past and keep an eye on how things are shaking out this year to identify potential pain points or successful strategies that can be built upon throughout the season.


There are plenty of other paid search bits and pieces to focus on throughout the next few weeks, but Shopping, local searches and audience optimizations are three of the biggest considerations to keep in mind. Getting them right can go a long way towards making the next few weeks as successful as possible.

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State of the Google Shopping auction heading into the 2018 holiday season /state-of-the-google-shopping-auction-heading-into-the-2018-holiday-season-308426 Tue, 20 Nov 2018 19:53:25 +0000 /?p=308426 The paid search results of the upcoming holiday season will be heavily dependent on Google Shopping performance for many retailers. But how will Google Express factor into it?

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Google Shopping has long been a key driver of U.S retailer online sales, and in Q3 2018 accounted for 87 percent of all Google non-brand paid search clicks for Merkle (my employer) advertisers.

As such, the paid search results of the upcoming holiday season will be heavily dependent on Google Shopping performance for many retailers.

Part of what will determine Google Shopping success is the strategy of several massive competitors which offer products in many different categories. These brands are large enough to swing wide-ranging auction dynamics simply by way of increasing or decreasing their Shopping presence, and several updates over the last year make their likely strategies during the holiday season a bit of a mystery.

I’ve divided them into three weight-classes:

  • The Big Box Titans – Target and Walmart
  • The eCommerce Giant – Amazon
  • The Wild Card – Google Express

Let’s explore how each of these are competing in the auction today and how that might change over the coming weeks.

The big box titans

I analyzed the Google Auction Insights reports of a set of retailers that see all four of Target, Walmart, Amazon, and Google Express as regular Shopping competitors. The large Merkle retailers studied offer a wide range of products and have collectively accounted for more than 150 million Google Shopping clicks in 2018 so far.

I found the following median impression share for our big box titans over the last year.

As you can see, Walmart generally has a significantly higher Shopping impression share than Target and is at times twice as prevalent in Shopping Auctions against the advertisers studied as Target.

Looking back at the holiday season last year, we find that Walmart’s impression share trailed off in November and December compared to Q3, while Target’s impression share throughout Q4 was stronger than in Q3. Both stores saw impression share drop in January 2018, but Walmart’s decline was much more pronounced, with all but one advertiser studied seeing Walmart’s impression share drop from December to January.

Fast forward to October 2018, we find these two behemoths are a touch lower in terms of impression share this year than last October, but roughly in the same ballpark.

However, these brands aren’t just competing in the Shopping auction by way of their own websites, as they are both also part of the group of retailers selling products through Google Express. As such, they’re eligible to show via Shopping Actions in the Shopping carousel.

According to Google, impressions for retailers that show Shopping Actions ads will be attributed to the retailer featured, not Google Express. As such, any Shopping Actions expansion should benefit the impression share of retailers selling through Google Express.

More on Google Express and Shopping Actions later. For now, it’s on to…

The eCommerce titan

Amazon declined to participate in Google Shopping for several years once it became pay-to-play but reversed its decision the last week of 2016 to begin wading into auctions for home goods products. Since that time, Amazon expanded its presence both in home goods auctions as well as entered some home goods-related product categories such as office supplies and electronics.
It briefly paused Shopping campaigns entirely beginning in late April 2018, but has since climbed back to roughly the same presence it had at the end of 2017.

Heading into last holiday season, it seemed as if we might see Amazon put its foot on the gas in Shopping, much like it does on the text ad side of things where we consistently see its impression share expand starting in late November. However, I found that its Shopping impression share actually declined, with the black and green lines in the chart below indicating Black Friday and Cyber Monday, respectively.

Given Amazon’s shiftiness in Shopping auctions over the past year, it seems like any strategy might be in play this holiday season. It could expand into essentially every product category given its expansive offering, or go the opposite direction and reduce its Shopping presence while focusing on text ads. How that turns out is anyone’s guess.

Even more of a mystery is how competitive Google Express listings will be over the next couple of months.

The Wild Card

As mentioned earlier, Shopping Actions listings are attributed to the retailers which fulfill orders for these Google Express-powered “transactional” units, as Google describes them. Separately, Google also runs “house ads” for the Google Express service itself and these are the listings that should be attributed to Google Express in Auction Insights.

These house ads have been present since at least April 2017, when Google Express began appearing in Auction Insights reports as a competitor in Shopping auctions. Their prevalence increased meaningfully in Q4 2017, and remained steady until July 2018, when we found that its impression share jumped once again.

In October its impression share returned to around what we observed earlier in 2018.
If Shopping Actions take off, we should see Auction Insights impression share for Google Express decline, since Shopping Actions impressions are assigned to the retailer selling through Google Express (again, according to Google). As such, it would be surprising to see Google Express impression share grow during the holiday season like we saw last year, though such a trend might indicate complications with the rollout of Shopping Actions.

Whether through Shopping Actions or “house ads,” any listings in which Google is advertising its marketplace over a retailer bidding to pay cold hard cash for clicks is a bet on the user converting through Google Express. This is because Google only makes money from Google Express listing clicks if they end in conversions, unlike traditional Google Shopping listings which are paid for by retailers as soon as users click them.

While the number of retailers on Google Express’s roster has grown meaningfully over the last six months, there remain obstacles to declaring it a viable competitor to Amazon as a marketplace. Notably, it lacks a Prime-style subscription program which has conditioned tens of millions of Prime users to turn to Amazon first. There are also minimum order value requirements to receive free shipping, and fulfillment times can vary in speed.

Thus, it would seem a risky proposition to replace the paid ads driving the vast majority of retailer paid search growth over the past couple of years with listings for a marketplace which hasn’t fully found its footing, and which only provides Google with a return when users convert. That seems particularly true during the busy holiday shopping season, but I suppose anything can happen.


Obviously, these competitors don’t account for all the moving pieces during the holidays, but their actions do provide insight into how some of the biggest online retail debates are shaking out.

Many are asking if advertiser budget is shifting away from Google to Amazon, but Amazon has long poured money into Google as one of the biggest spenders on text ads and recently expanded that investment by getting into Shopping. It will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Big box retailers like Target and Walmart have long been some of the biggest Shopping advertisers, but are further buying into Google as a place to reach consumers by participating in Google Express.

Google Express itself seems to be a big question mark for Google. Does it convert at a high enough rate to warrant stealing clicks away from traditional Google Shopping ads? When will Shopping Actions supplant Google Express “house ads” as the listing of choice for Google’s marketplace?

How these situations play out during the holidays will be fascinating to watch. In addition to impacting retailer paid search performance, it could shed light on the future of how products will be sold online in the years to come.

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Loose match types, bid-caching, and getting what you pay for in digital marketing /loose-match-types-bid-caching-and-getting-what-you-pay-for-in-digital-marketing-306670 Fri, 12 Oct 2018 19:23:00 +0000 /?p=306670 When a lack of advertiser control -- whatever the platform's motives -- results in unintended purchases, trust inevitably erodes.

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As new close variants start trickling into search query reports, paid search marketers are still peeved at Google’s decision to expand the definition of exact match close variants to include queries with the same intent, implied words, and paraphrasing. The possibilities under this new regime of close variants appear bounded only by Google’s own determination of what queries carry the “same meaning” as a keyword.

The core of the argument against this sort of update comes back to the simple expectation that advertisers should feel confident that they are getting what they pay for. This is an issue that Google has long faced with regards to keyword matching, and one that is also currently popping up in other areas of digital marketing as well.

Google’s longstanding issues with query matching

Google’s issues with serving ads for queries based on incorrect keywords predates the invention of close variants, and indeed arose even when exact and phrase match keywords were still limited to pure exact and phrase matches.

As George Michie wrote back in 2010, there’s long been an…um…feature in which Google will serve traffic from a query under a broad match keyword that might have a higher bid than a keyword that exactly matches the query.

George argued back then, and I’d argue now, that sending traffic from a query which might exactly match one keyword to a different keyword isn’t illegal or unethical — it’s just a bad business decision.

On the user side, it risks sending searchers to a landing page that might not be as relevant as the landing page assigned to a closer keyword match. This could increase the likelihood searchers turn away from ads if they find the landing pages irrelevant.

On the advertiser side, forcing marketers to pay one price for a specific query through one keyword, when a bid has already been placed for that specific query through a different keyword that exactly matches it, makes bidding to efficiency more difficult. This lack of control can lead to less investment overall and can also make advertisers feel as if they’re not able to pay for the clicks they do want without the risk of paying for some traffic they don’t want.

The same concern arises with the recent expansion of close variants, as traffic might shift from a keyword that a query specifically matches to a keyword that Google deems to have the same meaning but doesn’t exactly match the query.

Brief aside: Another bit from that article to keep in mind is that Google’s initial response to the situation George laid out was that it “wasn’t happening.” My advice is to remember that whenever Google is talking about what can or can’t happen with match type cannibalization under the current rules. For what it’s worth, current documentation lists only two situations in which a keyword that more closely matches a query would be ignored, but which Google does not qualify as the *only* situations it might happen:

  1. There’s a cheaper keyword with a higher Ad Rank
  2. One of your keywords has a low search volume status

This notion of advertisers setting bids for one segment of traffic and then being pulled into auctions for a different segment is also rearing its head on the programmatic side of digital marketing.

Bid-caching is like the close variant match of programmatic

Index Exchange caught a lot of heat a few weeks ago when it was uncovered that it used bid-caching to take bids for one auction and transfer them to subsequent auctions that didn’t share all the same characteristics. As such, advertisers ended up paying for placements that didn’t match the criteria of what they intended to pay for.

The backlash to this revelation was loud and swift, with Index Exchange quickly eliminating the practice from its business. Speakers at this year’s Advertising Week reportedly went as far as to call it a “white-collar crime.”

There’s a clear difference between Index Exchange’s use of bid-caching and Google’s use of close variants in that the former was kept a secret while the latter has been publicly announced whenever updates are made.

It’s also the case that advertisers can set keyword negatives on Google to prevent keywords from showing ads for specific queries, whereas there was no way to opt out of placements with Index Exchange. As Brad Geddes mentions here, though, limits to the number of negative keywords permitted might start becoming a real issue on Google.

Still, at their core, these two situations seem similar in that advertisers set bids for one segment and then end up targeting any number of other segments as a result.

Of course, Google’s done nothing to change course and doesn’t seem inclined to do so, regardless of the poor feedback it’s received from many in the industry.

What is Google thinking?

Considering the backlash to its decision, it’s worth exploring what motivates Google to make this change at all.

One possibility is that Google genuinely thinks that the close variants it serves are just as valuable as the true exact matches a keyword will trigger ads for. Most advertisers would argue that’s not the case, and Merkle (my employer) data shows that the median advertiser sees exact close variant conversion rate between 20% and 30% lower than true exact matches for non-brand keywords.

One area where close variants are equally valuable is on the brand text ad side of things, where I’ve found almost no difference between true exact matches and exact close variants for the median advertiser. While that’s a positive development, it doesn’t alleviate concerns for non-brand keywords.

Another possibility is that Google knows that close variants convert at a lower rate and is willing to eat lower CPCs from advertisers decreasing bids if it results in increased ad click volume by entering ads into new auctions. This would only work if Google determined that there are a meaningful number of advertisers that don’t currently have sufficient keyword coverage and that would not immediately trim out new close variants via negatives.

Maybe Google knows it has two different sets of advertisers –- those that will just add negatives and adjust campaigns so that performance isn’t meaningfully impacted, and another group of less actively managed accounts that won’t be able to adequately control the new matching and which will end up spending more.

Naturally in the big scheme of things Google probably expects this to be a positive for its ad revenue. How that would play out is more complicated to assess.


The level of control available to advertisers on Google tends to ebb and flow.

For example, Google took away the ability to target tablet and desktop users independently when it rolled out Enhanced Campaigns and lumped desktops and tablets together. It then (thankfully) gave back that control in 2016, allowing advertisers to adjust bids to account for the significant difference in expected value between desktop and tablet clicks.

In the case of close variants, though, it’s just been one long slog of losing control. Over the years Google moved from optional to mandatory close variant targeting, and then expanded the definition of what constitutes a close variant, and is now in the process of expanding the definition again.

Whether it’s Google or Index Exchange or any other digital marketing platform, advertisers want to know that they’re getting what they intend to pay for and have the controls available to do so. It’s now becoming debatable if advertisers have the needed controls through Google Ads, and we’ll see over the next few weeks how expansively the new close variants extend the reach of exact match keywords.

To paraphrase –- more control good, less control bad; some platforms sneakily expand, others do it in broad daylight; advertisers mostly not like either way.

Was that a poor paraphrase? Let’s just call it a close variant.

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Google is right; click-through and conversion rates kinda don’t matter /google-is-right-click-through-and-conversion-rates-kinda-dont-matter-305329 Mon, 17 Sep 2018 17:25:07 +0000 /?p=305329 Say what? Turns out you may be focusing on the wrong things if you're fixated on click-through and conversion rates. Here are a number of reasons why.

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Last month I wrote extensively on the seeming lack of meaningful click-through rates (CTR) growth following the implementation of Google expanded text ads (ETA), despite Google’s own assorted case studies showing meaningfully higher CTR with expanded text ads compared to the previous long-standing text format.

As mentioned in my previous post, we’re now on to a whole new world of text ads with Google’s new Responsive Search Ads (RSA), which gives Google the ability to mix and match headlines and descriptions in creating the final ad shown to users and gives advertisers more characters to work with in crafting their message.

Just last week, Search Engine Land contributor and Google Director of Performance Ads Marketing Matt Lawson provided best practice recommendations for these new ad units to help advertisers make the most of the new format. There’s a lot of good advice in there straight from the search giant’s mouth, but one bit, in particular, piqued my interest:

And here’s a final reminder about testing: Don’t overly fixate on metrics like click-through rate (CTR) and conversion rate. These new ad formats are about driving more impressions, clicks and conversions. There are all sorts of instances where you might end up serving impressions in a low CTR placement that you never would have qualified for before. A high CTR isn’t the end goal; it should be more sales for your business.

It seems Google has learned from the ETA episode not to sell advertisers on higher CTR, and indeed has built its RSA proposition around the idea of incremental clicks and sales, which, of course, only Google can measure, since there’s no way for advertisers to quantify ad placements that are off limits to ETAs for whatever reason. That doesn’t negate the failure of ETAs to live up to Google’s expectations with the metric of its own choosing at the time of announcement (CTR), but it is onto something!

Click-through rates sort of, kinda don’t matter, and neither does conversion rate. There are a number of reasons why.

Why you shouldn’t sweat CTR too much

Countless studies regularly put out CTR benchmarks and compare metrics across different platforms and ad formats, so it must really matter right?


Honestly, most of those benchmarks aren’t very useful. The main reason is that such studies are rarely conducted rigorously enough to account for major variables like device, brand vs. non-brand, vs. search partners, changing SERP layout and other important considerations. Directional same-site trends can be instructive for how things should be moving over time, but analyzing such trends well requires accounting for all of the same variables and typically isn’t very actionable.

Even when looking at a rigorous study conducted for a single advertiser testing different ads, CTR isn’t the final metric by which a winner should be chosen.

Could I get a much higher CTR by promising a bunch of free stuff in my ad? Probably.

Will the additional ad traffic lead to greater value for my business? Maybe, but assessing that would require a whole lot more than a statistically significant difference in CTR.

CTR is the product of both how effective your ad is at attracting clicks and your efficiency targets, which are often returned on ad spend or cost per acquisition/lead for many advertisers. When it comes to the latter, an advertiser can only bid so much for a particular keyword and remain profitable. Where that ceiling falls within an auction plays a large part in determining the advertiser’s position and ensuing CTR.

But a higher bid doesn’t necessarily mean higher CTR, as bidding more for a keyword might enter the keyword into more auctions in a position lower on the page. CTR is an average, so with lower positions in the mix, the CTR might look worse with a higher bid. This is comparable to Matt’s explanation of how ads might occupy new placements with RSAs they wouldn’t have entered with ETAs, and that can have counterintuitive effects on metrics like CTR.

CTR can still be effective as a diagnostic tool for identifying more appealing ad copy or to understand when an ad has become more or less attractive relative to the ads it’s competing against over time. That said, it’s not a key performance indicator (KPI) advertisers should be chasing.

The same can be said of conversion rate.

Conversion rate doesn’t matter? Now you’re just making stuff up

The idea that it doesn’t matter how often clicks actually convert sounds pretty… controversial. How can it not matter the clicks I’m paying cold hard cash for end up (or don’t end up) driving conversions?

The answer is that any conversion rate can be acceptable, so long as the price paid for the clicks results in an effective cost per conversion. For example, my previous research showed paid search clicks from the search partner network convert at a much lower rate than traffic from, but that search partner cost per click (CPC) is inherently lower. For some segments, the difference in conversion rate and CPC were almost the exact same, such as with mobile Google Shopping ads.

Thus, targeting the search partner network does reduce aggregate conversion rate, but it also reduces CPC in most cases, as there appears to be a discount baked in for the disparity in traffic value. Allowing ads to show on the search partner network thus provides a fairly efficient way of incrementally increasing conversions.

When it comes to RSAs, it’s plausible that new ad placements might produce clicks which are less likely to convert but which come at a lower cost, in which case Matt Lawson is correct in saying advertisers shouldn’t stress conversion rate too much.

However, while incremental impressions, clicks and conversions are important, at the end of the day the cost of acquiring them determines whether incremental gains are profitable or not. Incremental spend and the corresponding cost of additional conversions are incredibly important to advertisers, to say nothing of their importance to Google.

Still, the thrust of the argument that conversion rate shouldn’t be advertisers’ main goal does hold water. Much like CTR, conversion rate can be used to identify superior landing pages and/or ad copy but isn’t the be-all and end-all.

So click-through and conversion rates really don’t matter?

In the proper context, it is true advertisers shouldn’t worry too much about CTR and conversion rate.

Should advertisers try to boost CTR and conversion rate? Absolutely, but only if it leads to a better bottom line for the business.

Should advertisers try to incrementally boost the number of impressions, clicks and conversions their paid search programs are driving?

Absolutely, but only if the price is right.

The post Google is right; click-through and conversion rates kinda don’t matter appeared first on Search Engine Land.