Is Google Ads Close Variant Matching Moving Further Apart?

Google ads close variant keywords

Looking at search terms that we've seen here recently, there is absolutely no doubt about it. Close Variants aren't as close as they used to be.

Is it a bug? Is it calculated? I'm not sure, but we've been fighting close variant bloat more than ever in our Google Ads accounts.

Let me take you back if you aren't sure what close variants are:

  • 2014 - Five years ago, I broke the news that Google Ads (AdWords at the time) "exact match" matching would no longer be using exact terms when matching. Instead, they would include plurals, misspellings, and other close variants.
  • 2017 - exact match became further diluted by ignoring word order & function terms. If a search query is missing "function terms" that are present in your keyword- no problem. Google is able to match them anyway. If a search query features function words that aren't present in your keyword, Google can match those, too.
  • 2018 - Google Ads opened up exact match targeting to include words with the same meaning using either implied words, paraphrasing, or same intent matching. This is important because instead of spelling errors, Google gave itself the ability to match words that it thinks mean the same thing.
  • 2019 - Same-meaning close variants were extended to phrase match and broad match modifiers.

Now, here in 2020, we are seeing more than the removal of function terms or the addition/subtraction of implied words. We are seeing the removal of critical key phrases across broad match modified, phrase, and exact matching. Furthermore, it appears that the "same meaning" matching is expanding to terms that don't share the same meaning... to the detriment of advertisers.

Close Variant Bloat

Take a look at a recent client that was the victim of intense "close variant" bloat:

All of the above terms are matched "exactly", also known as exact match. I added the highlighted column for context. Google Ads isn't using misspelling, adding/removing function terms, or replacing words with the same meaning. Google Ads is dropping critical words within a search term. We've seen Google drop both the words "manufacturing" & "system" within the exact match term "lean manufacturing 5s system". Sorry Google, "5s lean" isn't the same as "lean manufacturing 5s system". If I am trying to buy terms with "software" in them, it isn't a hint. Nor is it a function term. It is critical.

Matching Madness

Do I like close variant matching? No. Have I finally accepted it heading into 2020? Yes. Until now. Recently, we've seen horrific close variant matching that is beyond troublesome.

Is "production" the same thing as "productivity"?

Of course not, but Google Ads says it is. We saw a huge spike in exact match clicks for a manufacturing company that was buying specific production terms. When we were in the process of vetting Google Ads terms/spends, we saw that Google swapped "productivity" for "production". When we reached out for credit on our client's behalf, we were astounded at the response from our Google rep:

Anyone in B2B manufacturing knows that "productivity" isn't the same as "production". So, why match those two, and hold firm that you are correct? Odds are (and all major tools show that) Google Ads makes more on those looking for B2B terms like production tracking than for "productivity" terms. Is this why they allow egregious matches like this? So they can squeeze more money out of advertisers? It's sad, but probably true.

So What Can We Do?

Sadly, there isn't anything that one agency or SMB can do. Agencies are far too beholden to their relationship with Google to speak up and speak out. And, unfortunately, Google has ditched support in order to make more profit. Here's the cold hard truth: Google doesn't care about its advertisers, you are just a number.

So what can be done? Unfortunately, not a lot.

  • The internal OKRs of the Google Ads team aren't thinking long term, nor do they consider helping advertisers, they are about squeezing each cent out of our pocketbooks. Until Google understands that a good ad product and experience is important, they won't work on helping advertisers -- they'll only focus on helping their bottom line.
  • Microsoft Advertising has the world's best customer support. However, they don't have the search volume and are in the early stages of building up the MSAN network/LinkedIn integration.
  • Facebook is taking a page from Google and forgoing Customer Service
  • Twitter Ads is an unusable platform.

So what do we need to do as advertisers? Get better. Google Ads doesn't care about you nor about success on the platform. Try Captera, test Pinterest, work with Facebook, rock remarketing. Google Ads is moving away from their most valuable asset -> search. So be prepared.

We as advertisers need to gain experience on multiple platforms and continuously find profitable mediums. For right or wrong, Google is making a push towards becoming a less effective platform.

Be aware, be flexible, and be ready to move those budgets away to a platform that values your success, not just your ad dollars.

If you're looking to continue exploring the ins and outs of Google's keyword matching criteria, check out our guide, Google Keyword Targeting: Match Types & Best Practices.

Categories: Paid Search Marketing


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Meet the Author

Head of Performance & Innovation / Partner

Greg Finn

Greg is the Head of Performance and Innovation for Cypress North's digital marketing team and one of the founders of our agency. In 2010, he and Matt Mombrea started Cypress North in Buffalo. Greg oversaw the opening of our second office in 2022, located in his hometown of Rochester.

As Head of Performance and Innovation, Greg co-manages our digital marketing department and works closely with our team to ensure all our clients achieve the best possible results. He is always looking for ways to test new digital marketing techniques and technology, and oversees all teaching and training efforts to ensure our agency stays ahead of the curve.

Greg is also a co-host of our weekly Marketing O'Clock podcast, where he and the team provide updates, insights, and hot takes on the latest SEO, PPC, and social media marketing news. In addition to weekly news shows, Greg hosts our Marketing O'Torial digital marketing tutorials and often co-hosts bonus Marketing O'Talk episodes that bring together panels of digital marketing experts.

With nearly two decades of experience, Greg is a known and trusted voice in the digital marketing community. He’s a contributor for Search Engine Land, a member of the Search Marketing Expo (SMX) programming team, and has been a featured speaker at some of the largest search engine conferences, including SMX, eSummit, and Pubcon. 

When he’s not working or staying updated on the latest trends, Greg enjoys watching his kids play sports and coaching their soccer team. He’s been named the runner-up “Greg of the Year” on Marketing O’Clock’s annual Clockscars Awards four years in a row. While the coveted award has evaded him for many years, Keanu Reeves has not. Greg once saw him at Gabriel's Gate tavern in Buffalo (and noted he was very tall.)