The Impacts of Google Ads’ Changes to Search Term Visibility

The Impacts of Google Ads’ Changes to Search Term Visibility

It’s been about three months since Google made a significant change to search term visibility in Google Ads accounts. Google updated their reporting so that only search queries generating a significant volume of impressions would be visible to advertisers.

Prior to September of this year, advertisers could download and view a full list of search queries that generated ad impressions even if a given query only generated one unique impression. These reports were many advertisers’ source for long-tail keyword mining tactics and allowed for a fully transparent view of what queries were triggering ad impressions for specific keywords in any specified match type. Now, while advertisers can still see search terms that generated a clear majority of ad impressions, visibility into those niche long-tail keywords that perform well may be limited.

When Google announced this change, they cited the desire to maintain privacy standards and protect user data. Criticism from the paid search industry immediately followed Google’s announcement. Not only were there concerns about advertisers’ decreased ability to view search query details, but the reasoning Google provided was widely decried as disingenuous. After all, if Google was seriously concerned about privacy, why let advertisers continue to see any search query data at all? Nevermind that these search queries aren’t linked with any sort of personally identifiable information anyway.

As I mentioned at the beginning, this change has been in effect for about three months now, at the time of writing this post. Alarm bells were signaled by industry professionals that this would severely affect the performance of paid search accounts. But what has the impact actually been? Has this seriously hampered advertisers’ abilities to meet their goals, or was the initial reaction to this change overblown?

What The Numbers Say

Across our paid search accounts at Portent, we’ve been limited to viewing search terms that constitute between 70% – 90% of a given account’s search network click volume in our search query reports. That means we’re no longer able to see 10% – 30% clicks’ worth of search query data. While that range is substantial, the verdict we’ve reached about this change’s impact is one of underwhelming significance.

To put it plainly: we have not noticed that much of an impact on our accounts’ performance as a result of this change or on our ability to do our jobs as paid search strategists.

Yes, it feels like this change should have had a bigger impact on us than it has. It’s in our nature as strategists to want the most amount of granular data possible to determine what’s significant and what’s not. This change has infringed upon that, and we (along with the industry) were understandably annoyed by it.

But, the truth is, Google’s advertising system has been moving away from the need for extraordinarily granular long-tail keywords for some time now. Dynamic search campaigns have become a larger part of the paid search landscape, and exact match keywords now trigger ad impressions for “close variant” search queries that, years ago, would have only been triggered by keywords in broad match type. While this change in search query reports no doubt caused headaches for advertisers who had routine or automated keyword mining optimizations running, these things just aren’t as impactful as they used to be. And that’s by Google’s design.

Google’s Real Motive

A vast majority of Google’s revenue comes from advertising. And while they want to ensure their advertising standards produce high-quality and relevant content, they don’t want to give advertisers too much control. This could ultimately suppress average click and impression costs, according to what Google thinks a “free and fair” market should look like. Their concern isn’t about protecting user privacy from ambitious advertisers; it’s about maximizing revenue and profit potential.

Limiting the amount of search queries advertisers can view is just the latest step in Google moving closer toward that monetarily-focused goal. Going forward, Google will continue making similar changes that discourage advertisers from being as efficient with their campaigns as possible but still produce high-quality ads that users find helpful and relevant (thereby continuing to garner the lion’s share of the search engine market in seeming perpetuity).

What’s next?

Don’t be surprised if Google continues along this path in the next year or two by reserving a certain volume of potential search impressions only for dynamic search campaigns (which don’t use keywords at all), cutting search query visibility further (possibly maxing out at 50% visibility), or even removing keyword-based targeting on the search network altogether. That last one is probably too drastic to attempt within the next few years, but that’s the direction Google is heading.

As paid search advertisers, we need to be prepared for this changing landscape and stay ahead of the curve. It may go against our nature as detail-oriented strategists, but we should probably stop relying so heavily on tactics like long-tail, exact match keyword expansion and lean more towards ensuring our campaigns are configured to meet Google’s newest standards of best practices. The faster we can stay up-to-speed with Google Ads’ systematic changes, the better we’ll ensure we’re producing the best results possible for our clients or our businesses.

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