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As Paid Search Click Growth Continues to Slow, Google Looks to Close Variants for Additional Placements

Google announced yesterday that it will once again be expanding the definition of exact match close variants, now incorporating any ‘close variations that share the same meaning as your keyword.’ The announcement stated that early tests of the expanded definition drove ‘3% more exact match clicks and conversions on average, with most coming from queries they aren’t reaching today.’

This comes at a time when Google click growth is continuing to decelerate, and the talk of incremental click growth echoes Google’s sentiment regarding other recent updates as well.

Q2 Google Paid Search Click Growth Lowest It’s Been in Years

Taking a look at Merkle’s Q2 Digital Marketing Report, we found Google paid search click growth of 5%, down significantly from the 23% growth observed in Q2 2017.

Q2 2018 Google Paid Search Overall

The primary reason for the decline in growth is that click volume increases have long been driven by Google updates which significantly increased inventory and ad clicks. These updates include:

  • The addition of a third, and then fourth, text ad above organic links on phones
  • The doubling of Google Shopping ad size on mobile devices
  • The expansion of Google Shopping ads to image search
  • Ads featured on Google Maps
  • Rekindling its relationship with Yahoo to serve ads there

Over the years, changes like these have driven ad click growth that would have been far slower if it relied solely on growing search volume. With so many low hanging options for ramping up ad interactions now off the table, Google will need to work harder to prop up click growth to keep its incredible run of revenue growth humming.

It’s no surprise then that Google would head back to the close variant trough if it believes this new expansion will increase ad clicks by extending ads to searches they aren’t currently showing for.

Incremental click growth is also how Google has been framing its new Responsive Search Ads, promising advertisers impressions, clicks, and conversions ‘that you never would have qualified for’ with expanded text ads.

The question becomes what the value and price of incremental traffic from close variants and RSAs for advertisers might be moving forward. Looking back at Google’s last update to close variants gives us some idea of how this might play out.

Close Variant Conversion Rate Held Roughly Steady After Last Update

As I wrote in January, Google made a March 2017 update that made the addition, subtraction, and change of function words acceptable adjustments for a query to be deemed an exact match close variant, and also allowed for the words in a keyword to be reordered and still count as an exact match close variant.

The impact of this change took some time to manifest itself in our data, but we found that the share of non-brand traffic that was deemed an exact match close variant rose significantly through the end of 2017.

Close Variant Share of Exact Match Traffic

This increase in traffic share concerned advertisers as close variants typically convert at a lower rate than true exact matches. Indeed, that disparity persisted after the change, but did not appear to get worse.

Close Variant Conversion Rate Relative to Exact Match

This recent update would seem to give Google a lot more flexibility in determining close variants than the March 2017 update, so it’s conceivable that the newest batch of close variants to hit query reports won’t perform the same as the last. Still, the last major update shows us that such changes can take a bit of time to really start impacting the numbers, and that Google does have a track record of expanding close variants in a way that holds close variant performance relative to true exact fairly steady.

Even so, this newest update places even more importance on vigilant search query report mining for potential negative keywords, which has long been a key component of paid search management. While the median advertiser might see a 20%-30% difference in conversion rate for close variants vs true exact across all of non-brand, specific close variant matches might perform significantly worse and need to be weeded out via negatives.


For sophisticated paid search managers, it’s hard to see the steady erosion of the definition of exact match as anything but a march in the wrong direction from the hard-coded match types of years past. If an advertiser wanted to open up a keyword to so many different types of queries, they’d probably just set it on broad match.

For Google, it’s always a safe bet that any update it rolls out will be a positive one for the bottom line, especially if said update is intended to incrementally grow ad clicks.

For the thousands of deodorant queries that had not a single ad in sight, good for them. Their time to shine is now.

We’ll be keeping a close eye on how the numbers move in the coming weeks and months, but again stress that changes such as these typically take time to really show up in the data.