In May of this year Google announced new matching behavior for phrase and exact match keywords.  It seemed like a boon for search volume at the time, and now that a few months have passed we can further evaluate the effect of this change on your accounts.

This is all assuming that they’re turned on for your campaigns to begin with.  Accounts were automatically opted into them, so if this is the first you’re hearing of this change, welcome to close variants (you’ve been with them a while)!  You can opt out of them under Settings > Advanced Settings > Keyword Matching Options.  But should you opt out of them?  That is the question of the moment (or at least this particular moment).  Using a quick report, you should be able to see how these changes are performing in your account.

Start by downloading an SQR report (on the Keywords tab > Keyword Details > Search Terms > All).  I like to do this analysis one campaign at a time, but you can download the whole account and later segment by campaign if that’s how you prefer to operate.  Also make sure to have a long enough date range so that you have plenty of data.  For the figures I’ll talk about below, I used June 1st through August 31st.  (Summer 2012 will probably go down in history as the Summer of the Close Variants.)

Once your report is downloaded you’ll notice that the column for match type now has new statuses since this change went live (that say “close variant” after phrase or exact match {you’ve probably already noticed this, but I’m just pointing it out in case you haven’t}).  This column will allow us to run a pivot table to see how close variants are doing for us.  Pivot tablesYay!

In your search query report delete out Broad Match and Broad Match (Session Based) rows in the match type column so we can directly compare old exact/phrase to the new stuff.  (You can leave these in if you want, but I like a nice, clear comparison.)  Then it’s pivot table time.  Click Data in the Menu Bar, then select Pivot Table…  As long as you don’t have any areas of your spreadsheet highlighted, the pre-selected options should be good to go.  Just click OK through them and it’s time to get our pivot on.

Here are the options that I put in my pivot table (and the ways to use a pivot table will vary between different versions of Excel, so get to know {and love} yours:

Row label: Match Type

Values: Clicks, impressions, cost, conversions

Calculated Fields: CTR, Conv. Rate, CPL

Then you’ll be able to see not only how many additional conversions and clicks the match types are getting for you, but also how those new queries are performing in terms of important stuff like conversion rate and CPL.  Keep in mind that CTR is probably not a metric worth focusing on much, as a lot of your impressions are going to be filed in the dreaded “Other Search Terms” at the bottom of SQRs that won’t be broken out by match type like the rest.  You aren’t going to be able to see all of the impressions that you actually generated.

I’ve run this analysis across our clients we have here at Hanapin and the results vary.  We’ve had one account where close variants showed a 55% increase over existing search terms.  Below are the results of four different campaigns within four different clients:

Software as a Service Performance
Software as a Service Client
Education Close Variants Performance
Education Client
Insurance Close Variants Performance
Insurance Client
Publishing Close Variant Performance
Publishing Client

There aren’t any crystal clear trends across the data I’ve seen, so, like most things in PPC, getting the most out of the new match types will require segmentation and closer management.  I’m a little bit worried about exact close variants in particular, as they’re doing worse than the existing keywords in terms of CPL in a majority of the accounts I’ve looked at.  But I still haven’t made up my mind yet.  In some cases the close variant matches are actually outperforming the keywords themselves, in others the variants aren’t pulling their weight.  Here are some specific actions that you can take once you’ve performed this analysis for yourself.

Close variants doing better? Really take a close look at your SQR and see if there are keywords that should be regular old exact or phrase match.  Give them the legitimacy that they deserve by making them a real keyword.  Even though the new match type behavior gives you coverage on these terms, if they’re generating conversions they might benefit from ad text that is tailored that extra bit more by having an ad group all to itself.

Close variants doing worse?  Opt out.  Based off of the data, I wouldn’t opt out in any of these accounts.  Sweet, sweet conversions are hard to come by, so I wouldn’t walk away from them even in cases where they have a higher CPL.  You can add negatives to those campaigns or try to identify trends in the data and break out a new ad group/keyword that could have its own bid strategy.

Close variants doing well for one match type but not so well for another?  Consider creating campaigns specifically for exact and phrase match types.  People do this occasionally as it is, so this is just one more reason to split them out to their own campaigns.  For our insurance client, exact match sees very different performance when you look at close variants, so the exact campaign could opt out.  But at the same time phrase match close variants are actually doing better than the original match type.  Those should definitely be allowed to keep going in the phrase match campaign.

This change from Google is still in the early stages, but over three months in I have to say that I’m a fan.  The relative traffic gains are bigger in some accounts than others, but there’s still enough of a lift in all metrics to be encouraged thus far.  Look into your own accounts and decide if Close Variants are right for you.  And please let us know in the comments if you’re seeing any trends in your own data.