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Google’s Phrase Match / BMM Update: Why Are Advertisers Worried and What Should I Do?

Darko February 18, 2021


Google announced at the beginning of the month that changes were being made to consolidate Phrase match and Modified Broad Match keywords.

Since some of VEN were part of the team that developed best practice for Google’s own campaigns, we can see that this represents a major change in approach after sticking with Modified Broad Match (BMM) as a staple of account structure for so long. BMM keywords have been used for years as a good way to discover new and long-tail search queries without being overly broad with targeting.

What is Actually Changing with Phrase and Modified Broad Match / BMM?

The behaviour of Phrase Match is going to be expanded to become very similar to the current BMM match type. New BMM keywords will eventually be phased out. From July 2021, new BMM keywords will not be able to be added to accounts.

The new Phrase Match will take advantage of Google becoming more intelligent with determining the meaning behind a search query. For example, your keywords may match in different word orders, but not when the meaning of the query is flipped. In the example above, “moving from Boston to NYC” would not work when you target “moving from NYC to Boston”, because Google recognises the word order changes the meaning of the search query.

This also means that some Modified Broad Match queries will stop showing against some search terms where a different word order may change the meaning of the search.

Some examples of both are below:

Advertisers don’t need to take any specific action, as Google will automatically merge the behaviour of both match types. However, beyond saying that this will begin “at some point in February”, Google have not specified when the rollout of this change will complete.

Why is Google Doing This?

Google has been slowly pushing towards greater automation for years within Google Ads, and this can be seen as a continuation of that logic. For example:

  • Google removed “pure” exact match in 2014, allowing plurals and close variants to also match
  • In 2017, a major change allowed word order differences in Exact Match as well as having function words added to close variants
  • Words with similar meanings were then allowed to match as of 2018, and
  • In 2019, close variants then also came to Phrase Match and Modified Broad Match

However, the usage of BMM far outstripped the use of Phrase Match. An analysis from Optmyzr showed 89% of advertisers used BMM keywords, and that 95% of all BMM keywords had a plus in front of every term. Phrase Match then became more of a niche tool to be used mainly in very large accounts with specific types of terms using this match type.

This knowledge is well understood in the industry, but may be more complex than necessary for new advertisers. Google’s solution: simplify, and have advertisers worry less about individual keywords. Google would like advertisers to leave it up to Google to decide whether a user wants to see your ad.

Google’s “Trust Us” Approach to Word Order may Worry Advertisers

Whether you manage your campaigns in-house or use an agency, Google’s latest changes can be frustrating to deal with.

Before these changes, Phrase match always respected word order. This means that advertisers have to trust Google to know which word orders constitute a different meaning. Google will do a decent job of this overall, but removing the ability for advertisers to determine this precisely can be frustrating.

Finding train tickets from London to Manchester and vice versa is a fairly clear use case. In the mortgage industry, “Buy To Let” and “Let To Buy” mean different things, for example. How well will Google handle this, and how much spend will be wasted while mitigating situations like this? The answer will vary from account to account, but more subtle word orders that refer to different products or services need to be watched very carefully. Because Google have also not given a definitive timeline for when this rollout will complete, this could be a frustrating process for advertisers to spot when these changes occur for them.

Combining Changes with Less Transparency will Lead to Distrust

Google’s latest changes make some sense in their longer-term quest to make Google Ads easier to understand for new advertisers, and to automate more technical aspects of account management.

However, in context of Google’s announcement in September that it was reducing what advertisers could see in their Search Terms Report, this is increasingly leading to Google’s search queries becoming a “black box”.

Google’s ambition to become more automated and user friendly are broadly welcomed, but the way in which this is being done with less transparency and data for advertisers appears to be, at best, inconsistent. Various studies done since September 2020 have shown that depending on account and industry, anywhere from 20% to 60% of user search terms in Google Ads accounts are no longer visible in the Search Terms Report – clicks that advertisers have paid for.

A statement from Google at the time said,

“In order to maintain our standards of privacy and strengthen our protections around user data, we have made changes to our Search Terms Report to only include terms that a significant number of users searched for. We’re continuing to invest in new and efficient ways to share insights that enable advertisers to make critical business decisions,”

This presented a major data drain for most advertisers, especially on their non-Exact match campaigns. Research across VEN’s clients suggest that over 20% of all conversions in BMM campaigns were no longer visible in Search Term reports, For smaller spending campaigns this percentage rose in some cases to over 40%.

VEN’s Viewpoint on the Combination of Google Ads’ Recent Changes

We understand that in some cases it may be necessary to protect user privacy regarding sensitive queries, but we also believe that if advertisers are paying Google for a click, Google should be transparent and report on the search queries that have been charged for. A potential solution would be for Google to not charge for clicks that are deemed sensitive or sufficiently “insignificant” to not show this to the advertiser, but Google have shown no interest so far in making concessions such as this.

Combining more automation with less transparency and less data for advertisers, is a potentially dangerous precedent to set. At VEN, we are all for a “trust us” approach to search query matching, given Google’s strong track record in using machine learning to help improve relevancy. However, simultaneously removing data that advertisers could use to “check Google’s homework” leaves something to be desired.

So, What Do I Need to Do Now?

Right now, advertisers don’t need to urgently switch their BMM campaigns to Phrase Match. Behaviour will gradually move towards the new matching method – although frustratingly, we don’t know exactly when (so keep checking more regularly than usual).

Ultimately, the way terms match will be changing, and therefore the way negatives are added and new Exact match keywords sought, will need to be adjusted. We recommend the following:

  • Keep an extra eye on Search Term Reports to check if new keywords need to be added (or some removed!) for different search query word orders. Google will try to be intelligent with selecting these, but as with all machine learning this won’t work 100% of the time, so don’t be caught out.
  • If you are using existing BMM campaigns, if you’d like to see what the differences are (or to convince yourself that performance will be more or less equivalent), consider creating a new Phrase Match campaign rather than changing the match types in your existing campaign, splitting traffic and comparing the two. Note that existing performance statistics for BMM keywords will not carry over to the new Phrase Match instances of keywords.
  • Remember that phrase match negatives are NOT changing (Google’s initial announcement was later updated with a line confirming that Phrase Match’s negative behaviour will remain ‘strict Phrase’, at least for now), so Phrase Match behaviour will now be different between positive and negative keywords – more complicated instead of simpler. This can be used, however, to manually remove unwanted word orders from search queries if you spot something unwanted.
  • If you are considering some major changes in the near future, such as a new website or an account restructure, making these activities coincide with a switch to the updated matching behaviour may save some effort down the line.

In Summary

Google has continued on their trend of simplifying how to use their Ads products, while adding more machine learning and automation. The intent this time is no different, but coupled with Google actively withholding more search queries from advertisers starting in September 2020, will make measuring the impact of these changes more difficult to see, especially for smaller advertisers.

No immediate action needs to be taken, but be aware that BMM campaigns should essentially become Phrase Match campaigns by July 2021. Negative matching behaviour for Phrase Match remains strict and will be unaffected.

If you have any queries or would like to get in touch regarding Google’s recent changes or your wider marketing strategy, send us a message today.

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