Broad match modifier is about to disappear from Google Ads – driving major changes in SEA targeting

Phrase match will replace broad match modifier – significantly affecting how advertisers manage their search campaigns

On February 4th 2021, Google announced a rule change for keyword match types available in advertisers’ paid search campaigns in Google Ads.

From February 18th, exact phrase and broad match modifier (BMM) have both appeared in users’ searches, with phrase matching scheduled to replace BBM altogether come July.

Google has said the update will improve users’ understanding of customer intent and help advertisers better reach their target audience in a climate in which the number of searches is skyrocketing (due to an increase in the number of existing queries).

The upcoming changes make phrase match a crucial feature.  The algorithm will now observe the order of the keywords in the search queries; this evolution will benefit advertisers by displaying their sponsored links in relevant search results.

For example, let’s say an advertiser is currently using BMM on the keywords ‘cheap + flight + from + Paris + to + Reykjavik’. 

The advertiser’s  sponsored links might appear in search results for ‘cheap flight from Paris to Reykjavik’, but these ads could also show up in searches such as ‘cheap flight from Reykjavik to Paris’ – the opposite of what this particular user is looking for. With the changes announced by Google, this will no longer be the case.

Account managers will potentially save precious time managing their keywords;  however, they will have to adapt how they currently structure their search campaigns to maintain a similar level of performance.

The key issue is that, with the  phasing out of BMM, advertisers are losing a form of safety net; using wide matches (by ‘freezing’ one or more terms of a keyword to control the queries that can be triggered by that keyword) on broad targeting was seen as a practical solution for controlling how ads were displayed in search results.

Or they can use broad match, which might reduce the performance of their campaigns by displaying their ads on too many non-relevant search results. This is against the backdrop of limited information from Google on search query reports.

Or they can use broad match, which might reduce the performance of their campaigns by displaying their ads on too many non-relevant search results. This is against the backdrop of limited information from Google on search query reports.

This evolution will be particularly challenging  for advertisers that currently rely on search ads for marketing purposes, especially for brand protection, and those  that have not implemented an auction strategy.

It seems unlikely that advertisers will want to seriously reduce the number of opportunities to appear in searches, so it would appear that Google’s objective is to push them to use broad match.

This means advertisers will now need to put their trust in Google’s smart bidding algorithms (reportedly  based on many different signals for each query), a move that many interpret as having little choice but to be drawn further into Google’s digital marketing ecosystem.

All this highlights that search engine advertising (SEA) is at a crossroads. The battle is no longer about  knowing which keywords to bid on, or even how to appear first in the results, as  was the case a few years ago. Keywords are starting to become secondary, just another targeting tool (albeit one still based on audience intent).

Marketers that learn how to use audiences as a primary starting point in their paid search strategy will emerge on top. Advertisers will have to become more customer-centric and be able to provide accurate and personalised results to search queries. They will have to compensate for the loss of information on users’ requests with relevant data, such as user identity and user interest. 

Options for ad customisation are still unclear,  particularly in view of the limitations of the current ‘ad customiser’ and ‘if’ audience features (mainly in terms of redirection capabilities). But given the widespread push towards consumer privacy in  the ad industry, it seems unlikely that the status quo will change significantly.

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