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What Google’s NEW Exact and Phrase Match Variations Really Mean for Advertisers

A few weeks ago, Google AdWords announced that they would be removing advertisers’ ability to exclude close variants from phrase and exact match keywords.

This changed sparked much confusion and controversy in the industry, and I’d like to help clear up some of the mess. However, before we can look at how Google’s latest change will affect advertisers, we need to really understand the basics of close variants.

Close Variants -- AdWords


What is a close variant?

A close variant, according to Google, is a search term that automatically triggers an ad based on close variations of keywords you’re already bidding on. This might have been a terminology mistake from the beginning, because many users mix it up with another term that we’ll get to in just a second.

Close variations include misspellings, singular and plural forms, acronyms, stemmings, abbreviations, and accents. Basically, it eliminates the need to bid on potentially misspelled keywords or plural keywords and automatically adds those for terms you’re bidding.

Close Variants Explained

What is not a close variant? (Answer: ‘related search’)

Now that we understand what close variants are, it’s time to look at the real issue that’s been confusing the PPC world.

A related search is actually part of the functionality of how a broad match keyword works. As of late, it has often been confused for a close variant, but they’re very different. Let’s look at exactly what a broad match keyword can serve for.

Broad match keywords are notorious at serving for extremely ridiculous search terms that are not at all related to your keyword. Here’s what that can look like:

Related Search Terms

Alright, close variants are being eliminated, not related searches. What does this mean for me?

Unfortunately, this does mean a bit less power for advertisers, something Google has a history of doing (see: Enhanced Campaigns), but I firmly believe this is one of the smaller changes we’ve seen. Though Google hasn’t released any hard figures on how many advertisers actually do exclude close variants, it’s safe to assume that it’s a very low number, since it’s a very technical setting that not as many advertisers will have turned on.

That said, there are some (rare) occasions where excluding close variants would be necessary. Let’s take a look at one of those occasions.

Close variant keywords

At first glance, you may think close variants are performing better because of a higher CTR. However, take a look at the CPA. It’s obvious that in this case, if you were trying to maximize ROI, turning off close variants would go a long way in achieving that goal as the CPA on close variants is nearly $6 higher!

This is an example of an instance where a smart advertiser would opt out of close variants so they have more control over which keywords their ads are shown for.

Why is Google changing this?

It really is up for debate, and no one knows for sure, but I believe that there were more advertisers excluding close variants than there should have been, likely due to a misunderstanding of what the term ‘close variant’ actually means (possibly mistaking it for ‘related search’). I wouldn’t take it as a sign of the end times, but I would be concerned if even more control is lost.


The removal of our ability to exclude close variants will not negatively affect most advertisers, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a reason to worry. A well optimized account will be closely managed by an account manager, not Google, and this change takes a bit of control away from account managers and gives it back to Google.

Anyone who managed their accounts very closely and smartly included or excluded close variants will be affected by this change and may need to find ways to compensate. For everyone else, you won’t even notice a difference.

Let’s start a discussion using some data points around close variants in the comments below. Do you have any experience with this or have any accounts that will be affected? Share your data so we can get a better idea about how much of an impact this will have for advertisers.


Guest Author Josh Maggard

Josh Maggard is a Search Engine Marketing Analyst for The E.W. Scripps Company in Cincinnati. You can link up with him on LinkedIn.