Google’s search terms report update is more significant than you think

Last month, Google announced to update the search terms report (STR) starting September 2020, which will only display “terms that were searched by a significant number of users”. Unsurprisingly, this results in fewer search terms to be shown in the search terms report. That being said, let’s look at it in a bit more detail. 

Google’s search terms report update announcement, shared early September 2020

I’m sure those of you using the search terms report do see the value that lies in the data it provides. And those of you who don’t, will do so shortly.  

Let’s quickly recap what the search terms report is about

By having access to data reflecting search terms your potential customer base uses to land on your website, you gain more insights into their search behaviour and, thus, learn more about how to best reach them. More importantly, you can also use this knowledge to avoid your ads being served to users who are not interested in your products or services; ergo this could help you significantly in saving costs. 

The STR is a powerful tool to leverage your spending more effectively. What I mean by that is that you have various ways of using the information the STR reveals to your advantage. For example, by looking at the report you can identify high-potential keywords, which you can then weave into your strategic marketing approaches. This could have a positive effect on your campaign performance. Another possibility of harnessing the value of the report is to detect low-performing terms and add them to your negative keyword list, which prevents your ads from being served for queries featuring those keywords. The bottom line here is: You can allocate budget to where it matters based on what you learn from your STR data – And this is the sticking point!

What changed

With the updated search terms report, limitations are being dragged along, not to advertisers’ amusement, that’s for sure. Introducing this change to the STR inevitably results in reduced insights into search queries – usually a highly valuable source to consult in order to identify areas of improvement and campaign optimisation. You basically see what you’re paying for and based on that you can derive actions. In other words, you can identify where to optimise or push more actively and where to save expenses.

search terms report

But with the newly introduced change, you’ll lose more data and the feeling of being in control. Now, the search volume of a term has to reach a certain threshold in order to show up in your STR. What this threshold is, is yet to be communicated by Google. So, I guess we’ll find out… sooner or later.

Over the past weeks, people have expressed their concerns and have been discussing the possible consequences of such an update. For example, in her blog article, Kristen McCormick shares a couple of statements which I’d like to look at:

source: https://www.wordstream.com/blog/ws/2020/09/03/google-search-terms-report-changes

One point I don’t fully agree with is that the STR update ‘renders broad match unusable’. I think it will be more difficult and challenging using this match type, but I wouldn’t declare it unusable. Another point I disagree with is that this update results in lower bidding and lower conversion rates. I’d assume that this won’t be the case if Google takes over bidding. Lastly, I’d argue that you still have the ability to create single keyword ad groups – simply by using exact match.

An additional point of view I’d like to bring in here has been shared by my colleague, Mike Ryan, Product Management Lead at smec – Smarter Ecommerce:

LinkedIn post by Mike Ryan, Product Management Lead at smec – Smarter Ecommerce

Obviously, there are many different opinions and perspectives to look at this, but what’s undeniable though, is that the changes in the STR will have an impact on advertisers. Why? At first glance, it might seem “insignificant” if low-volume search terms are excluded from the STR, but, actually quite the opposite is the case: They are significant together!  

Low-volume search terms may be considered less valuable but they can add up and turn into ad spend wasted you can’t trace. This means that every irrelevant click, even if it’s only one click, provoked by an ad served is money being burnt.

Reasoning makes sense, but…

It is unsurprising that in response to this announcement, various assumptions and opinions have been shared over the last couple of days, questioning Google’s intentions and the resulting consequences for advertisers. 

One rather vague yet somehow legitimate reason Google mentions in order to justify the change in the STR is that it is closely tied to keeping data protection and user privacy standards at a high level – obviously, this should be a priority across tech-savvy companies anyway. However, the rather indirect communication around the STR update seems to have hit a nerve among people deeply involved in paid search.

Some debate whether or not Google’s decision to update the STR was actually based on strategic motives pursuing a strongly money-driven goal. What became evident rather quickly is that the loss of valuable data has already created huge concerns among paid search managers and the like – advertisers have been reporting losing  20 – 30% of their budget’s visibility. They perceive the change as a step towards less control and reduced transparency. Basically, they feel as if they’re being deprived of their power to optimise their marketing campaigns according to their needs. Not being able to look at the seemingly “insignificant” low-volume search terms may indeed have substantial financial implications for advertisers as they wouldn’t be able to identify the terms, which don’t meet Google’s set threshold. This might also be a particularly important aspect to take into account when it comes to testing new keyword lists. In other words, there’s reduced transparency, so you don’t know which keywords belong to the low-volume pot and therefore can’t optimise effectively.

Final word

“It’s the most challenging time of the year”

With the holiday season sneaking up on us, advertisers are put in an unfortunate position as 2020’s pandemic and unprecedented market conditions hit us all hard. Nobody could have predicted what 2020 would bring. So, the only consolation here is that we’re all in the same boat and may face challenges we’ve never faced before, especially during this year’s holiday season. Given the past months and global market developments, online shopping has clearly experienced a significant boost, which leaves room for hope. However, there is still a bitter aftertaste to it as restricted visibility into the STR and therefore spending will affect advertisers’ optimisation approaches during this particular season.

Timing on Google’s part couldn’t have been worse

We all know that the holiday season has always been a period during which leveraging budget accordingly is a big topic – looking at how 2020 has evolved, it seems that budgeting has never been more important. 

Although this year’s holiday season looks promising, there’s huge uncertainty. Retailers are under intense pressure and by removing a data source they’ve come to rely on, Google isn’t doing them any favour. Workflows are disrupted, insights deliberately removed in favour of less transparency and control, Amazon Prime Day is coming up on 13. – 14. October…

…and only time will tell how Google’s change in the STR will shape the weeks ahead.