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Hidden search terms in Google Ads – what’s the impact and what can you do about it?

A couple of months ago, Google announced some big changes to the search terms report. In case you’re not familiar with it, the search terms report is a list of the actual search terms that people have entered into Google, that resulted in your ad being shown. These search terms may be quite different to what you see in your keywords report, which is what you’re targeting. The actual search terms are often quite interesting to look through, and can reveal a lot of useful information about what people are actually searching for, vs what you’re targeting or what you think they’re searching for. (And sometimes it’s fun just to see all the weird and wonderful misspellings and incoherent sentences).

So what was the big announcement?

“Starting September 2020, the search terms report only includes terms that a significant number of users searched for, even if a term received a click. You may now see fewer terms in your report.”

Google cited privacy and data protection as the reasons for the change. On one hand, it makes sense – a user could potentially be personally identified based on a very unique search query. On the other hand, the skeptic in me says this is a great way for Google to make more money without having to be accountable to advertisers.

The somewhat ambiguous and unexpected statement sent advertisers and account managers into a frenzy. What does “a significant number” mean? Will I only be able to see search terms if more than 2 people have searched for the exact same term? 5 people? 50 people!? How many search terms will I lose visibility of? It really was a bit of an unknown, and the only way to really find out has been to wait and see.

Okay, so a couple of months on, what’s the impact?

The level of impact very much depends on how your account is set up, which industry you’re in (people search differently for different things) and a range of other factors, but there definitely seems to be a significant impact across almost all accounts.

To find out the impact in your own account:

  1. Sign into your Google Ads account.
  2. Click Search Campaigns in the navigation pane on the left.
    (Note: you can also click “All campaigns”, but this will include data from your display campaigns as well, which may make things confusing)
  3. Click to expand the Keywords sub-menu, then click Search terms.
google ads search terms menu

Select the date range you want to look at, and refine by any particular campaigns, then scroll to the summary rows at bottom of the window to see the totals.

I was quite shocked to discover the following in one of my accounts (I’ve included the “Display campaigns” row just to show there were none running during this period, so the numbers are all for search ads):

Let’s just break this down for a second.

Impressions

During this period, there were 47,745 impressions, and I can see which search terms triggered 8,071 of them. That means my ads showed up a further 39,674 times (this number is handily also omitted from the report by Google, but is easy to calculate) but I’m not allowed to see what people searched for to trigger them. 83% of search terms triggering my ads are invisible.

Clicks

During this period, there were 4,390 clicks on my ads, and I can see which search terms triggered 2,336 of them. So 2,055 clicks (almost half) resulted from searches I can’t see.

Cost

Of the money spent on Google search ads, almost half (48.8%) goes into a black box.

Click-through Rate (CTR)

What’s quite interesting here is the huge difference in CTR between the visible and omitted search terms. The ones I am allowed to see have a 28.94% CTR, but there’s no CTR given for the omitted search terms. It’s easy enough to work out – take the impressions figure from above (39,674) and the number of clicks from omitted search terms (thankfully already provided – 2,055) and you can work out the CTR for omitted search terms is much lower at 5.15%.

Why does it matter?

There are quite a few reasons why this matters, and why it’s incredibly frustrating. Not least of which is that Google seems deaf to any complaints (someone even started a Change.org petition) from advertisers. Google says this is what they have to do for privacy reasons, and that we should just hand over money and trust their AI will do a better job than we would. At the end of the day, they have a monopoly on search ads, so it seems like we’re stuck with this change for the time being. There are some things we can do to manage it, which I’ll tackle in a moment. But first, here are some of the reasons why you should care about this change, and do what you can to minimise its impact.

#1 You can’t optimise what you can’t see.
Google says their AI does all the optimisation for you, so what’s the problem? Well, machine learning is great and all, but it needs a lot of data to learn from and make the best decisions. And that can take time. You might see your CTR increase and your CPC drop over time if you have enough data. If you have lots of impressions, clicks and enough conversions on your website to see which ones actually lead to your desired outcome then sure, Google’s AI can optimise your ad campaigns for those conversions.

If your campaigns have small budgets, or if there just aren’t many people searching for your type of product/service (both of which are issues in many of my campaigns) there’s just not enough data to learn from in order to optimise the ads. If you run Facebook ads you may be familiar with this when ads get stuck in the learning phase and you get the dreaded “Learning limited” message.

The benefit that you, as a human embedded in the business, have over AI is that you have experience and knowledge of your particular business, and your customers. By being able to see the exact things people are searching for, you can immediately identify if there’s a mismatch in intent, or adjust your ads and keyword targeting to better represent your business to what your prospective customers need. Which brings me to…

#2 Negative keywords

Negative keywords are one of the most powerful tools in your Google Ads arsenal. They allow you to identify words that signal different intent than what you were trying to target, and then add those words to a list so that they don’t trigger your ads. The problem now is that long-tail searches are being hidden, so if the same word appears in quite a few unique searches, you may not be able to see this theme emerging. Sure, with enough data maybe AI will realise searches with that word don’t convert, and will optimise your ads for that. But that emerging trend or theme could be really important to know for your business.

#3 Research, product development, identifying trends

On that note, my favourite thing about the search terms report has always been the power of using it for research. It’s a great place to identify new trends or areas you haven’t thought of before. Perhaps there’s been a government announcement or change in regulation that affects your industry. Or maybe there’s a shift in how people want to consume your type of product (COVID is the perfect example of this happening). Or maybe there’s just a hot new trend emerging.

If you notice that people are searching for certain similar phrases but maybe with slightly different intent (therefore generating impressions but not clicks), you can change your ads, optimise or create a new landing page, or even go back to product development and tweak your offering! These kinds of things are really powerful for growing and adapting your business to market needs. But if you can’t see it, these key insights just sit there invisible with low CTR, and you won’t know about it.

#4 The big one – it’s wasting your money

There has always been wasted spend on advertising, and always will. Search ads were one of the most efficient forms of advertising precisely because you could see exactly what people were searching for and optimise your advertising, or your business, to suit. But now a lot of the wasted spend isn’t visible. Google wants you to throw piles of cash into the black box and trust that they’ll optimise it better than any human could.

This change will absolutely result in an increase in wasted spend for many advertisers, especially those without enough data (search volume, budgets, etc) for the AI to make meaningful optimisations. If you’re competing for search terms with high cost-per-click, the invisible (and potentially irrelevant) clicks could be costing you a lot of money.

What can I do about it?

Okay, enough doom and gloom. This is the new reality, so what can we do to make sure we’re in the best position possible?

#1 If you’re not already, consider allocating some of your ad budget to Microsoft Advertising (Bing search ads). Google certainly has most of the market share, but there are still quite a few people using Bing and other search engines. Not only will you reach new people, but also you can use the search query data from Bing to inform your negative keywords list and keyword strategies on Google Ads.

#2 Consider your account structure & strategy. How are your ads currently set up, and how will this change impact you? Perhaps you could consider pooling some things together so that you have higher levels of traffic and conversions to let Google’s AI do the heavy lifting and optimisation for you. Or if you need more control over individual products, consider how your ad groups, ads, keywords are all set up – perhaps more granularity will enable you to draw conclusions about what people are searching for and how they’re behaving, even if the exact search they entered isn’t visible. Your campaigns and ad groups should probably be set up by themes already, but if not, it’s the perfect time to do it!

Think about whether your ads/keywords are targeting different stages in the purchase journey (or if you prefer the “F” word… funnel). Move away from broad match keywords, which could be triggering all kinds of irrelevant search terms, because now you can’t easily see and manage them.

Take a step back, think how the changes will impact your own account and then make a decision on what (if anything) you could do differently. Experiment, test, iterate… it’s all about continuous improvement, and you can always do that in some way, no matter what limitations you have to work with. Despite my words above, I’m not totally against AI – tools like Dynamic Search Ads and Smart Bidding can be fantastic under the right circumstances. Try them out to see if they work for you, but keep a close eye on the results to draw your own conclusions. It’s not always set and forget.

#3 Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Sure, search has been (and will continue to be) a powerful form of advertising. But as marketers, we’ve been through changes plenty of times before. The exact same thing happened to SEOs in 2013 – Google Analytics removed keyword data and replaced it with a catch-all “not provided”. The key problem with most marketing platforms, whether that’s search ads, social media, videos, or anything else – is that you don’t own the platform, and you don’t own the data. The reality is that these companies can (and do) change whatever they want overnight. Sometimes it’s their own decision, sometimes it’s government regulations and changes in law or politics forcing their hand, but the fact is it will continue to happen.

If your marketing strategy is too heavily invested in one area, you’re going to be in for a bad time. Search should be one part of your broader marketing mix. That mix will look different for every business and every industry, but it might include social media, video, trade shows, display advertising, podcasts, billboards… You know your business and your customers best, so do what works for you, but don’t rely solely on one or two channels.

Final thoughts…

This change is frustrating and annoying, and could be costing a lot of money. But as long as you’re proactive (go and take a look at your own ad account now to assess the impact), there are ways to manage, and strategies to minimise the impact. And at least everyone’s in the same boat!

The real long term play is to focus on building your brand. Be there for your market. Provide thought leadership, insight, be helpful, offer value and expertise. Be honest and trustworthy. Prove that you are the only one to even consider when it comes to your industry. Of course, that doesn’t happen overnight, and you’ll always need search ads because 100% market share and brand awareness is (almost) impossible. But hey, brand search terms are cheaper than all the rest :)

I’d love to know your thoughts. What other impacts can you see this having, and what changes will you be making? Reach out to me on LinkedIn.

Thanks for reading. I appreciate it! ❤️

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