Brad Geddes / PPC Geek
Official Google Ads Seminar Leader.
Author of Advanced Google AdWords.
Co-Founder, Adalysis.
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AdWords is Forcing Variation Match Upon You–This is Why it’s a Terrible Idea

Google just announced that all exact match and phrase matched words will be treated as ‘variation’ or ‘near’ match starting in September.

I want to show you why this is an absolutely terrible idea if Google does not let you opt out of this (which it does today).

What is Variation Match?

If you are unfamiliar with this setting, it’s neither good nor bad – it is account and maybe even keyword specific whether it is good or bad for you.

If this setting is turned on, then your exact match and phrase match keywords can show for ‘variations’ of those words. These are commonly misspellings, singulars, plurals, etc.

This is a campaign level setting:


Viewing Variations

When you navigate to your search query data, you will see (close variant) next to the match type indicating that this isn’t your keyword, but a variation of that keyword.



Determining if this is a good or bad setting

The easiest way to see if this is a good or bad setting for you is to use a pivot table and view your data by match type:


In this particular account, close variations have much lower conversion rates and much higher CPAs than their actual match type.

Advertiser’s Are Slowly Losing Control

Variation match isn’t always bad, there are times it can be good to use variation match. However, there was choice.

In fact, in this account variation match isn’t all bad. It uses a Search/Discovery or Alpha/Beta structure. Variation match is turned on in the Beta campaigns and turned off in the Alpha campaigns.

If you want to learn how to audit your keyword, please see Part 8 of the Audit series:  The Complete AdWords Audit Part 8: Keywords and Match Types.

Finally, if you want control – please tell Google how bad of an idea this is. Loss of control is never good. Mobile control was lost with Enhanced Campaigns, and now you’re losing control over your match types. This will further erode your ability to control costs and conversions within AdWords.

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  1. Matt Van Wagner
    August 15, 2014 at 8:35 am · Reply

    Google, Yahoo and Bing have swung back and forth on this issue for the last 10 years in paid search. It’s too bad they’ve opted for less granularity and precision over more. Google must really be feeling the pressure on revenues and profits to sacrifice search quality like this.

  2. Andrew Goodman
    August 15, 2014 at 9:40 am · Reply

    Of course I’m bothered by this change, although at times in some campaigns I’m willing to trade off control for a little convenience and looseness. But across the board, it’s a bad trend. Just think of how this will affect low volume B2B campaigns where close variants may not be close at all.

    But the much larger issue here, Google and my friends Matt & Brad, is the continue lack of tablet-specific bidding. We can bid up to -100% on smartphones, but Google continues to maintain that tablets are similar enough to computers as to bundle them together 1-1. In campaign setup, it simply says “Show to All Devices by Default.”

    There are large parts of some kinds of accounts (ecommerce) that do reasonably equally with tablets. Also, attribution can be an issue. Sometimes we like high-funnel, inexpensive clicks on smartphones though they may take longer to convert. Oops, did I say inexpensive? Can’t play that game with tablets.

    I have one particular client whose CPA is 4-5x higher on tablets. That is a disparity of, yes, +300-400% in our KPI! *It actually hinders our bidding and spend for the account as a whole*. If Google gave us tablet control, we’d actually spend more (or at least, no less) in the end.

    Ultimately all this does is reduce the advertiser’s profitability. Google, the ecosystem is out here and it needs to survive economically.

    • brad
      August 15, 2014 at 10:10 am · Reply

      I totally agree. In fact, I’d take it further and say that Google has little faith in mobile devices as they don’t allow a lot of bid control on them. If they had a lot of faith in mobile’s ability to generate revenue; they would allow for desktop adjustments so we could bid on keywords that are specific to mobile or only bid on mobile devices.

      We have many accounts where the mobile CPAs are much lower than desktops. For those, we would be willing to do +1000% bid adjustments if possible, or use keywords that are much more generic on mobile devices that just don’t convert on desktops.

      This ‘race for simplicity’ is helping the local businesses spend more money; but is taking away the ability for smart advertiser’s to make great decisions.

      I’d even go to far as to say that if a search engine launched tomorrow that had the Google features of 2012 (pre-ehanced) and had the volume and quality of Google; if we were constrained by budget; we’d move all our money to that other engine tomorrow.

      • Jarred
        September 22, 2014 at 1:02 pm · Reply

        Totally agree BG.

  3. Julie Friedman Bacchini
    August 15, 2014 at 10:43 am · Reply

    I find this all so disappointing. It is clear though that Google is on the path of taking away more and more control for advertisers as to how their ads are served. Between the loss of device segmentation in Enhanced Campaigns, the loss of search term data earlier this year to judge performance of specific paid search terms and actual queries in detail and now this latest change, removing the ability to actually have control over which keywords will trigger your ads, it is starting to feel like the inevitable conclusion of this march is going to be the removal of keywords as ad triggering devices all together.

    I hope this is not true, but with the push for using demographics and interests also happening this year, I would not at all be surprised to find in the not too distant future AdWords working more like this – you tell us who your ideal audience is, and we’ll be sure to show them your ads. Trust us.

    We will definitely be following this closely and reporting on the real world impact we see. I guess we will all be spending even more time combing through query reports and keyword details now to be sure we are very aggressively and frequently adding negatives to try to counterbalance this new policy!

  4. aaron
    August 15, 2014 at 11:28 am · Reply

    so you’re suggesting we ‘tell google not to do this?

    i feel your suggestion will fall on not just deaf ears, but NO ears.. there’s no means for telling this large private company what to do!

    hell you can’t even call google… (you can, but you know you can’t).

    just sayin’… how we react to this shows our SEO abilities, complaining won’t ‘make google second think this change that they’ve ALREADY ANNOUNCED!

    So I support you but i’m not going to try to get google not to do this as it’s a pure waste of my time. no? plus it’s not nearly as horrific as (not provided) which well you know the ending to that story… over 80% not provided… thanks.

    • brad
      August 15, 2014 at 11:35 am · Reply

      Last year there was such an outpouring of outrage from the community as a whole about Google Ad Rotation changes; that Google changed their mind how they implemented a feature.

      It has happened a few times over the years. When marketers make enough fuss over a change, and its a lot of communication to Google, etc – then Google has changed their mind before.

      It’s always possible that this can be done again.

  5. Ivan
    August 15, 2014 at 1:19 pm · Reply

    Another change that takes AdWords in completely wrong direction, imho.
    I guess they need to simplify setup and maximize reach for those users who don’t have will or time to manage campaigns, but at least they should leave it as opt-out (or opt-in) function.

    @Brad, do you think starting a petition against these changes would make sense?
    I believe people started some sort of petition when there were planned changes in Ad Rotation and Google reacted on it (or at least seems that way).

  6. brad
    August 15, 2014 at 3:57 pm · Reply

    Here’s a petition you can sign:

  7. Matteo Zambon
    August 16, 2014 at 2:22 am · Reply

    Brad, thank you for the news and petition. That’s a bad news for AdWords

  8. Ed Leake
    August 16, 2014 at 5:36 am · Reply

    We already target misspellings to great effect – so Google is taking that edge away, why? Because it makes them more money doing it this way. Come on big G, play fair to those of us that care!

  9. Art Cerimele
    August 16, 2014 at 8:13 pm · Reply

    The very fact that they do not let us choose proves they are not looking out for our best intrrest. For years they have been trying to to trick us into their upgrades as a work around to exact match. Finally they just decided to flat out steal our money.

  10. EJ Campbell
    August 17, 2014 at 1:37 am · Reply

    If this ends up being a bad thing overall, won’t the market react and advertisers will simply lower the among of money they can afford to spend on clicks? Before, I could profitably acquire customers for $10, but now since conversion is worse due to less ideal clicks on ads that appear because variation is enabled, I can only spend $9 on the same campaign.

    Really, it seems like folks against variation matching are sad that google is evening the playing field.

  11. Dan
    August 17, 2014 at 5:57 am · Reply

    Brad, can you not just take the larger impression (close variant) kws and add those as exact match,typos included?
    Also, in pt example above sure the conversion is lower but without cv you wouldn’t have had those conversions at all correct? Thus it’s not necessarily a bad thing and needs to be weighed up against margin and revenue (as opposed to purely a %).
    Saying all this, fully agree that losing control of another facet is a bad thing and just reeks of another way to make even more £££ for the big G. (Imo)

    • brad
      August 17, 2014 at 3:00 pm · Reply

      I’m not saying variation match is bad; there are times it is good. It’s the loss of choice that is bad.

      In some cases, since Google aggregates ‘other’; you won’t always know the variations; hence you can’t block them. I’m seeing people now trying to design tools to take all their keywords and come up with every possible variation as a negative keyword. We might see negative keyword list sizes explode with this change.

  12. Bill Smith
    August 18, 2014 at 4:19 am · Reply


    Do you have a petition for bringing bad separate bidding on Tablets? I’ll sign that one twice. Thanks,


    • brad
      August 18, 2014 at 6:56 am · Reply

      I don’t; but that’s a good idea. Bing is going to do it (to some extent) when they launch modifiers in the next few months; but Google has really held firm that tablets are computers no matter how much people show the data stating otherwise.

      What really drives me crazy about tablets with Google is that when they present information; they lump tablets with mobile devices and then in AdWords they treat them differently. That seems very hypocritical.

  13. Mike Roberts
    August 18, 2014 at 5:49 pm · Reply

    Hey Brad,

    I took your data here, did some additional analysis on it, and ultimately combined it with similar data from Sam Owen. I was able to build a pretty statistically significant aggregate sample.

    My conclusion is that Phrase Match Close Variants are a very big deal that can cut your campaign performance by about 8%. Exact Match close variants, on the other hand are kind of harmless, and may actually improve performance.

    My recommendation is the kill all Phrase Match keywords in your account and convert them to Exact Match. I’m curious what you think about my conclusions. Cheers!

    • brad
      August 19, 2014 at 9:12 am · Reply


      From a high level aggregate data that might make sense; but there are plenty of times when that might not be true (thus very advertiser specific).

      Another reason to buy phrase or modified broad is to find new words; so if you move to all exact match; you’d lose the ability to find new words to use as exact match.

      Now, if someone wasn’t looking for new volume – then using all exact match with variations off makes a lot of sense.

      However, if you’re looking to keep your current inventory and find new ones; then you need some other match types.

      One thing I’ve found is that for roughly 75% of accounts; modified broad and phrase match have roughly the same CPA and conversion rates; so in many cases, phrase match isn’t necessary to begin with. There are some exceptions (cleveland driver – a golf club) where modified broad does terrible for words since it doesn’t care about word orderings.

      In the end – I think the argument is really about choice. It should be my choice to be only on mobile devices. It should be my choice to use variation match. As Google does some of these high level data aggregates; they lose the fact if on average it’s 5% better for everyone; in reality that means it 10% better for some and 25% worse for others. They are ignoring those who it’s worse for and are not supporting some advertiser types any longer.

      • Mike Roberts
        August 19, 2014 at 6:49 pm · Reply

        Yeah, I agree. Particularly with that last part. It really does seem like that’s where a lot of the decisions are coming from: Which features are most people using, and which ones are confusing them? Works great for building a great search experience. Works not so well building an Ad Management platform. Ugh.

        I’ve been struggling with when to recommend Phrase Match to people in light of these changes. I’ve been a proponent of a Match Type promotion strategy — Modified Broad / Phrase –> Exact. The goal there is to improve your efficiency by 20-30% by promoting. But, now that there’s an immediate 7-30% improvement by starting with Exact, maybe it’s best to start there and perhaps demote — like build a long tail Exact group from the very beginning, and have a catch-all Phrase group to get everything that isn’t matched on an Exact?

        • brad
          August 21, 2014 at 7:40 am · Reply

          I’ve been building accounts via two methods recently; depending on budget.

          High budget > want to learn > refine. In this case, I start with modified broad match and then use a Search/Discovery structure ( and in most cases, just skip phrase match. In roughly 65-75% of our accounts, modified and phrase have very similar CRs & CPAs. In these accounts, I use variants in discovery campaign but turn them off in the search campaign.

          Low budget > grow up with returns. I start with almost all exact match; as I find the best words, then I’ll add them as phrase match (to control budgets). At some point in time the company has enough budget to increase clicks; but usually not enough to increase all their words to modified; so I’ll test variants before moving the top phrases to modified.

          I don’t think there’s a ‘best’ way to do this; I think the budget and how experimental the account can be with finding what is profitable often dictates these types of strategies. However, there are plenty of accounts where we don’t use phrase anymore. We’re more likely to use it for budget control, when word ordering really matters, or in the rare cases when phrase and modified do have drastically different CPAs/CRs.

  14. Jerry Nordstrom
    August 22, 2014 at 10:21 am · Reply

    Excellent discussion with so many valid points and insightful opinions.

    The most important lesson I have learned over the years of managing PPC accounts is that when a platform like Adwords does not allow control over a feature it is because it is not to their financial benefit to do so. Suggesting to us its better for our campaigns is pure rubbish.

    Google; implement all the new features you want, just be sure to add a nice little off and on switch so we can construct campaigns using a model of our choice.

    • brad
      August 22, 2014 at 10:29 am · Reply

      I totally agree. However, I don’t think they look at it from the big picture. As they force us to make worse decisions; it just makes us consider other places to move our budgets that will allow for more control or better results.

      • Kevin O'Sullivan
        September 1, 2014 at 4:29 am · Reply

        But where are those places??

        That’s the trade-off Google knows it can get away with.

        Bing gives me about 5% (at most) of sales compared to adwords. And that’s one of the better converting areas. You’d have to spend many extra hours on affiliates, voucher sites, facebook, twitter, newsletters, banner ads etc etc to get half the traffic and sales that come via google. And the costs are higher and the profits aren’t great.

        So, if I carry on at the same game it’s ever decreasing circles.

        The solution
        The model is changing and our business will have to adjust. How exactly I haven’t yet worked out, but I know it can’t carry on as it is. I need to do something different, very different.

  15. Kevin O'Sullivan
    September 1, 2014 at 4:20 am · Reply

    Well, this is a blow. I’ve just turned OFF a whole campaign. It’s the only way.

    The costs for variants was the whole reason I set up a campaign with just a few specific terms – exact and phrase match for main 2 keywords – plus keywords without a space, i.e. [main keyword] [main keywords] [mainkeyword] [mainkeywords] “main keyword” “main keywords”

    If google is now going to add all sorts of various other combinations – that I’ve tried and tested over the years and found expensive and got rid of – then that campaign is done.

    Let someone else pick up the tab, it ain’t gonna be me. No point writing to google, only thing they’re interested in is money and how to eek out more from the same real estate.

  16. Daniel Gilbert
    September 22, 2014 at 10:19 am · Reply

    Hi Brad,

    I posted on another article of yours.

    We’ve written an AdWords script to automatically reverse these pesky changes.

    It’s not perfect because Google doesn’t give us all the search term data but the script will add all ‘close variant’ search terms as exact negatives. So if you are running separate Exact campaigns/AdGroups then these will continue as normal.

    • brad
      October 4, 2014 at 8:43 am · Reply

      Hi Dan,

      Thanks for sharing. I saw another one on SEL as well; these scripts are going to be handy for fixing the variation match issues.


  17. Jarad
    October 7, 2014 at 10:10 am · Reply

    Why is it Google announces coming changes and asks for forgiveness later? Very dictatorship-like. It takes more effort for them to remove the feature than to simply leave it alone – so there’s an agenda / reason they want to do it and it’s certainly not for simplicity-sake.

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