The AdWords Close Variant Meltdown

by Susan Wenograd  |  Published 9:00 AM, Mon August 25, 2014

In case you haven’t heard, folks who use AdWords in a serious manner had a meltdown last week.

Google announced they would be automatically using “Close Variants” for all Exact and Phrase Match keywords.

The AdWords Close Variant Meltdown

Uh…What’s a Close Variant?

Let’s start at the beginning. There was this wee, seemingly innocuous setting in AdWords that was selected by default that “enabled Close Variants.” It was under the Settings area, buried in the expandable area for Keyword Matching Options. Here is the mug shot of the offender:

Screen Shot 2014-08-21 at 8.08.49 PM

This was something that was selected by default. I’d be willing to bet that a good number of accounts had it enabled, and in fact, many power users in the PPC world said they would tend to leave it that way. It would sometimes come up at conferences and in particular cases where people had “WTF?” moments with their metrics.

Close Variants have become like Susan Boyle in American Idol. It seemed like nothing until suddenly it was something. However, in this case, it wasn’t something beautiful that elicited adoration. It’s pretty similar in fervor, though.

So, What Happened?

Google announced they were basically just taking it from a default to a given: All accounts, all match types would always just use this Close Variants option.

I’m not sure Google was quite ready for the eye clawing and teeth gnashing that ensued. People really lost it. Admittedly, even I was a little stunned. I’ve long thought that some folks think it’s cool to rebel against the Googs and freak out over every change they make, so some segment of the population does it just for that purpose.

But others have a really valid beef. I’ve had my share of them with the changes to AdWords over the years, but let’s look at this one specifically, and then I’ll tell you where I fall.

Why is Everyone Losing It?

Within a few days, places started posting blog entries of their analysis on their “Close variant” keywords vs. the ones they were actually bidding on. The results were pretty mixed, and that was not only in case studies of Close variant results, but also in people’s reactions. The AdWords power users were overwhelmingly upset by the change, no doubt fueled by the previous year’s introduction of Enhanced Campaigns, and also the epic meltdown when Google stopped showing organic keyword data in Analytics.

Since then, quite a few people have approached me with outrage and some version of, “OMG AREN’T YOU MAD?!”

Well…I don’t know, actually.

Here’s the thing. Beyond being a paid search person, I’m a pretty practical business person. I’ve always been numbers driven. Sure, I vent and rage and have emotional reactions to certain things, but I can be pretty objective when it comes to cold, hard facts around things like business, money, and media. So when Google makes decisions, I can think, wow, that’s damn annoying. But the other half of me shrugs and thinks, you know, it’s their product.

Do I find it annoying? Yes. I like options, and I get annoyed when they’re taken from me. That’s not something specific to Google. I think a lot of PPC people are highly detail oriented, and are predisposed to not like change a lot. Most of them will tell you that themselves. It’s not a criticism; I sometimes wish I were more like that, because it would certainly help when I lack in detail orientation. There’s a vast difference between not liking change and not liking reduced options, though.

Did I Use Close Variants?

Yes, largely I did. In almost every case, it found permutations and misspellings that I would not have thought about. It was a good safety net for those cases, and when Google would take too much liberty with it, I’d just add it as an Exact Match negative keyword.

I’m so used to doing that at this point that it truly didn’t shake my world when they did this. I rolled my eyes and thought, “Ugh, OK, so I have to just be extra vigilant on negative keywords.” I’d done the analysis, and Close Variants ultimately helped my accounts in the long term, so I’d included them.

That was kind of it for me, at least when it came to an account management level. When I take that part out of it, yeah, I do feel annoyed that another option has been taken away. So why am I not totally losing my stuff over this?

Google Sometimes Just Doesn’t Get It

They take great care in evolving their products, or at least touting their changes that way. They’ve also made the mistake of making things available that they take away over time, and that’s where I think a lot of the frustration comes in. There are features they made available that perhaps they should have kept to themselves until they saw how things played out. Close Variants is a good example of this, just like Enhanced Campaigns were.

Enhanced Campaigns would have been more aptly named if they’d done the reverse: kept PC/tablet bundled together and mobile separate with a bid modifier, and then later let us treat them all separately. Google would have looked like a hero. And if they’d just always kept it PC/table with mobile bid modifiers, we’d never have known the difference.

Close Variants are sort of in the same boat. If it had never been an option, Google would have looked like a ground-breaking provider if they’d suddenly made it something we could do later. Instead, they did the opposite in showing these levers to pull and then taking them away.

It’s Their Product

Like I said last year, Google is a company. It’s their product, and their profit. The perception that they owe us the same things they’ve always given us is foolish. I don’t like it, but it’s the reality, and it won’t be the last change they make to the AdWords product.

I fully admit that I’m someone OK with change—I’ve actually taken personality profiles where I’m categorized as a “change embracer” so I’m internally wired to roll with the punches.

There wasn’t an Internet, let alone a product like AdWords when I was growing up. Google is a relatively young company, and they’re going to continue to test, tweak, and do away with things that just don’t work for them anymore. I wish they’d do the opposite and keep it to themselves for a good, long while. It sure would help their image to give people LESS and then look like heroes when they release stuff little by little, but I’m not here to help them with their PR.

You inherently take risk when you use a platform you don’t own. I think PPCers feel a sense of ownership with AdWords, and that gets sticky. It’s Google’s product and their data. Sure, we’re their customers, but in the grand universe of AdWords, I question how much of the customer base revenue comes from power users.

Is it unfair to expect them to tailor the product to the power users if the majority of their product’s use (and profitability) comes from non-power users? As a business, surely they look at these things. Power users might be the most vocal, but does that equate to being the most profitable?

I can’t answer that. I have to stick to what I know for sure, which is this: They have a product that ultimately benefits my clients in a major way, and forcing Close Variants won’t change that for most of them. This clashes with the fact that I don’t like the removal of options for accounts, ever. But I have to accept it’s part of the agreement in using someone else’s platform. I might use it multiple times a day, but it’s theirs and not mine. AdWords isn’t a commodity where I can say, “Take a flying leap, I’m going to the 18 other platforms that do the SAME THING YOU JERK.”

So, until then, I enter AdWords with the change-embracing nature I’m predisposed to: It’s their product. I will give my input for as much as it’s worth. And someday, when the next best thing shows up, I’ll move my spend there.

So decide how you’ll react now, knowing that day will probably come for all advertisers.


Susan Wenograd has spent the last 10 years in the digital marketing space in both client and agency side roles. Her career path has enabled her to work in many facets of the online universe, including copywriting, editing, overseeing email marketing, display/rich media advertising, and paid search management.

She has worked with and for many household names including Circuit City, Hamilton Beach Appliances, GMC, Chevy, Buick, Dodge, and Cadillac. She's managed teams from 2 to 20+ people, and accounts spending $1,000 to $1mm+.

Currently, she's Sr. Manager of Digital Marketing for Garden Ridge, a 60+ store home decor retail chain located throughout the south and midwest. She also frequently consults and advises clients on things like paid media and agency/client relationship management.

  • bastienSR

    Hi Susan,

    I’m glad to read this post ! I completely share your point of view. Many people seems to think Google is working for them, but that’s not true. Google is working for Google and people like you and me are making business with his products.

    I also have been disappointed when Google has stopped some features in his products, but this is his choices. If you don’t like it, don’t use it. Maybe it seems a bit rude but that’s the reality. We are the ones who have to adapt to Google’s strategy, not the opposite.

    Google stop some features. OK. But how many features Google has added to Adwords in the previous months? It’s a huge work and all the PPC community get benefit from this work.