How to stop Google Ads showing for close variant keywords

When Google introduced ‘keyword close variants’, it caused havoc with ads showing for irrelevant searches. Find out how to fix it.

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If you’ve seen a drop in your Google Ads metrics, you’re not alone. You may have been looking to the Recommendations tab for answers, only to find that when you implement Google’s suggestions they don’t work.

While Google has focussed on pushing advertisers to use swanky new features and ad formats, one of the most important aspects of managing a Google Ads account has become more difficult – showing ads to users that are relevant based on your keywords.

When Google introduced ‘keyword close variants’, it meant that effectively, exact match keywords no longer exactly match, and phrase match keywords no longer have to contain that phrase.

They also binned off broad modified keywords some time ago.

You now have far less control over what keywords your ads show for. Hooray.

What is a close variant keyword?

According to Google:

“Close variants allow keywords to match to searches that are similar, but not identical to the targeted keyword, and help you connect with people who are looking for your business—despite slight variations in the way they search—reducing the need to build out exhaustive keyword lists to reach these customers.”

So, close variants can include:

  • Misspellings
  • Plurals
  • Keywords with the same meaning
  • Keywords with the same intent
  • Synonyms/Paraphrases
  • Closely related words
  • Reordered keywords
  • Implied words
  • Adding/removing function words

Sounds good, right?

Not necessarily. If what you offer is quite niche, or are bidding on keywords where a change in user intent completely changes the meaning of that keyword or phrase, chances are you’re wasting a lot of impression share, and potentially budget on clicks, because a user’s expectations are not being met.

Where can I see close variant keywords?

For each ad group, go to Keywords > Search Terms (if you have keywords with very high search volume, you can select individual keywords, too).

Here you’ll see a list of search terms, and their match type, as well as whether they are added/excluded.

Have a scroll through, and you’ll soon begin to spot some keywords you don’t want to show ads for.

So how can we fix this?

How can I stop Google Ads showing ads for close variant keywords?

Maintaining negative keyword lists has always been a crucial part of Google Ads account management.

But checking in every day or so just to trawl the search term report to add new negative keywords is tedious. Very tedious.

Here are a few things you can do to make this process less time-consuming.

1. Use a negative keyword tool

By using a negative keyword tool, you can plonk in the keyword you do want to show for, and it will then generate a load of keywords that you can add as negatives.

I’ve found that this one from DM Tools works pretty well – and it’s free!

2. Audit your past keyword performance – and be brutal

Because close variants have been around for a while, you should have a fair amount of data to tell you if any of these keywords are actually converting.

I went for a massive, far-reaching cull on search terms across one of my accounts, and saw things improve almost immediately. The conversion rate increased to 3.17% from 1.69% and the CTR to 6.77% from 5.26%. Impression share also improved from 38.75% to 57.55% across all campaigns.

What I did was look at search terms over the longest period of time possible per ad group across the whole account, and exported all of that data from Google Ads. I also looked at the Assisted Conversions report in Google Analytics for the same time period, set it to the Google Ads keyword view, using ad group as a secondary dimension, and exported that too.

From here, I looked at any keywords that had never converted (or assisted conversions) for that entire time period across both exports. I then added all of them as negative keywords at ad group level.

Across all campaigns, I ended up adding more than 8,500 negative keywords.

Is there a small chance one of these keywords would have resulted in a conversion?

Sure, but I can always experiment with a campaign that targets phrase match keywords periodically to make sure there isn’t anything I’ve excluded that does convert without impacting the performance of the most important campaigns in the account.

Now, this is never going to be a perfect, catch-all solution as Google prevents you from having complete control by hiding some search term data.

3. Use a script

Another option is to use a script to help automate this process, allowing you to get on with other tasks.

This script by Daniel Gilbert of Brainlabs works by adding negatives for any search query that doesn’t actually exactly match an exact match keyword. Find out more on how to use the script here.

If you want to read more about Google Ads and its constant nagging recommendation to switch to automated strategies such as Broad Match with Dynamic Search Ads (and my recommendation that you don’t), you can read that here.

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