How And Why Google's Search Term Report Update Impacted Visibility

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As those of us on the paid side know, September brought a new update to Google Ads’ search term report. Google updated the report, which used to show a large portion of user search terms, to include only “terms that were searched by a significant number of users.”

We’ve been monitoring the impacts across some of our clients, and we’ve put together this month-over-month overview of our findings.

Change In Impressions

Across clients, we saw fewer impressions in our search term reports. Impressions were not consistently included in search term reports prior to the update, so this is less drastic. The more impactful changes came to clicks, cost, and conversions. 

Change In Clicks

Clicks saw a more substantial decrease, with our accounts losing an additional 21% of clicks, leaving some accounts with reports that account for only 70% of clicks.

This means that our clients -- and likely yours too -- saw a month over month decrease in visible clicks. In other words, we could see fewer low-volume, one-off search terms. If those made up a large portion of historical spend, that means you can no longer see what a large number of users are searching and where a large part of your budget is going.

Change In Cost

This is the most concerning. Prior to the update, we could see where more than 90% of our budgets were going. In September, some accounts lost visibility into more than 40% of their monthly budgets. 

This means we can only account for 60-70% of our budgets. Month over month, the rest of our spend went into a black box of searches that only Google can see. If you rely on active negative keyword management, then this also means you lose insight into the low-volume, expensive or irrelevant searches that you would otherwise exclude.

Change In Conversions

Conversions were less impacted, but still saw a sizable drop. On average, we could see 15% fewer converting terms in our September search term reports.

Converting terms help us add-to or improve our keyword lists. By removing this data, we’re left more and more reliant on Google’s suggestions. While higher-volume terms will likely be better target keywords anyway, seeing fewer converting terms means we have to wait until “a significant” number of people search to identify opportunities. That can slow the pace of keyword improvements, when before you could identify relevant terms manually as soon as they converted. 

What Does This Mean For You?

Anything that shakes up search always causes short-term chaos, but we should wait and see what happens. I’d push all of us to revisit these figures in the coming months and to cross-reference them with trends in overall performance. 

This is the closest thing PPCs have had to a Google core algorithm update in a while. And overall, this update isn’t surprising. Google has been chipping away at granular account controls since it launched automated bidding. In the past few years alone, we’ve loosened the definition of “exact match,” and we’ve watched as Google removed the 30% bid adjustment cap for those automated strategies. The reality is, daily budgets and bids have become more like suggestions. It only makes sense that Google would phase-in the same approach with keywords.

As to why we’ve seen this, there are a few reasons. Cynically, these updates make Google money. They give more account control to Google’s algorithms, which lets them spend more. On the bright side, Google’s algorithms are smart, or at least they’re learning. With any luck, they should do better over time. 

Another reason is accessibility. As frustrating as these updates are, they open the door to more SMBs, who might not have the time or know-how to dig down into an account. As it stands, this also makes Google money, but it can also break down a big barrier to entry in search marketing.

All that said, I’m not a fan of losing significant visibility into ad spend and converting terms. I don’t think I’m alone there.

Not only does this make it less appetizing for advertisers, who can no longer accurately see where they’re spending money, but this seems like a largely self-interested change. 

Why Is Google Doing This?

I’ve yet to see a holistic reason for taking this information away that goes beyond privacy and automation. That’s been a consistent justification whenever Google moves to obscure or limit access to data. In this case, this data is some of the most useful for identifying new keyword opportunities and pruning wasted spend. In my opinion, it’s our best tool for keeping our accounts in-check. 

I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw exact match terms get more expensive as a result. I also expect click through rates to fall as our ads show for new, possibly irrelevant terms, and conversions will likely follow suit.

I could be wrong, but if I were Google, that’s what I’d do. They’ve got a business to run. Automated strategies and broad match terms make them more money by shot-gunning for similar keywords. They also feed the algorithms with more data. The incentive to nudge people into automation is clear.

But with Google under fire for monopolistic behavior, I really hope it sees the conflicts here and back-pedals some of these updates in the near future. 

If you’re seeing something similar (or completely different), drop us a line. We’d love to compare notes.

John Smith

John Smith

John is a Paid Media Manager at Uproer, where he works to build paid search strategies for clients in the e-commerce and SaaS spaces. He's drawn to the ideas, channels, tactics, and emerging trends that tackle big issues in marketing. And he approaches SEM with a focus on data privacy, incrementality, and social impact. When he's not knee-deep in a spreadsheet, John volunteers with local climate organizations and helps spread their message through search.

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