2020 Google paid search trends unrelated to the pandemic
Since the close variant takes the place of the broad match, restricting the keywords is not sufficient to keep the query-to-keyword match close.
It's no secret to marketers working with paid search that COVID-19 has greatly impacted the performance and ability of advertisers to spend on paid search marketing, depending on their industry and business situation. There have been numerous articles written about some of these changes.
Here we want to talk about the trends in 2020 that are impacting paid search marketers that have nothing to do with the pandemic, and how to think about them moving forward.
The death of the tablet
Looking at a collection of long-standing Tinuiti advertisers, growth in tablet spending on Google US paid search began to decline in the fourth quarter of 2019, from 5% growth last quarter to 22% decline in the final quarter of the year. This trend didn't pick up until 2020, with spending declining by at least 45% in each of the first two quarters of the year.
While device trends can undoubtedly be the result of advertisers shifting strategy, the magnitude of the decline makes it clear that this is more than just advertisers retreating to tablets.
In fact, according to data from Statista, global tablet shipments have been steadily declining since a high observed in the fourth quarter of 2014. In the fourth quarter of 2019, shipments were the lowest since the third quarter of 2012.
As larger smartphones come with better functionality that increasingly undermines the value proposition of tablet devices, tablets just don't seem to have the same demand as they did in the early days of this device type. In turn, the volume of searches on these devices just isn't what it used to be, and paid search advertisers are seeing a corresponding decline.
For those responsible for paid search services, this really just means that it is becoming less and less important for many to pay equal attention to the traffic coming from these devices. While it still makes sense to be aware and ensure that no significant inefficient spend is coming from tablets, the likelihood of this happening continues to decrease over time, as tablets now only account for 4% of Google search clicks for Tinuiti advertisers.
This also applies to spending from the search partner network, which is now minimal after years of decline.
2019 updates lead to Google search partner share spinoff
Google announced in March 2019 that Shopping ads appearing on Google Image Search would be grouped with the core search network rather than the search partner network. This followed a decision by Yahoo to turn to Microsoft Ads for its search ads. This broke off a relationship where some of Google's search partner traffic came from Yahoo.
These changes led to a steep decline in click share from search partners, particularly for Shopping, and by the end of Q2, click share for both text ads and Shopping was below 1%.
Although the Search Partner Network has been a divisive source of paid search traffic over the years, given the lack of control advertisers have over bids and placements, we've long found that the efficiency of this traffic typically matches that of traffic coming from google.com. This is due to an inherent discount for clicks from search partners, which usually roughly corresponds to how much lower the conversion rate of search partner traffic is compared to the core network.
Unfortunately, after years of decline, the search partner network is now so small that the debate over whether to target these sites is not very important these days.
In 2020, another controversial source of paid search traffic also declined in broad agreement.
Broad-based matches now account for only 10% of non-Google-branded paid searches
Back in the first half of 2016, the share of paid non-branded search clicks that counted as broad matches in Google search reports was over 25 % for the median advertiser. Fast forward to Q2 2020, and that share is now only 10%.
So what happened? Did the advertisers pack up their keywords and say no thanks to Broad Match?
While advertisers may employ different keyword strategies over time, especially when transferring management from one agency/consultant to another, the decline observed over the past four years appears to be the result of Google's ever-changing definition of narrow variants over time.
Looking at the share of total exact match traffic (including close variants) that comes from close variants, we find that this share has increased for the median advertiser from 12% in Q1 2016 to over 40% in Q2 2020.
Since the current definition of narrow variant is limited to anything Google considers to have "the same meaning" as the keyword, it's hard to imagine the definition getting any broader from here.
The infusion of so much traffic that would have previously been considered "broad match" into narrow variants means advertisers must remain vigilant in evaluating search query reports to identify situations that warrant keyword negatives. Not all close variants are bad matches, but many see significantly different performance on the non-brand side than true exact matches and phrase matches.
Many marketers have long restricted the keywords used in Broad Match to limit how many bad matches are pulled into the queries that drive ad impressions. Now that narrow variants are more or less taking the place of Broad Match, strategies like avoiding Broad Match keywords aren't enough to keep query-to-keyword matches narrow.
Advertisers will need to remain vigilant regardless of what match type a keyword is set to.
There are many moving parts in the world right now, with different regions moving in waves across the United States through various stages of restricted movement, sometimes having to return to earlier stages of security arrangements. This dispersed reality is likely to persist for the foreseeable future and will have a significant impact on paid search performance, which varies by location and industry.
Nonetheless, some underlying trends have been emerging for years and are not necessarily the result of current events. To understand current performance, one must understand these changes as well as those that are emerging as a result of COVID-19.