Skip to main content

What the Changes to Google Ads Search Term Report Visibility Mean for Your Business

by Furqan Wasif | 11.11.2020

“Ah, Google is at it again!” or so it goes across thousands of offices around the world every time Google changes a functionality in Google Ads. The collective groan or sigh is in anticipation over how the new changes will affect performance, costs, KPIs, etc.

That is usually the first reaction. Sometimes, there’s a bit of bewilderment as to the what, why, where, when and how. That’s precisely the initial reaction I had when Google announced some changes rolling out from September over it’s much coveted and needed search term reports (STRs) or fondly known as search query reports (SQRs) to the more experienced paid search practitioners.

What has changed in Google Ads?

The official notification from Google Ads is “We are updating the search terms report to only include terms that were searched by a significant number of users. As a result, you may see fewer terms in your report going forward.”

Further expanding on this, Google’s statement to Search Engine Land (SEL) back in September was “In order to maintain our standards of privacy and strengthen our protections around user data, we have made changes to our Search Terms Report to only include terms that a significant number of users searched for. We’re continuing to invest in new and efficient ways to share insights that enable advertisers to make critical business decisions”.

What are Search Term reports?

So, what exactly are search term reports and why are they so vital to your optimization efforts? How will these changes affect your optimization schemes? Let’s begin with what STRs are first. STRs help marketers see what search query terms (that you are not managing) are triggering your ads within the search networks, how closely they are related to your actual selected and managed match type terms, whether the search query terms have high or low potential depending on your goals and how much they are costing you.

In simpler terms, the STRs allow you to:

  1. Identify what queries consumers are using to search for your brand, products and services
  2. Either add these new search terms to your campaigns to manage directly or use them as a negative search term to prevent them from triggering your ads
  3. Identify and sort the search terms in terms of your match types to funnel your traffic as you see fit

While Google’s official stance is that these changes are mainly due to privacy concerns and the strengthening data protection, there is plenty of skepticism in the industry that see this as a loss of transparency and control over your keyword sets and an inevitable increase in costs via irrelevant clicks. It also confirms what many have suspected for a while: Google is forcing marketers to shift towards automation more than ever before through automated bidding, ads and providing less levers (data) to pull.

The biggest question is what Google means by “we have made changes to our Search Terms Report to only include terms that a significant number of users searched for. What defines significant is up for interpretation as Google hasn’t clearly indicated what this may mean. Prior to this announcement you saw all search queries that have successfully appeared in an auction regardless of whether you received a click. My outlook is that Google will start aggregating all the single impression or click query terms under one line item. Just think of the savings Google could make through not having to host all that STR data on their servers! 

What does it mean for marketers?

What the actual effect of this change is will take some time to figure out as marketers scramble to find alternatives and solutions to enable them to retain control over their keyword sets and their bids for those terms. What can and should be done to overcome this lack of visibility moving forward?

  1. Continue following your best practices while setting up and optimizing your accounts
  2. Spend more time building keyword negatives to funnel your traffic as well as you can. Think beyond your immediate vertical, products, services and maybe competitors and layer that with keyword mining tools (beyond keyword planner) such as term explorer, Moz’s keyword difficulty tool or keyword tool io
  3. Have a deeper dive into historical search term data to identify terms that may have been missed due to low volume
  4. If you are running paid search activity on other search engines such as Bing, you can utilize their search query reports to mine for new keywords while also keeping an eye on negatives that may be triggering your ads in Google
  5. Utilize dynamic search ads (DSA) more. DSAs will enable you to see and add the search queries that are triggering your ads that you will probably miss due to this change. What is not clear at this stage is whether we will still see the same change reflected in DSA STRs. If it is, then it will make this strategy as irrelevant as the clicks your campaign will receive moving forward
  6. Utilize search console query data to identify queries you do not want to be bidding on

From Google’s point of view, keeping personable identifiable information (PII) to a minimum is understandable and necessary (especially due to the slew of privacy and anti-trust cases brought against Google in recent years). However, I fail to see how this change will ensure keeping PII to a minimum.

Google did something similar with Google search console by limiting what query data you could see years ago, much to the dismay of many SEO specialists, agencies and clients. While you can still see up to 1000 queries in search console with a look back window of 16 months, Google buckets the rest into (not provided). This forces marketers to make decisions based on the extrapolation of those 1000 queries. Back then a lot of industry experts claimed it to be a money issue by forcing marketers to rely more on paid search data.

We are seeing similar claims being made this time around as well. That this is a money-making move by Google, forcing marketers to rely more on automation and machine learning while reducing the decision-making processes. If that is indeed the case or an actual byproduct of their intention, time will tell. In the meantime, have those alternatives ready so that you can curb your costs on irrelevant terms and retain account efficiency.