We Examined Google’s Loss of Search Query Data, Here’s What We Learned

pay per click's search term reports took a hit in september 2020

When the folks at Google do something to their tools – whether it’s Ads, Analytics, or Google My Business – it can have huge effects on the way its users use it, and react to it.

So, you can imagine the backlash that occurred way back in 2020 – September, to be exact – when Google thought it would be a good idea to reduce search visibility in the search terms reports.

We’ll explain what happened in detail in the next section but essentially the hullabaloo occurred because they announced that they would only show keywords, questions, or exact match phrases that reached a volume threshold in people’s search terms report.

After much friction and backlash, Google eventually announced that it would be partially reversing this change. The only problem was that it took them an entire 12 month period to do it – not ideal. In this blog, we’re going to be recapping what went on, why PPC heads were angry, how it’s been reversed, and what you can do to leverage the new changes to your benefit.

What’s Happened with the Search Term Reports?

Essentially, and for reasons loosely (and we say that in the vaguest possible terms) to do with GDPR and customer privacy, Google was only going to share the list of search terms that were searched to a significant amount by people.

Previously in the search term report, you could see all the queries that triggered your lovingly-crafted Google Ads to appear, and all the broad match queries that were loosely related to your main keyword.

So if you had multiple queries triggering your ads (this can be in the tens of thousands of unique terms) these would all be reviewable, utilising the search query report. You would have the ability to find opportunities, block poor performing queries and also block irrelevant terms that were wasting your ad budget.

For example, if you were trying to sell some wonderful “green garden furniture” utilising expansive match types and someone clicked your advert searching for “black garden furniture”, this would be viewable in the report, with the available actions to block this query or to re-distribute this query to a relevant advert (about black garden furniture).

As of 1st September 2020, Google said “Thank you, next” to this popular and rather handy feature.

What they actually said was: “Starting September 2020, the search terms report only includes terms that a significant number of users searched for, even if a term received a click. You may now see fewer terms in your report.”

To put this into some context, let’s turn to some numbers. Roughly, there are around 3.5 billion searches made on Google a day. Of those, about 15% of them – around 525,000,000 – are brand new searches that have never been searched before. Not only did Google’s update ‘blind’ advertisers into exactly where their money is being spent, but there was also no confirmation on the ‘other searches’ being all relevant to your marketing targeting.

For some of the worst affected accounts, we reported an estimated loss of between 35-48% of total search queries, and that typically these hidden queries were on average 29% more expensive at producing results, with worse engagement, inflated cost-per-leads and lower ROAS values.

Why Were PPC People Angry?

PPC guys and gals were annoyed because, in this world of pay-per-click, there are no such things as non-crucial keywords. This update restricted their ability to make those small tweaks, create single keyword ad groups, and so-called keyword mine. Those low volume additional keywords that were now hidden from view can really add up, especially if users were selling products that could be searched in a variety of different ways. Furthermore, for substantial accounts, this hidden data has accumulated to hundreds of thousands of ad spend all grouped into a singular column of ‘other search terms’.

Contrary to Google’s statement, we as PPC managers believe that this wasn’t a privacy change and was another update to allow them to make more money and drive up competition (and therefore the cost-per-clicks) on the platform. The loss of data resonates with greed and the ability for Google to simply withdraw paying customers data from their platform.

The Data: Here’s What Was Lost

On average we lost over 27,000 unique search terms from the accounts we manage at Embryo, with the largest being a whopping 141,000 since September 2020. We saw that these terms in nearly all circumstances had worse results than the still visible search queries.

  • 18% lower CTR.
  • 22% lower cost-per-click (probably the only good news).
  • 26% lower conversion rate.
  • 29% higher cost per acquisition.
  • 20% lower ROAS on e-commerce accounts.

 

Google Listened and Reversed (Some) Of the Changes

Having just seen the amount of data that’s been lost, it’s pretty easy to agree that Google has essentially wasted a year of people’s time and stopped its user base from being able to improve its conversions and wider metrics.

While it took a while, they did listen and have now announced they are going to reverse some of the changes they made to the search term reports, saying:

“We’ve heard your feedback on last year’s search terms report updates, and today we’re introducing improvements to the search terms report that will provide the insights you need to improve your campaigns while ensuring user privacy.”

Google was also kind enough to backdate their reversal to February 2021, so upon announcement, we all got ready to analyse 6 months of missing data. This took a while, however, Google returning us this much was a blessing for optimisation.

It’s Not All Going Back to Normal: There Are Some Elements of the Old Search Term Reports Which Are Staying

However, in February 2022, Google will be removing some search query terms from older reports that don’t meet the levels that they sneakily tried to establish back in 2020. So if you look at your reports right now from before 2020, you’ll be able to see those low-volume search terms, but come February they’ll have disappeared. Whether that’s good or bad for you depends on your current situation, however, it’s hard to argue that terms from years ago that didn’t garner much attention are going to be of much use anyway.

Here’s How to Leverage the New Changes for the Benefit of Your Business

Analysing everything, we have effectively as managers been given a 6 month mass of data which will be unique, a gold mine and landfall at the exact same time, find new keyword opportunities to add and monitor, block those irrelevant terms, stop the 400% above average CPA queries.

Our latest approach we have been introducing is to add CPC filters to your keyword blocking, especially if you are a user of automated bidding strategies, we have seen a handful of search queries that will have unreasonably large cost-per-clicks, my personal favourite was “hotel insurance companies” for a whopping £123.81 for a single click (average in this sub-industry is £20-30).

Conclusion

Google has finally listened to the advertisers, and it’s one of the first updates they have introduced that is beneficial to users of their ad platform. This is an extremely well-received update and now allows us to optimise again to our best ability.

Q4 will be extremely fruitful for advertisers that leverage this situation and benefit their accounts, and I expect it to be extremely important approaching Black Friday and Christmas.