Google AdWords' Close Variant Keyword Policy and Trademark Compliance

Jennie Scholick Aug 20, 2014

As you may have seen, Google announced last Thursday that in late September they will be doing away with the option to disable close variant keyword matching on exact and phrase match keywords. In brief, marketers could previously target their ads to exact strings that people search for—or to particular phrases that people include in their searches. Now, the only option is to also target what Google calls “misspellings, singulars/plurals, acronyms, abbreviations, accents and stemmings,” when using exact and phrase match. TechCrunch offered a good overview of the change shortly after it was announced. Generally, the announcement has garnered some negative reactions among marketers as illustrated in this Marketing Land post, which highlights various responses to the new policy.

But what will the impact of this change be for our BrandVerity clients, or for other brands seeking to limit paid search abuse? This post will briefly detail what this change might mean for a variety of different scenarios and then suggest some ways to minimize the impact when this new policy goes into effect in September.

Affiliate Marketing

The implementation of this policy may have a two-fold effect on relationships with affiliates. First, there is a possibility that legitimate affiliates who have been bidding on permitted keywords will unintentionally see their ads showing for forbidden terms until they modify their AdWords campaigns. Second, if a blackhat affiliate was successfully avoiding detection by using particularly strange misspellings or variations on brand terms, this change might expose such an affiliate. For example, the exact match for “hountar boot” will now also match to “hunter boots.” If you’re already using a comprehensive paid search monitoring tool like BrandVerity, we wouldn’t expect you to see a big upsurge here since these blackhat affiliates have most likely been reprimanded or removed from your program. However, if you’re not you may see a substantial increase.

The good news is that Google has kept the precision of exact and phrase match for negative keywords. While most of your affiliates were probably already using negative keywords to avoid bidding on forbidden terms, there is the possibility that they were not doing so on campaigns that were set to ignore close variants or that new negative keywords will be needed to address this issue. We recommend sending out a policy update or notification between now and late September to alert affiliates to this policy change and to encourage them to rework their campaigns with the appropriate negative keywords in order to remain compliant.

Third Party Trademark Abuse

When it comes to 3rd party trademark abusers such as search arbitragers, it’s likely these websites were already using close variant match. Even so, this new policy might result in more of these sites popping up in search ad results with your brand name in their ad copy. Fortunately, you can report this kind of abuse to the search engines and have these ads taken down. If you’re a BrandVerity client, we have a custom set of processes with Google to take down these interfering ads.

Resellers, Partners, and OTAs

If you work with resellers, marketing partners, or online travel agencies (OTAs), they're probably already bidding on your brand terms unless you have specifically restricted that practice in your agreements with them. If you do not have an agreement in place, this new policy probably won’t change the bidding you’ll see, though there might be a slight uptick in the number of close variant matches you see. If you do have restrictions in place, again, this is a good time to send out a reminder of your terms and to make sure companies are using negative keywords appropriately. Either way, this could be a good moment to consider your contracts with OTAs or resellers and whether you might want to restrict their ability to bid on your terms. (We’ll be publishing a blog series on this topic in the next few weeks! Stay tuned to this space!)

Comparison Shopping Engines

One thing we’ve noticed at BrandVerity is that Comparison Shopping Engines (CSEs) often use exact and phrase match in their ad campaigns. This change will probably increase the number of CSEs you see bidding on your terms as their exact matches become less precise. If you have a working relationship with CSEs, we would recommend that, as with affiliates, it would be in your best interest to make sure your agreements with them are clear and to send out some kind of reminder notification regarding what keywords they are and are not allowed to bid on as well as to encourage them to make good use of negative keywords. In the future, you should also consider adding new negative keywords to your agreements with CSEs.


The final concern for any brand that uses paid search marketing is the potential for cost per click to go up and clickthrough rate and efficiency to go down. While Google claims that this policy change will allow companies and brands to reach more customers in a simpler, more efficient way, there is definite skepticism among expert paid search marketers. The final impact remains to be seen.

We don’t expect the implementation of this new policy to dramatically alter the behaviors of affiliates, partners, and other paid search marketers, but it’s always good to use moments like this to take stock of your policies and agreements and to remind your marketing partners of those agreements. Please let us know your thoughts about Google’s decision in the comments below and contact us if you want more information about ensuring compliance and protecting your brand as this policy goes into effect.

Update 8/25: Bing announced today that they would start including close variant matching for a portion of their searches. Although the service is now set as the default option, marketers may still opt-out. Search Engine Land provides a good summary of the update and a walk-through of how to opt-out should you want to do so.

Topics: Search Engine Updates

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