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How To Get More Out Of Search Terms Reporting In The Age Of Privacy And Automation

Search advertisers are accustomed to change – but even as innovation, evolution, and new features attract many of us to this industry, it’s a challenge to keep up and keep adapting.

Advancements in automation, coupled with evolving privacy expectations and regulations, make this the biggest time of change since I started working in search marketing in 2005.

While we can probably all agree that user trust is imperative for a healthy digital advertising ecosystem, this refocusing often upends how we analyze and activate campaign data.

In many ways, changes to search terms reporting are emblematic of these shifts and of ways to help solve some of the challenges they present. Let’s dig in.

For background, two years ago, Google policy teams raised the privacy threshold for search term reporting in Google Ads.

This meant advertisers had less information about the terms customers use to find and engage with their businesses, and those in sectors with lower global search interest saw the greatest impact.

This change happened roughly six months before I joined Google in a new ads product liaison role in 2021. It was one of the first things I wanted to understand better.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

Why did the change happen? We updated the thresholds to further ensure user privacy and help prevent an individual’s search from being tied to a specific conversion. From an advertiser’s perspective, that possibility might seem fairly benign, but if we look at it from the user and policy perspective, it’s not.

Why now? Higher consumer privacy expectations and an evolving regulatory landscape require looking at data usage through an even sharper user trust and safety lens – and these shifts mean broader changes to data usage and reporting across the industry. The search term report is just one example.

Now what? This move was positive for user safety but undoubtedly disruptive for advertisers. The product team knows search terms reporting is an integral part of monitoring the performance of Search campaigns.

Advertisers use it to understand how people are searching for their products or services, how their ads and landing pages are resonating with those users, and to identify queries that triggered their ads but may not be relevant or efficient based on the budget and goals.

By the time I joined Google, that team was already looking at more privacy-safe ways to surface query insights.

Search Terms Insights

The first new approach the team took was to rebuild the existing search terms reporting system to be able to show terms that didn’t lead to an ad click, but had enough global search volume to be included in the report.

This data allows you to see relevant demand you may be missing out on and use that to inform your creative optimizations.

This was a good step, but it didn’t give advertisers more information about search terms that were already driving clicks and conversions.

This is where search terms insights come in.

This new reporting, located on the Insights page at the account and campaign level, is a helpful complement to the search terms report.

It’s also an example of how reporting is evolving with privacy changes and advancements in automation.

How It Works

Search terms insights cover Search, Shopping, and Performance Max campaigns and use automation to increase transparency into search terms driving traffic to your site in privacy-safe ways.

It does this by automatically aggregating and grouping search terms into themed categories and subcategories. The groupings take all search terms into account, including those that aren’t shown in the search terms report due to the privacy thresholds.

You will need to give new campaigns some time to run to collect search term data. You can also adjust the date range from 7 days to 28 days and look at the account level to see more data.

How To Use It

Screenshot from Google Ads, November 2022

You can get a high-level view of the themes driving traffic to your site and see performance metrics such as conversions, conversion value, clicks, and search volume across all targeted countries.

There are also filters to see search term themes by search category, conversions growth, or search volume growth.

For example, you could look at all categories that have had greater (or less than) 15% search volume growth. From there, you can click on the themes to see details on the subcategories and search terms, and review your performance.

These insights are designed to help advertisers focus on broader, intent-based themes rather than having to pour over individual queries.

If you’re used to downloading search terms reports to a spreadsheet in order to group and filter individual search terms on your own to understand themes, these insights can be a big time saver. Quickly identify your top search categories and use that to inform your strategy to capture more of that demand.

Additionally, search terms insights reflect the ways that reporting is evolving to focus on the factors that can help you steer automation to deliver on your campaign goals, and to help avoid constraining the system in ways that can negatively impact performance.

Advertisers, including me, had long been accustomed to mining search reports for keywords to add to negative keyword lists.

Adding hundreds or thousands of individual negative keywords is an inefficient use of time, and even if you’re using a script to aid this work, huge lists can add complexity and impact performance.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still use negative keywords, of course, but if you’re using Smart Bidding, your process can change to take a looser approach since the model will be optimizing to our goal.

Search terms insights can help free you up to focus on higher-impact changes, such as testing new ad creatives around trending search categories.

It can take a bit to familiarize yourself with this newer reporting and to adjust to the mindset of zooming out and analyzing at the theme level to start before digging into the details.

Search terms insights are recently out of beta, and the team is currently incorporating advertiser feedback and will continue to make the feature more helpful, so stay tuned for updates.

Reimagining To Ensure Future Success

As the industry responds to privacy shifts, automation will play a key role in helping fill in the measurement gaps to provide more transparency for advertisers in ways that respect and protect user privacy.

Conversion modeling is another example. It uses machine learning to give advertisers a more complete understanding of campaign performance when ad attribution is not observable due to privacy or technical limitations.

Modeled conversions can then inform your automated bidding strategies and make them more efficient by reducing bias where performance data is incomplete.

The evolving landscape requires reimagining.

New solutions will be different from the status quo and will take time to get used to. They’ll also keep improving.

Think back to when Google introduced its first Smart Bidding model, maximize conversions, five years ago and the market’s reaction in those early days (there was a lot of room for improvement).

Machine learning has advanced exponentially since then, and today the vast majority of advertisers use automated bidding.

The changes to search terms reporting highlight the key shifts the industry is experiencing in this new time and underscores that new approaches will continue to evolve with ongoing advancements – and advertiser feedback.

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