The murky world of media transparency just got murkier

Google is set to become even more of a black box because of how advertisers will get information about the search terms they are buying ads against.

Advertisers have recently been receiving messages from Google stating that its reports will show only those search terms that have been searched for “a significant number of times”. Google says "privacy" is behind the reason behind the changes.

With some commentators seeing losses in search query data for as much as 51% of their adspend, these changes will disproportionately affect advertisers and further damage the credibility of the industry as a whole.

It goes without saying that privacy is important, and that you don’t want personally identifiable information (PII) getting into the wrong hands. But these new restrictions on search term reporting are not proportional to the privacy concerns they aim to address.

In the case of the search terms report, it’s hard to see when looking through all of the weird and wonderful things that users have searched for to find anything that would personally identify anybody. Further, it would be almost impossible to actually link a specific search term to a user.

You could argue that in certain industries, such as medical, where users are likely to make more sensitive searches, a restriction on search terms could be justified. In fact, it makes a lot of sense, but these users will make up only a very small percentage of Google’s overall searchers.

Bad for transparency and brand safety

When it comes to its effect on advertisers there are two main issues that this change will throw up, around transparency and advertisers’ ability to buy media effectively.

First, it has a major impact on media transparency. After all, if you’ve paid for advertising space, you should really be told what you bought. I can’t think of another industry where that is not the case. Over the past few years, advertisers have been making moves to make media buying more transparent and this feels like a move in the wrong direction.

It also creates issues around brand safety. It’s key for advertisers to know what their brand is appearing next to and in what searches. By removing brands’ ability to see what their ads are appearing next to removes their ability to quickly identify potentially damaging searches and use negative keywords to exclude their ads from appearing next to them again.

The second issue is around advertisers’ ability to buy media effectively. Over the past few years Google has slowly been expanding match types. That means simply that keywords can now match into wider variations that ever before.

An easy way to visualise it is to think of how replacement items work when you buy a Sainsbury’s shop online and the thing you ordered is out of stock. 

A few years back, when the exact match was the exact match, if you ordered Pink Lady apples you would only get Pink Lady apples, if they were not in stock, in other words, somebody didn’t search for Pink Lady, your ads wouldn’t appear.

Fast-forward a few years and the replacements have got a bit wider. You might have ordered Pink Lady apples but now Google is giving you Bramley apples because it’s a “same meaning” variation of what you searched for. But what if you may not like Bramley apples quite as much?

Historically, advertisers had been able to review the search terms, and report and exclude those that they didn't want to show.

However, with Google now withholding a proportion of these searches, advertisers will no longer be able to do this as effectively, making their advertising spend less efficient and increasing the overall cost to acquire customers.

So now what?

Data privacy is important and should always come before profitability but, in this case, it’s hard to see how you would personally identify users based on their search terms. 

The knock-on effects of this change will be huge to advertisers, as Google becomes even more of a black box, withholding information on what advertisers have actually purchased, setting a precedent for poor transparency in media buying, and in completely the opposite direction to the way the industry has been moving.

Furthermore, it’s going to affect advertisers’ ability to buy media efficiently as they will no longer be able to see all the search terms that they have been appearing for and exclude poor performance ones.

Wesley Clark is managing director of performance agency Demand More.

This article first appeared on campaignasia.com.

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