last Updated 12 February 2021

A New Turn of Phrase for Google Ads Keyword Matching

Google has announced changes to the way that phrase match and broad match modifier (BMM) keywords will work from 18 February 2021.

In this article, I'm going to summarise what the changes are, look at what the impacts are likely to be for Google Ads advertisers, and let you know what I think you should be doing to minimise the impact of the changes on your Google Ads campaigns.

What's Changing With Keyword Match Types?

A keyword's match type determines whether the search phrase that someone types into Google will be considered similar enough to the keyword that you are bidding on to trigger your advert to be displayed. In other words, match types allow advertisers to control how wide a range of search terms will be considered a match for each of the keywords that they're bidding on.

Prior to the February 2021 changes, advertisers could choose from four match types:

  • exact
  • phrase
  • broad match modifier (aka modified broad match)
  • broad

I've discussed these different match types and explained how they work in a previous post which is well worth a read if you haven't already seen it.

After the changes come into effect, BMM keywords will be phased out and the behaviour of phrase match keywords will change.

How Will the New Phrase Match Work?

Phrase match keywords will now be matched to a much wider range of search terms than before - basically all the things they used to match for plus all the things that used to trigger the equivalent BMM keyword.

Phrase match keywords have always respected word order. In other words, if you had a phrase match keyword of "red shoes" your ad would appear if someone searched for things like:

  • cheap red shoes
  • red shoes for sale

but would not appear if they searched for:

  • buy shoes red or black
  • shoes red size 7

because the word order of the keyword is different.

With BMM keywords on the other hand, the word order never mattered.

Google says that the new phrase match will still respect the word order, when the word order is important to the meaning. I've put that in italics because I think we need to wait and see exactly how often they do or don't respect the word order with this new system.

Google has provided this image to illustrate what type of search terms would have matched to the keywords

  • "moving services NYC to Boston" (phrase)
  • +moving  +services +NYC +to +Boston (BMM)

before the changes, and which searches will still match to the new phrase match version of the keyword after the changes:

google ads keyword matching - A New Turn of Phrase for Google Ads Keyword Matching

As you can see, the new phrase match will capture most of the searches that used to be covered by your BMM keywords, but not those where the word order is different.

In the example Google has chosen, the word order clearly does matter. I'd be interested to see the same diagram for a keyword like "plumber london" where the word order doesn't matter.

How Will the Keyword Matching Changes Affect Advertisers?

The answer to this depends on what match types you use currently.

If, for example, you currently only use phrase and exact match keywords and don't use BMM then you're going to see some big changes. You're now going to get a lot more people seeing and clicking your ads - and some of this may be traffic which you do not want.

If you currently have all or most of your keywords added to your account in both phrase and BMM versions then you probably won't notice much difference. However, you may find, depending on how that word order thing works in practice, that you need to create additional phrase match keywords to cater for people who may do their search with the word order changed. 

So, for example, if your Google Ads account currently contains the keywords

  • "plumber london"
  • +plumber +london

you might want to add "london plumber" as an additional phrase match keyword to ensure you still show up for that search even after the BMM keyword stops working.

What Should You Do Now?

There's no need to make any major changes at this stage. To quote Google:

Starting mid-February, both phrase match and broad match modifier keywords will begin to transition to this new matching behavior (sic). Because this behavior will be applied to both match types, you won’t have to take any immediate action - you’ll keep your performance data and have no need to migrate your keywords.

In July, once the new behavior has been rolled out globally, you’ll no longer be able to create new broad match modifier keywords. However, existing broad match modifier keywords will continue to serve under the new behavior. That’s why starting now, we recommend creating new keywords in phrase match going forward.

Once the changes begin to take effect, keep an eye on your own Google Ads campaigns and be on the lookout for any significant changes in performance - cost per click, CTR, conversion rates, etc - and be prepared to adjust bids if required.

Also, keep a close eye on your search terms report to see if you suddenly start appearing for a greater number of irrelevant searches that need to be blocked with negative keywords.

And, above all, keep an eye on industry websites like Search Engine Land to see how the changes are affecting larger advertisers and to gain insights from agencies who are managing multiple accounts. If there are negative impacts from these changes, those guys are likely to notice them first and you can potentially learn from what they're seeing and the changes they're making in response.

About the author 

David Miles

As a digital marketing consultant, author and trainer, I specialise in helping businesses in the financial services sector use the internet to get more enquiries and increase profits.

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