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Keyword Matching in Google Ads

Each keyword in your Google Ads account has to be set to a particular match type. There are three main match types you can choose from: broad match, phrase match, and exact match. There’s also a lesser known, but very useful, fourth option called modified broad match.

What does a match type do?

The 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.

For example, if you are bidding on the keyword kids shoes and I search on Google for kids shoes then you’d expect your advert to be shown to me. But what if I searched for cheap kids shoes or kids school shoes? Would I see your advert? The answer depends on what match type you used for your keyword.

Exact Match

The most restrictive option is to bid on that keyword as an exact match, by putting it in square brackets like this:

[kids shoes]

At one time, this meant that your ad would then only show if someone searched for the precise term kids shoes with no other words before or after it. 

But over the past few years, Google has relaxed their definition of "exact" and so now your exact match keyword can be triggered by a so-called close variant or by a search which shows very similar intent. So, you'd now find you ad appearing for:

  • kidz shoes (spelling error/typo)
  • shoes kids (reversed word order)
  • childrens shoes (similar intent)

Phrase Match

If you were bidding on the keyword as a phrase match, by putting it in quotes like this:

“kids shoes”

then your ad would show provided the user’s search term includes kids shoes somewhere in it. So, for example, lace up kids shoes or kids shoes online would trigger your ad, but kids leather shoes would not because the phrase has been broken.

Modified Broad Match

Modified broad match is where you put a plus sign in front of each word, like this:

+kids +shoes

This will let your ad show for lots of searches that Google thinks are related to kids shoes, provided that the search term includes both the words kids and shoes somewhere in it. So, with modified broad match your ad could now appear for a search such as shoes for kids with wide feet.

Broad Match

And finally, there is broad match, which is what you’ll be using if you don’t add these square brackets, quotes, or plus signs to your keywords. With broad match you ad will potentially appear for any search that Google thinks is related to your keyword – even if the relationship is very weak. For example, kids shoes as a broad match could cause your ad to appear for useful searches like school shoes, kids trainers, kids black shoes, as well as searches as bizarre or unwanted as kids clothes, snow shoeing, free shoes for kids, second-hand shoes, etc.

Many of Google's advertisers are unaware that these different keyword match types exist, and so they end up having all their keywords set to broad match because this is the default setting. As a result, their ads get shown to a lot of people who are not really part of your target audience.

For example, if you are a high end graphic designer and you are bidding on the keyword logo design in its default broad match state, you’ll almost certainly end up with your ad appearing when people search on Google for free logo design. These people aren’t the kind of customers you want as they are unlikely to want to pay a fee for your design services. But some of them will probably still click on your ad and end up costing you money.

Top tip

I generally recommend having each of your keywords appearing in your account three times: once as a modified broad match keyword, once as a phrase match keyword, and once as an exact match keyword. In most cases you should avoid using broad match altogether because it is too unpredictable.

However, even with this approach, your ad will still be displayed in response to a lot of irrelevant searches. That means more money for Google and a poorer return on investment for you.

Cut Waste With Negative Keywords

Luckily, there is a solution – negative keywords. By adding negative keywords to your Google Ads account, you are telling Google that if a searcher includes one of those negative keywords in their search then you do not want your ad to appear. This means you can filter out the kind of visitors that are of no interest to you and avoid wasting money driving them to your website.

We add all the obvious negative keywords to your Google Ads account from the outset. And then, on an ongoing basis, we regular review one of the lesser known areas of your Ads account, called the search query report, to find out what searches have caused your ad to appear each day. Whenever we spot that your ad has appeared for an irrelevant search, we add the appropriate negative keywords to stop that happening again.

By doing this on a regular basis, we are continually optimising your Google Ads account, making it more efficient and saving you hundreds of pounds a month in wasted click costs.

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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