AdWords: A Definitive Guide to Using Keyword Match Types
21st Oct 2015

AdWords: The definitive guide to using keyword match types

What are Broad, Phrase & Exact Match?

Anyone running an AdWords campaign knows the importance of selecting the right keywords. But do you choose the right keyword match type? There are three main types: broad, phrase and exact match (plus modified broad match which we'll also explain). The type you choose can have a massive impact on your campaign’s performance, yet I review so many campaigns that don’t use match types at all, or don’t use them in quite the right way.

In this article, I’ll explain the differences between broad, phrase and exact match and give you examples of each. Using keyword match types correctly can:

  • extend the reach of your adverts to a wider audience (if maximum exposure is your goal)
  • restrict the reach of your adverts to a more targeted audience (if maximum conversions is your goal)
  • improve the relevancy of the search terms that trigger your ads
  • lower your costs by preventing adverts showing for irrelevant search terms
  • increase click-through rates
  • improve your keyword Quality Score

The different keyword match types

There are four main keyword match types:

  1. Broad match
  2. Phrase match
  3. Exact match
  4. Modified broad match

Examples of keyword match types

Each gives you a slightly different level of flexibility and control over the search terms that trigger your adverts. You can apply any of these match types to keywords you’re bidding on and, with the exception of modified broad match, you can apply them to negative keywords too.

Now let’s learn about each type, and how to use it effectively.

Broad match keywords

Broad match keywords allow your adverts to be shown to the widest possible audience with the minimum of effort on your part. Adverts can be triggered by search queries which Google considers a relevant variation of your keyword; this can include synonyms, plurals and misspellings or stem variants (e.g. paint, painting and painter). The user’s search query can contain words that aren’t even in your keyword.

You don't need to add any extra symbols or punctuation around your keyword for broad match (as you do for other match types) - just type the word.

Broad match examples

Broad match keyword Search queries that could trigger your advert
red shoes red shoes
  red sandals
  ballet shoes
  ladies red shoes
  pink slippers
  blue shoes
  Marks and Spencer shoes
  men’s red shoes
  red shoes film
  red film review
  red or dead shoes

I could add dozens of other examples and the only guarantee I could give is that

  • the user’s search query will be broadly relevant to (or include) the word “red” and / or
  • the user’s search query will be broadly relevant to (or include) the word “shoes”

When broad match isn't suitable

If you don’t sell slippers, sandals, ballet shoes, men’s shoes or any colour but red, clicks from these queries are wasting your money. There are also branded queries here (Marks & Spencer, Red or Dead) which might not be relevant for you, in addition to queries which actually relate to the title of a film!  So broad match is a “catch-all” option that isn’t suitable for everyone.

On the other hand, if you sell lots of different types of footwear, in lots of colours, broad match might suit you well, if you combine it with a few well-chosen negative keywords. More about negatives below.

Here's a real example of a search for "table lamps", where Homebase's advert for lamp tables is showing up instead. A very different product. Their broad match keyword for lamp tables would probably be better as phrase match, which would preserve the word order.

Broad match keyword goes wrong

Here's another example. This time the search was for "adopt a kitten", but the advert for Globalteer is for dogs, and the advert for the Thornbury Adoption Event is for children, not animals. I don't have access to either of their AdWords accounts, but I'd lay odds they're both using broad match keywords, which isn't working in their favour in this case.

Broad match search result

Broad match keywords can save you time creating and managing long lists of keywords, and you’ll usually get more impressions and clicks than with other match types. On the downside, you may attract too much untargeted traffic and your daily budget is going to dwindle very quickly from all those clicks.

You can see examples of related broad match keywords by using Google’s Keyword Planner. Just enter your own seed term and see what other keywords Google suggests. You might be surprised at how many you would reject if they were costing you money. 

Phrase match keywords

If broad match keywords are too loosely targeted for your AdWords goals, try phrase match. In AdWords, you specify a phrase match keyword by wrapping it in speech marks, i.e. “red shoes”.

Your adverts will now only be triggered by search queries containing the phrase “red shoes” (or close variants, such as the singular or plural version of a word, stem variations and some acronyms).

Search queries triggering phrase match keywords must contain those words in that order, but they can also contain words both before and after the keyword.

Phrase match examples

Phrase match keyword Search queries that could trigger your advert
"red shoes" red shoes
  ladies red shoes
  high heel red shoes
  red shoes at marks and spencer
  designer red shoes
  men’s red shoes
  red shoes film
  cheap red shoes
  children’s red shoes sale

As you can see from these examples, although the keyword is more targeted, there may still be some search queries which aren’t relevant to your business. For example, you might not want your shoes associated with the word “cheap”, or you may not sell children’s or men’s shoes.

So a strategy using some phrase match keywords with some negative keywords (see below) to filter out unwanted search queries might be a good option.

Here's a live example of search results for the phrase match keyword "vehicle tracker". Notice how the last advert is a stem variation and uses the wording "vehicle tracking"?

Phrase match keywords - search results

Exact match keywords

We’ve seen that even phrase match keywords don’t always deliver the right amount of control over the search queries that trigger your advert. Using exact match will reduce the size of audience to which your adverts are shown even more than phrase match, but it helps your adverts reach the people who are really looking for exactly your offering. This should result in a better click-through rate and a greater likelihood of conversions.

Put [square brackets] around a keyword to turn it into exact match. Only that exact phrase (or a very close variant of that exact phrase) typed by the user will trigger your advert. Unlike phrase match, exact match doesn’t allow for other words either side of your keyword.

Exact Match Update - 28/3/17

In March 2017, Google announced that they would soon be updating their definition of exact match keywords. They already included plurals, typos and abbreviations, but this will shortly be expanded further to include variations in word order. As an example, the exact match keyword [web design somerset] could also be triggered by the search query "somerset web design". Function words, such as "in", "to", "of" etc. could also trigger your exact match keyword, so the search query "web design in somerset" could trigger the exact match keyword [web design somerset]. 

Exact match examples

Exact match keyword Search queries that could trigger your advert
[red shoes] red shoes
red shoe
[accountant in bristol] accountant in bristol; accountants in bristol 
bristol accountant
[iphone 6 cover] iphone 6 cover; iphone 6 covers; cover for iphone 6
[web design somerset] web design somerset
somerset web design
web design in somerset
[ride on mower] ride on mower; ride-on mower; ride on mowers
mower to ride on

Exact match helps you find people who are most interested in your products or services, but it’s not always appropriate to use exact match with your keywords. For example,

  1. [red shoes] is too vague. Suppose you could capture all the traffic from users typing this search query. You’re still not really sure what type of red shoe your visitor is looking for, or if it’s for a man, woman or child. I’d avoid exact match for this one unless you sell all types of red shoes. However, exact match keywords like [women’s red sandals], [strappy red sandals], [red high heel shoes] or [children’s red shoes] might work well for you.
  2. Sometimes the number of users typing your exact match keyword is so low, your adverts won’t get many impressions or clicks at all. Having a low-performing keyword in your ad group can adversely affect your Quality Score, so if you see a "Low search volume" warning about your exact match keyword, find a different strategy for it or remove it from your campaign.

Here's a preview of search results using the exact match keyword, [ride on mowers]. 

Search results for exact match keyword

Notice that the top advert doesn't contain the exact keyword? Remember that it's just your keyword and the user's search query that has to be an exact match, not the wording of your advert, though it can help your Quality Score if  your advert wording is closely aligned to your keyword. 

Exact match works best when there is a sizeable number of searches for your product or service. It can work well with big brand items, especially sports, clothing and technology brands. 

Broad match modified (BMM) keywords

This is a match type that combines some of the flexibility of broad match with a little more control over just how widely AdWords interprets your keyword. Adding a modifier to a broad match keyword means that certain words must be included in the user's search query in order to trigger your advert.

Unlike normal broad match, a BMM keyword won’t show your advert for synonyms or related searches. BMM is more flexible than phrase match though; the modified words you specify can appear in any order in the user’s search query.

Add a plus symbol (+) in front of words in your keyword to target user search terms which include those words. Tip: don’t leave a space between the plus symbol and the keyword.

  • Correct: +red +shoes
  • Incorrect: + red + shoes

Broad match modified examples

We know that the broad match keyword red shoes can be triggered by search queries as varied as men’s shoes, pink sandals, red trainers etc. If you modify your keyword to +red +shoes, those search queries would then be limited to things like:

  • women’s red shoes
  • men's red shoes
  • red children’s shoes or
  • ladies red strappy evening shoes.

To further define who your advert is targeting, i.e. women, you might use the modified broad match keywords:

  • +women’s +red +shoes
  • +ladies +red +shoes or
  • +girls +red +shoes.

Be aware: adding a modifier to too many words within your keyword often results in the same effect as phrase match, and could restrict your traffic.  

For example, +buy +sparkly +red +women’s +shoes; all five words must be present in the user’s search query, which has almost the same effect as making it a phrase match keyword. Such keywords are likely to end up on the “Low search volume” list.

Match types and negative keywords

You can use match types with negative keywords too. This helps you control the filtering of unwanted search terms which could trigger your ads and cost you money.

Using broad match negative keywords

First a brief word about negative broad match keywords. Broad match works slightly differently with negatives; they have a much narrower effect in that Google doesn’t stop your ads showing for related phrases and synonyms.

Every word that you have in a broad match negative keyword has to appear in the user’s search query (but not necessarily in the same order) for it to be filtered out.

For example, adding the broad match negative keyword Nike trainers won’t prevent your keyword showing for the search query Asics trainers. And adding the broad match negative school for sixth form girls won’t prevent your ad showing for the search queries sixth form school, or sixth form school for boys. Perhaps this is Google’s safety net to stop advertisers inadvertently crippling their campaigns!

Moving on…

Using phrase match negative keywords

Sometimes a particular sequence of keywords affects the user’s intent. Let’s imagine you sell wholesale catering equipment, but you don’t offer catering services. You might want to exclude the phrase match negative keywords “catering company”, “catering service” and “catering jobs”.

I use phrase match negatives a great deal. They offer so much potential to filter out very common core phrases, and those with a little variation either side of the core phrase. For example the negative phrase match keyword “catering company” will also filter out searches for “catering company in * (* insert any named place)” as well as “catering company for wedding”, "catering company jobs", etc.

Using exact match negative keywords

I use exact match negatives far less often than phrase match, owing to their less flexible nature, but there are some occasions when they are appropriate.

For example, a girls only school initially bid on the broad match keyword girls school, but found their advert was appearing lots of times for the search query boys school. They turned their broad match keyword to phrase match, and then for good measure added the exact match negative keyword [boys school].  

A handy tip for using negative keyword matching

Let’s say your shoe shop doesn’t ever sell children’s shoes, but your adverts are being triggered by search queries like children’s red shoes, kids’ shoes, child’s trainers. Your first instinct might be to add those queries to your negative keyword list - that’s perfectly fine, but I have a tip that will save you some time and reduce your workload.

Here’s the problem: adding children’s red shoes (broad, phrase or exact match) to your negative keyword list won’t stop your ads being triggered by the search query children’s blue shoes, size 3 shoes for children or kids school shoes.

This puts you in the rather time-consuming and hair-tearing position of trying to think of hundreds of potential queries containing the word children’s, and add them to a huge negative keyword list. You’ll spot other unwanted search terms as they crop up in your reports, but by that time, they’ll have cost you money from clicks.

Work smart with negative match types to save time

The ideal solution is to simply add the word "children’s" to your negative keyword list (phrase match), and you’ll automatically filter out all future search queries containing that word.

To be really effective, you might want to add other negatives like “kids”, “child’s”, “baby” and “toddler” etc. This kind of forward-thinking can really streamline your AdWords management, particularly for large campaigns that generate lots of traffic from thousands of search terms each week.

For negative keywords of more than one word, think carefully about whether broad, phrase or exact match is best suited to your goal.

Adding negative keywords from your search terms report

Tip: When you add negative keywords from your Search Terms report in AdWords, the match type defaults to exact match. This is usually not the best setting.

For example, the user search query “cheapest diy vehicle tracker no subscription” isn't likely to be typed by users in large volume! Why bother excluding that exact phrase? You’d be better off simply excluding the broad or phrase match keyword “no subscription” (if yours is a signed up service), which will cover a multitude of other unwanted search terms in future. You might also want to exclude words like "cheapest" or "diy"as phrase match negatives, if these don't match your offering.

WARNING: Before adding negative keywords to your campaign, do think carefully to be sure there are absolutely no circumstances where a word or phrase you are excluding could possibly be part of a relevant search query.

Summing up

  • There’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach to using keyword match types. Make decisions on a keyword-by keyword basis, founded on your AdWords goals, the intent behind users’ search queries and the keyword's performance.
  • Experiment. Put the same keywords in different ad groups and with different match types, then compare performance. Look at search query relevance, click-through rates, cost-per-click, leads gained, sales made. Does a different match type earn your keyword a better Quality Score?
  • Use match types with negative keywords to achieve as much targeting with the search queries you don’t want as the ones you do. Use Google’s keyword planner before you start to inspire ideas for general phrases to exclude, e.g. cheap, jobs, fake, unwanted locations, unwanted services or products etc.

If you’re not sure which keyword match type is best for you, ask us for advice. A quick review of your AdWords goals and some updating of your account can make a big difference to the success of your campaigns.

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