Match Type Mayhem: Did AdWords Just Exit the High Road?

Yet another AdWords setting you should consider opting out of: “improved” phrase and exact match.

Keyword match types have long been a cornerstone of keyword-triggered advertising. Starting early on, Google AdWords offered three types: broad, phrase, and exact. Over the years, there have been significant additions and modifications to the lineup, but one thing was constant: the full slate of matching options always allowed significant control to advertisers who wanted it, and there was clear delineation among the types. The tighter matching options generally performed reliably and predictably.

Broad match, while offering the convenience of broad reach, was often the most threatening to return on investment (ROI). At first, it simply represented a “wild card” that allowed your ad to show against any search query that contained all the words in your broad-matched phrase, in any order – so your broad match for “rocky road” would theoretically serve against all of the queries “rocky road ice cream,” “rocky road fudge,” “rocky is the road haphazardly traveled,” etc. Later, broad match was pumped up with additional, even broader matching (called “expanded match”) that included the potential to show your ad against verb stems, plurals, misspellings, and semantically similar queries (“rock-laden oxcart path,” “rokkie road,” “which roads are the rockiest in wisconsin,” etc.). If you were bidding foolishly high and got a bit unlucky, of course, your search query report might show that you were matching against some pretty weird stuff (“u wuz rick rolled”) along with the more appropriate matches.

Now it’s typical to simply call these “keyword variations.” If you want broad match to perform for you financially, you generally need to bid cautiously and develop a relentless routine of adding negative keywords to ad groups and campaigns in order to avoid inappropriate matches.

Advanced advertisers could handle this, because you knew you had the option to be more of a control freak and choose matching options (phrase, exact, BMM) where the rules were clearer. This was always in sharp contrast to Google’s weak competitor, now-shuttered Yahoo Search Marketing. Overture/YSM offered a couple of match types but always kept the rules vague enough that it could throw plenty of inappropriate matches into the mix for either. Google gained respect by taking the high road in this regard. Exact match remained exact match with zero variations. That was a comfort for advertisers who had limited confidence in the ever-shifting whims of broad match.

I favor making appropriate use of all match types. There are those who crave extreme control, building accounts full of nothing but exact-matched terms. To be sure, this represents a healthy skepticism vis-à-vis Google using your account as a guinea pig to research user response so it can perfect its broad matching, etc. But an account strategy that focuses to the extreme of very tight matching feels a little like those personal quirks that are far more charming to those possessing them than to the rest of the world, like being really proud of your acumen in tying a bowtie or rolling your own cigarettes. While expressing your unique personal style, you may find yourself getting into fewer real-world transactions than you need to live a normal life.

So I’m all for leveraging the power of phrase match, broad match, broad match modifier, etc. This is about finding customers; your account needn’t be akin to some scholastic searcher-intent house of worship.

But Google has now announced that it will show ads against “keyword variations” (verb stems, plurals, misspellings, and semantically similar phrases) even when you’ve adopted phrase match and exact match. This breaks the convention built up over many years: broad match is the “dangerous one” that will potentially erode your ROI, while the other match types are more predictable and can be comfortably bid higher in most cases.

I do understand that correct word order will remain a key feature of phrase match, and no additional words at the beginning or end of a phrase will wind up matching against the exact form. Still, they won’t be pure and precise like they were before. I always felt like skillful use of AdWords phrase match was one thing that separated (some of) us from the animals.

Now? Welcome to the jungle.

Consider that many experienced advertisers:

  • Have built extensive campaigns based around subtle differences in intent, with a great number of phrase and exact match keywords bid accurately.
  • Have adapted, but only reluctantly, to the constant struggle to add negative keywords to prevent poor ROI on broad match from sapping overall account ROI.
  • Actually know the different performance of variations like plural and singular forms, to say nothing of certain common misspellings, and bid appropriately.
  • Actually remember when Yahoo made that type of precision obsolete, and still resent it.
  • Appreciated when Microsoft adCenter mirrored Google’s match type choices, but today roll their eyes because much of it doesn’t seem to work as promised.
  • Have developed extensive match type strategies to capitalize on correct intent and to keep ad groups from cannibalizing and bleeding into one another (e.g., “boxing in and boxing out”).

At press time, in its help files, Google still has sound advice for “how to tell the system not to show my ads on keyword variations.” Must be a pretty popular advertiser request! Google advises advertisers to “use phrase match to restrict the variations that trigger your ads” and to “use exact match to eliminate variations altogether.” That advice, obviously, will shortly become obsolete. You’ll get served numerous “variations” even when using phrase or exact match. (In case the files change by the time you read this, I’ve attached a screen shot.)


Why is Google doing this now? While it doesn’t represent a huge revenue grab, it’s no doubt a significant one for Google. Yahoo used to play with the revenue dial in this way all the time, often using the match types as a cover, and often as a way of salvaging a weak quarter. Google doesn’t have weak quarters – except as measured against wildly unreasonable expectations. Before too long, Google will be making moreprofit in a quarter than Yahoo makes in revenue in an entire year. Is it really that desperate for the cash? Surely not. Is the company so fond of cloak and dagger that it needs to prove Wall Street analysts wrong in some way every quarter?

When is an exact match not exact, exactly? And when will Google hire a better qualified VP of Don’t Be Evil?

I don’t have all the answers you’re seeking, but I do have one consolation.

You will be able to opt out of this feature, apparently. Consider doing so.

Originally posted on ClickZ – Match Type Mayhem: Did AdWords Just Exit the High Road?