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Broad vs Phrase vs Exact: How to Use Keyword Matching

Written by James Parsons • Updated December 2, 2023

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Broad vs Phrase vs Exact

SEO, but more importantly, paid advertising, runs on keywords. Keyword matching types are critical for getting the most out of paid ads, but the different match types are surprisingly tricky for newcomers to grasp. I’ve done my best to demystify them here and to provide some actionable advice for those getting started.

Three Types of Keyword Matching

Let’s start with the basic definitions.

A keyword is a word or phrase that is critical to the overall topic or subject of an ad or piece of content. One of the keywords for this post you’re reading now is “Keyword Matching,” as you might expect. A keyword for a Nike page might be “Track Running Shoes.”

Keyword matching is a tool and mechanism used to refine results and targeting in paid advertising. Let’s take the shoes example and run with it. Here’s a question for you:

  • If a user searches for “Red running shoes”, should the Nike page for Track Running Shoes appear in the sponsored ads section?

Assume Nike is paying for ads, of course. There are two choices here: yes or no. The argument for yes is that Nike sells shoes of different colors and that running shoes match the intent of the search well enough that the page is a valuable result, and thus the ad should be shown. Conversely, the argument for no is that the user is searching for running shoes, but they may not want track running shoes; the ad is more specific than the user’s intent, so it might not be valuable to them.

Both of these are valid options. So, how does a platform like Google determine which queries the ad will show for and which it won’t? The answer is simple: they don’t. Instead, they let the ad buyer – Nike, in this case – decide. The mechanism for making that decision is setting the keyword match type in the ad itself.

There are three possible match types.

  • Broad
  • Phrase
  • Exact

Traditionally, these relate to the specific use of the word. They still do for every platform except Google, which I’ll talk about more momentarily.

Keyword Match Types

So, what do they mean?

  • A broad match is any match that could be related to the keyword. For the Track Running Shoes example, a search about track and field sports would bring up the ad, as would one for running shoes and for track running shoes.
  • A phrase match is any match that matches the keyword in specific but doesn’t have to be exclusive. So the Track Running Shoes ad would show for queries searching for track running shoes, but also for red track shoes, durable track running shoes, or comfortable running shoes.
  • An exact match is exclusive to the keyword itself. It allows for some variation, like word order and plurality, but the Track Running Shoes page would only show for queries like track running shoes, track shoes for running, or track running shoe.

This is all used as a way to control (and generally narrow) how many people see the ads, with the goal of focusing on just the people most likely to be interested in the landing page.

Companies spend millions of dollars on advertising experts to learn how to identify transactional-intent searches, exclude valueless queries, and refine ads down to their most precise and effective forms.

Google’s Modern Meaning for Matching

So, above, I mentioned that those definitions are the traditional meanings of uses of the words. Google, perhaps unfortunately, has advanced beyond such concerns as “allowing you to specify the words you want to target.”

Google Keyword Match Types

Here are Google’s current definitions for these matching types.

  • Broad: Ads may show on searches that are related to your keyword, which can include searches that don’t contain the direct meaning of your keywords. This helps you attract more visitors to your website, spend less time building keyword lists, and focus your spending on keywords that work. Broad match is the default match type that all your keywords are assigned because it is the most comprehensive. That means you don’t have to specify another match type (like exact match, phrase match, or a negative match type).
  • Phrase: Ads may show on searches that include the meaning of your keyword. The meaning of the keyword can be implied, and user searches can be a more specific form of the meaning. With phrase match, you can reach more searches than with exact match and fewer searches than with broad match, only showing your ads on the searches that include your product or service.
  • Exact: Ads may show on searches that have the same meaning or same intent as the keyword. Of the 3 keyword matching options, exact match gives you the most steering over who views your ad but reaches fewer searches than both phrase and broad match.

You might notice the use of the word “meaning” here rather than matching. You might also notice that the exact match type says the “same meaning or same intent” and not “same words.”

This is because, over the last several years, Google has been investing a lot into understanding the semantic meaning behind words rather than relying on specific words and actual exact matching.

This is best understood with the examples Google uses for each. They use the example of an ad targeting the keyword “furniture store.”

  • Broad: The ad will appear for queries broadly relevant to furniture stores, like “home décor” or “cream colored leather sectional.”
  • Phrase: The ad will appear for queries that include the general meaning of the keyword, like “cheap furniture stores” and “living room furniture deals.”
  • Exact: The ad will appear for queries that match the same meaning as the keyword, like “furniture store” and “home furnishing shop.”

The most important difference here is that, at least on Google Ads, there is no way to force specific keyword matching. Even at its most precise, Google is still serving your “furniture store” ad for “home furnishing shop” despite none of the words matching.

Now, you might think this is a good thing. Arguably, in most cases, it is.

However, it also means that there are a lot of fringe cases where words that have ambiguous or multiple meanings are interpreted wrongly, and, despite context, your ads show up for completely incorrect searches. It’s a new way of thinking and, unfortunately, means you need to try to figure out what Google interprets as the meaning behind words rather than just trusting you to know the words you want to use.

Mostly, what it comes down to is that you can’t rely on Google to be precise about language anymore.

Positive and Negative Keyword Matching

Putting aside Google’s seeming desire to make things harder on everyone, there’s one more attribute that matters when targeting ads: positive versus negative usage.

Positive matching is everything I’ve talked about already. The ads system looks for searches or pages with the relevant keywords and matches up the ads to display on it.

Negative matching is a way to specify keywords to exclude. Here are a few examples:

  • If you’re selling a physical-only book, you might use “pdf” or “epub” as negative keywords so you don’t display ads for people who are searching for digital versions (or free pirated scans.)
  • If you’re selling anything, you might put “free” as a negative keyword to avoid targeting people who aren’t interested in paying.
  • If you’re Nike, you might exclude Adidas as a negative keyword so you don’t show up for searches when people are looking specifically for your competitors.

All three match types can be used for negative matching as well.

Negative Keyword Matching

Fortunately, Google hasn’t done the same semantic fuzziness to negative keywords as they have done for positive keywords.

  • Negative Broad matching will exclude searches that use all of the words in your negative keyword, regardless of their order, but will still show if only some of those words are present. So if you exclude “dress shoes,” a searcher looking for running shoes will still see the ad, but not one looking for dress shoes.
  • Negative Phrase matching will exclude searches that use all of the words in your negative keyword, but they have to be in the right order. Excluding “dress shoes” means your ad will not show up for “dress shoes” or for “black dress shoes” but will appear for “dressy shoes” or “dress shoe.”
  • Negative Exact matching excludes the phrase and only the phrase. Excluding “dress shoes” will exclude your ad from exactly one query, and that query is “dress shoes.” Any other words in the query are not an exact match and will still show your ad.

Makes more sense than trying to interpret the meaning behind words, doesn’t it?

Do Match Types Matter for Content Marketing?

Before I get into specifics about how to use match type for paid advertising, one major question you may have is whether or not any of this matters at all for organic SEO.

Truthfully? Not really.

Keyword matching used to be a lot more important than it is now. That’s why you used to see carefully written blog posts with a bunch of variations on a keyword to hit as many more specific matches as possible. It’s also why you’d see entire websites with exact match domains, meant to look more authoritative to those exact queries.

Google’s shift to semantic parsing put the kibosh on that. As a user, you’ve probably seen plenty of cases where you search for a word or a phrase, and most of the top results either barely use it or don’t even use the exact phrase at all. It’s a common complaint, and it’s something Google will need to address soon, or it’s going to cost them.

Other search engines obey this a little more, but since those other search engines represent a collective 8.5% of the search market share altogether, it’s not worth being too worried about, at least not yet.

Search Engine Market Share Worldwide

That said, paying attention to more specific matching in organic content is more important for less sophisticated and less fuzzy search engines, particularly for other kinds of content. YouTube search, Amazon search, eBay search; these still care.

For the most part, though, when you’re writing blog posts? Just write about the topic as comprehensively as you can. You’ll naturally use keywords and match for those other search engines, but by being more natural about it, you better adhere to what Google wants out of you.

How to Use Keyword Matching in Paid Advertising

So, how do you actually make use of match types in paid advertising?

Be as narrow as possible. The narrower and more specific your audience, the more closely you can target them with your ad copy, and the more attractive the ads will be. Think of it as a numbers game; if you reach 1,000 people with your ads but have a 1% click-through rate, you’re only getting 10 clicks; if you reach 500 people with your ads, but you have a 10% click-through, you’re getting 50 clicks. The narrower audience is better, even if the raw number is worse.

Be aware of your objective. In general, if you’re trying to build awareness and get your name out as much as possible, broad matches are better. If you’re trying to capture specific search intents, like transactional intent, using narrower exact matching is better.

Using Keyword Matching in Paid Advertising

Make use of negative keywords to exclude traffic you can’t benefit from. The examples above, like getting rid of people searching for free versions of your product, can be very beneficial by reducing your ad spend on views you can’t monetize. Be aware, though, that it can also catch people looking for your free trial or your digital books, which can be beneficial if you offer those. It’s all contextual.

Refine over time. Ads are never a fire-and-forget prospect. You need to monitor their performance, see where your traffic is coming from, and refine your keywords and matching over time. This is basically a full-time job when you have enough ads running, which is why advertisers can make bank with their skills.

Understand that Google is different. In their endless quest to be the cutting edge, they may be cutting themselves off at the knees, but for now, it’s something we all have to deal with. Google has chosen to leverage their language parsing, and they’ve made that our problem to handle. In practical terms, it just means more focus on negative keywords and more attention paid to what’s actually happening versus what we think should be happening based on keywords and matching.

So, there you have it: a guide to and protips for keyword matching. Have any questions? Feel free to ask them in the comments.

Written by James Parsons

James is the founder and CEO of Topicfinder, a purpose-built topic research tool for bloggers and content marketers. He also runs a content marketing agency, Content Powered, and writes for Forbes, Inc, Entrepreneur, Business Insider, and other large publications. He's been a content marketer for over 15 years and helps companies from startups to Fortune 500's get more organic traffic and create valuable people-first content.

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