Keyword Match Types Still Matter (Phrase & Exact Match Are Not Obsolete)



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A powerful tool for managing ad spend, keyword match types help advertisers tailor their ad campaigns to the most relevant audience, thus bringing in the right traffic and ultimately leading to higher conversion rates.

With the advent of more advanced targeting options, some marketers have begun to question whether keyword match types still matter.

This article will break down the historical background of match types and why they still play an important role in paid search campaigns today.

Quick Background To How We Got To Our Current State

When I started in this industry, Yahoo! was the dominant search engine. It had just two match types (standard and advanced), while Google had what we currently have (exact, phrase, and broad; although for seven years, they also had broad match modified).

When Bing (because I still refuse to call it Microsoft Advertising) separated completely from Yahoo! in the mid/late 2000s, it had the same setup as Google.

Yahoo! would eventually move to the three-match types when it went from Overture to Panama (yes, I am old), and then again when it launched Gemini (God willing, that never comes back!).

Until recent years, there was always an emphasis that exact match was the most accurate to the query, followed by phrase, then broad match modified (while it was around), and broad (which was kind of a crapshoot).

But as things evolved, close match variants as a standalone function and broad match modified went the way of Old Yeller.

In addition to this, around 2018, exact match became much looser and started to feel like a combo for phrase match and broad match modified. Needless to say, the industry masses did not receive that info well.

As Google, quite possibly for the first time, used the term “keywordless AI” in February 2023, marketers are questioning the validity of match types moving forward.

People Didn’t Take Match Type Changes Well (I Saw This At A Google Event After The Announcement)

For years, big and sophisticated operations condemned or sparingly used broad match, often due to its lower Quality Score keywords.

Advertisers almost always used exact and phrase match, duplicating the keywords in both match types and giving exact the highest bid, then phrase.

Some would also use broad, but giving it the lowest bid (to minimize risks), primarily to harvest insights from the Search Query Reports and make robust negative keyword lists (I still practice this today).

Pro-tip that is still relevant today: Never use Dynamic Keyword Insertion (DKI) in ad groups with broad match keywords.

I should note that, at the 2018 SMX West, James Svoboda of WebRanking blew my mind with a hybrid match type combining broad match modified with phrase match in a single keyword. Alas, that is no longer possible.

Remember, this history ignores “keywordless” search – Shopping (formerly PLA’s), Dynamic Search Ads, Local Service Ads, or Local Search; most shopper marketing platforms or niche/unique search engines, such as Yelp. Not to mention, it predates the questionable Performance Max.

Why Do Match Types Matter, If We’re Trending Toward Keywordless Search?

I’m glad you asked me that question, as I’ve been wearing my tinfoil hat for years on this.

My only mildly proven claim is that big search (a new phrase I hope catches on) is trying to eliminate our control by getting away from the traditional keyword approach to make more money. I realize the band-aid hasn’t been ripped off (yet), and we still have some degree of control in keyword-focused search.

Therefore, focusing on match types is both relevant and important.

Some straightforward and simple answers (however, this is not all-encompassing for everyone, yet) are:

  • Shopping does not apply to all advertisers.
  • Not all advertisers have YouTube assets (and don’t want the engines creating the videos for them because they are a bit cringy).
  • Performance Max is expanding. It can be manipulated but still isn’t necessarily applicable to all advertisers.
  • Not all advertisers want to display imagery or placements in rotation (for various reasons).
  • Many advertisers want control of the spend and the ability to report based on where their ads appear.

The truth is, for various reasons, many advertisers just want to show for certain keywords in search and not much else. And “keywordless” efforts really just do not show that.

Screenshot by author, March 2023

There’s no true way to tell where your Performance Max ads show.

So, Why Do Phrase And Exact Match Still Matter?

Despite the neutering changes to them by big search, phrase and exact match still hold power.

When it comes to keyword-based search, exact match keywords still tend to hold the greatest relevancy (and thus Quality Score) to a search query.

Leading to a more cost-efficient cost per click (CPC) – with phrase match not far behind.

Exact is cheaper, as QS actually populates more often than PhraseScreenshot by author, March 2023

Exact is cheaper, as Quality Score actually populates it more often than phrase.

The Single Keyword Ad Groups (SKAG) model is largely a dead model for bidding; the need and usage for curated and tight-knit ad groups are still very much necessary.

Typically, this can only be achieved via phrase and exact match, as broad match is more or less a game of Russian Roulette (while I can’t explain why, it is definitely a riskier gamble using broad match in Bing than in Google).

The next need for these match types and why they are so important is often overlooked: budget cannibalization.

Budget cannibalization, in its simplest terms, means this: You have a single pool of money that everyone can take from, with little to no restriction. So, instead of everyone getting an equal share of the funds, whoever takes it the fastest will get the most.

Keywordless search bids on a user query are relevant to the website – not a specific keyword you’re specifically looking to pay for.

This essentially means a high-volume search query can steal the budget from a mid/low-volume search query, preventing an advertiser from showing for both.

Basically, think of “keywordless” and, to a degree, broad match as a mash-up of your brand and non-brand or high volume and low volume smashed together in a single ad group. Someone is going to get the short end of the stick.

So, while you may bid on “everything” with a keywordless search campaign, odds are the non-brand and/or high-volume queries account for the bulk of the spend.

Other potential queries you could show for (long tail, brand, mid/low volume, etc.) are not given an appropriate amount of budget to work with (or any at all).

Important note: Some of this is or will soon be controlled with campaign-level negatives in Performance Max (already applicable to shopping).

Thus, if you want to ensure your important keywords (i.e., brand, high volume/higher converting, etc.), a keyword-based search program consisting of phrase and/or exact match remains 100% necessary.

Making it a stand-alone campaign (I still love doing match-type isolation at the ad group level as well) ensures specific keywords or queries aren’t going to have to fight to get funds to trigger.

They will have a separate stand-alone budget for it. (And before you ask, no, a shared campaign budget will not help you in this scenario, no matter how much you think it might.)

The Takeaway

When all is said and done, here is what should be truly taken away from this article:

  • Big search is pushing hard to a “keywordless” search advertising world.
  • Keywordless search, while streamlining, lacks control and transparency, leading to cannibalization.
  • Current-day broad match isn’t much better than “keywordless” search.
  • Phrase and exact match comprised ad groups are the only way to be sure you are bidding on your intended query and minimizing the lack of transparency.
  • Lastly, because I failed to mention it anywhere earlier: The most important match type of all is negative match.

More Resources:

Featured Image: Just dance/Shutterstock

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