RIP Exact Match and Phrase Match in AdWords!

RIP Exact Match and Phrase Match in AdWords!

August 15, 2014
Larry Kim

Holy smokes! Google has today effectively killed off both the Exact and Phrase keyword match types in AdWords!

RIP Exact Match

While the keyword match types will still exist, starting in September, AdWords is redefining the definition of how keywords set to phrase and exact keyword match type will trigger search ads by applying close variant keyword matching meaning your keywords will also trigger for misspellings, singular/plural forms, stemmings, accents, acronyms and abbreviations of the keywords that you specify.

Close variant keyword match was introduced in 2012, and was already the default option when using exact match and phrase match – however previously you could opt out of it. Going forward, this is no longer the case. Here’s everything you need to know about this keyword match type shake-up!

Who is Impacted by The Change?

At WordStream, we estimate that the change is a non-issue for approximately 97% of Google AdWords advertisers that didn’t opt out of close variant keyword match type option and who didn’t employ keyword “match type trap” optimization strategies.

However the ~3% who were using exact and phrase match the old fashioned way will most certainly be impacted by the change. And for the record, we see no reason for why they had to remove an optional feature.

What Was The Benefit of Previously Opting Out of Close Variant Keyword Matching?

The use of classic phrase and exact match offered greater precision and control over exactly which search queries triggered your ads. At WordStream we’ve found that shaping PPC traffic using these more precise match types almost always improved ROI, typically in the range of low double digits.

Was There Any Downside of Using Phrase & Exact Match

Yes. The increased control and ROI came at a cost of dramatically increased account management complexity.

For example, an account with 10 million keywords would typically have consisted of around 1 million core keywords and 9 million variations of those same keywords. This resulted in many times more account artifacts which in turn created account inertia that made it harder be agile in other ways. For example, ad copy and landing page optimization was much harder because there were so many more ad groups to deal with, etc.

This was unfortunate because ad copy and landing page optimization activities provide far greater potential upside. For example, the top 10% of landing pages convert 3-5x higher than the median landing page, and the top 1% of ad text generates 6x more clicks.

Why is Google Redefining Phrase and Exact Match?

I have no idea. This isn’t the first time Google has deprecated functionality, for example, last year they retired Device Targeting. In both cases though, Google retired targeting features that if used, resulted in substantially more complex account structure.

Beyond that, the concept of exact match is around 15 years old. Today we’re moving towards a “keywordless” future of search where organic search algorithms like Hummingbird will show you search results for content that doesn’t even include the keywords you searched on, and Google Shopping ads don’t use any keywords at all to target ads. As a result, I’d expect to see more of this “match type consolidation” in the near future.

Ultimately it’s a Google AdWords world. We’re just living in it.

What are The Benefits of Close Variant Keyword Matching?

  • Reduced account complexity by means of fewer keywords
  • Expanded reach by being able to capture more long tail keyword searches that would have otherwise been impossible to target due to “low search volume”. It was impossible to come up with all possible keyword variations for a niche.

Are There Any Benefits of Forcing The Use of Close Variant Keyword Matching?

No. Except that perhaps it forces search marketers to think more about more SEM strategy and more leveraged optimization activities like Conversion Rate Optimization and Ad Copy Optimization rather than mindless (and endless) keyword expansion.

What are your thoughts about the change in Phrase and Exact Match?

Have your say in the comments!


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Jason Dea
Aug 15, 2014

Do you happen to know (or think) this might apply to organic keywords as well? One of the things I find frustrating (although I don't know if it really impacts business that much) is seeing us rank well on a particular keywork, only to rank poorly on teh plural. Seems to odd to me.

Aug 15, 2014

Talk about hype! It's nothing like the headline of the article suggests!

Larry Kim
Aug 19, 2014

tell that to these folks:

Aug 15, 2014

I loved that meme! This is a great post- the way we do marketing is now changing and you put it up in a very informative way. Thanks! 

Larry Kim
Aug 15, 2014

thanks hailey. glad you liked the meme.

Adam Lundquist
Aug 15, 2014

Hi Larry,Great article – I like how you broke down how it will effect the typical advertiser. I don’t see why Google is taking it away, but I also think that it isn’t that huge a change. Close variant matching is a good feature, and at least for me means that I don’t have to spend endless hours adding the letter “s” to a bunch of keywords! If an account manager needs to get rid of a specific plural or mis-spelling they can simply add it as a negative keyword. What I am much more interested in that the article brought up is the “more keyword consolidation in the future”. What is it that you are envisioning Google will do?Thanks,Adam

Larry Kim
Aug 15, 2014

Phrase match, exact match and modified broad match are 3 match types that are looking more and more similar. If that is the case, why do we need them all? Especially now that there are ads that don't even use keywords.

Aug 17, 2014

Google made it mandatory so the CPCs and competition will increase for these misspellings etc.Considering it will optional functionality before... that's the only logical conclusion.I'm in an industry where I have to be in a certain ad position on specific branded keywords, so this change has definitely made this more difficult. 

Apr 01, 2015

Google in the future will ask you what kind of event you would like and how much you would like to pay for that event. That is all. Events like registrations, leads, downloads, purchases etc.

Leo Sgovio
Aug 15, 2014

I personally don't think that this is going to impact negatively the performance of our campaigns. After testing Dynamic Search Ads (which basically do not use any keywords) I can say that the relevancy of the ad triggered is great and it captures a lot more keyword variations. Ultimately you can use negative keywords to optimize your campaigns and focus on conversion optimization.

Larry Kim
Aug 15, 2014

Yes! google's ability to group together search terms with identical intent has improved dramatically in the last 15 years since exact match was first introduced.and i agree that the vast majority of accounts won't be impacted. if you can save time on keyword match types and focus on higher value things like ad copy and conversion optimization, i think your ROI will be much better!

Andrew Solomon
Aug 15, 2014

Maybe Google is trying to make Adwords less complex and more accessable to the average business owner, without needing to hire a professional to manage there adwords campaigns. Just a quick thought.

Larry Kim
Aug 15, 2014

I agree!

Aug 15, 2014

We've been using Close Variants since they started (large business account), and they work well most of the time performing similar to EM and PM keywords. It's somewhat challening to report on and isolate CV query matches, but it can be done. Overall, this should reduce the need for excessive KWs like you said, Larry, and maybe even some broad matching. However, it may ruffle the budget feathers of those who are currently opted out of it on purpose.

Matthew Wainwright
Aug 15, 2014

As I said on LinkedIn, this is bad for advertisers in highly-regulated industries. For example, as it stands now, pharma advertisers can show up for exact match disease states without purporting to be a cure for them. However, people will invariably search for cures for those diseases and trigger those same ads. That user experience probably violates DDMAC guidelines... and, usually, reality. Sure you can make "cure" a negative keyword, but what about the dozens of synonyms you failed to consider.Glad I'm no longer in that business.

Dave Schneider
Aug 15, 2014

Hey Larry,I'm just getting into AdWords advertising myself so shame to lose this functionality.Thanks again,Dave at NinjaOutreach

Sean Weigold
Aug 15, 2014

I'm very disappointed in Google for choosing to mandate this feature. It does not benefit advertisers, only themselves. Everyone who works in search advertising knows that plural variations and misspellings often perform worse than the chosen keyword. The exact match type exists for a reason! If I wanted to capture variations, I would use broad match.

Larry Kim
Aug 19, 2014

there's a petition here:

Andy Brown
Aug 15, 2014

We have used both exact match and phrase match for several different campaigns. Although it did make management of the campaign a little more difficult, we did see positive results. I do think that Google is trying to make AdWords more accessible to a wider audience because they are getting rid of these two match types and have also launched AdWords Express. I think these are steps in the right direction, but wonder what else Google will see fit to do with the program. It does seem that the goals looks to be a future without keywords ,which would be fine by me. It will be interesting to see what happens next.Thanks for the articleAndy Brown

Aug 16, 2014

The only suprise is that it has taken this long to implement. The future will be a persanlised segmented blend forABC&D's. IMO top keywords are crucial to marketing but only if you own them.

Aug 16, 2014

Why force this? For those people who like it, great, fine, use to your heart's content. But my campaigns are fine the way they are. Now we have add in tons more negatives so that our exact campaigns will stay exact...hopefully.  

Aug 16, 2014

I believe the title of this article is somewhat misleading.Having read the original article from the official Google blog, it seems that Exact Match and Phrase Match will still exist come September.The only difference is that Close Variant Matching (which helps deliver your Ads to people who have misspelled their search) will be turned on by default, and there will be no way to turn it off.Google have said that previous PPC advertisers have actually seen 7% more clicks with this feature turned on. In my humble opinion, this can only be a good thing.

Aug 18, 2014

How is more clicks better for my ROI? The only benefit this will have is for Google's ROI and the inexperienced or lazy whe dont mind wasting budget.  

Dragos Mirica
Aug 17, 2014

It's the granular keywords process still a valuable process?

Larry Kim
Aug 19, 2014

yes but not as much as it was say, 10 years ago or even 2 years ago. 

Marcus Wickman
Aug 17, 2014

Spot on and excellent post that explains it all very well.As an old dog in the yard being around search marketing almost 10 years, what we're seeing is a loss of control and control is (or was) what it was all about (in the beginning). The better control you had over what keywords showed, the better ROI you got (at the expence of it all taking more time). This is still pretty much the case and I guess we can go around adding negative keywords in all our exact match campaigns, even more so than before, but I think we're seeing the death of "old style ppc" and the birth of something else (something better perhaps). I'm just an old tired dog without a bone (Google keeps hiding it). :)

Larry Kim
Aug 19, 2014

yeah i think that is a pretty good description of what is happening here. my view of the future is one that relies less and less on keyword match types, and focuses more highly discriminating signals of browsing history, user context and intent (etc. ) which are overall much stonger predictors of purchasing behavior.

Aug 18, 2014

Now it will take only half of the time in developing strategies... ;)

Aug 18, 2014

I'm not keen on the adwords changes. I think that they will gradually remove some of the control we have on when our ads show.

Aug 19, 2014

In 2012 when this was launched, I tested "close variants" for over 6 months in my campaigns. I added thousands of negative keywords to my adgroups in an attempt to make this work. The limited information in the Search Query report made it impossible to come up with all necessary negative variants. In the end my CTR and quality score plummeted. I had to Opt-out. Please sign this petition in an attempt to stop Google from moving forward For more reasons why this isn't "good" check out this blog post from Brad Geddes -

Aug 21, 2014

Hi Larry,I like your article a lot. It gives a good picture of the change. Do you think the change has an impact on the Quality Score? To be honest, I was surprised that this change was so easily accepted by the community, because I felt that Google was using its monopoly to pressure marketers to pay in general more. I recently had a talk with the Head of PPC from a Manchester Digital Agency (that was before the announcement) and he said that 80% of the keywords in his campaigns are exact match in order to maximise Quality Score. Since Quality Score is a main component for the ad positioning, he is focusing on maximising Quality Score in order to lower CPC. I feel that with that change Google makes it even more difficult to control this side of the equation and forces marketers to spend more on average. I was wondering what you are thinking about this change with regard to the Quality Score?Thank youFelix@Felix_Strasser

Aug 21, 2014

Spot on, Felix! It's all about money in the end. I can't believe people really wonder about why Google is making this change. Are people really that naive? Do they still think Google is such a nice little company? The 'Gee, I really don't know why Google is doing this' type of responses, in both the article and comments, amaze me!Best,Ralph

Aug 21, 2014

The "why" is pretty simple: getting more money and become less and less transparent. We opted out from close variants in only few cases in which it was totally necessary. These clients will end up wasting more money without any knowledge of how/where they wasted it. In fact, we still don't have any way to view all search terms that triggered the ads.

Mithilesh Dixit
Aug 21, 2014

Thanks Sir  to share this precious knowledge!!!

Aug 21, 2014

This is about money, pure and simple. Google is a public company that needs to hit their numbers and as expected theyresort to tactics like this. Period. End of story.

Aug 21, 2014

This is a great post, Thanks a Lot

Tony G
Aug 21, 2014

Reshaphing Search?First a disclaimer, I don't even know how behind my own idea I am... but I'll throw it out there anyway.We're seeing a ton of rapid fire changes to search in a relatively short time span. Not Provided, Panda, Penguin, Pigeon, Hummingbird (not mention many more), and now this. I can't tell you over my tenure in search how many videos I've seen Matt Cutts say "high quality content" is the answer. "Don't try to game the algo..." Also, as mentioned above: 

rather than mindless (and endless) keyword expansion.
  Here's a shocker. The industry never listened (with good reason, because the data still proved that the tweaks worked), and there were constantly more questions and articles about keywords. Tests. Thoughts. Ideas. Etc. Could it be possible that we're now seeing some form of slow, forced compliance?

Aug 22, 2014

I have to add that in addition to these clicks that will be considered close variants yet still irrelevant clicks, you won't even know what to block for thanks to Google's "other search terms" feature.

Sep 02, 2014

I got to read about the similar news for Bing too!

Great blog my friend, there is one awareness which i would like to share : Google is NOT the internet! There is too much of unwanted hype when it releases or even gives a hint realated to its updates.

Dayle o Conner
Sep 08, 2014

Oh my... You have put a lot of brain stroming in deciding negative keywords... I don't know why Google made this misery...

Daniel Gilbert
Sep 22, 2014

Hi Larry,We've written an AdWords script to automatically reverse these pesky changes.It's not perfect because Google doesn't give us all the search term data but will restore Exact match to more similar behaviour.            

SearchEngine Pro
Jan 11, 2015

This change means one thing for advertisers...more wasted ad dollars. Will be interesting to see when people start reporting increased ad cost while the Adsense mafia has a field day. Interesting that no one is talking about the increased opportunity for click fraud that will come with this change.

Bojan - Cult Of Traffic
Jan 14, 2015

Is there any way to opt-out of this feature? I was carefully executing this every time I was setting up a campaign, and I still see a lot of value relating to the SEO, and the desire to rank for singular over the plural is very important.

Is there any way to "hack Adwords" so we can at least test the differences?

Sep 10, 2015

Are There Any Benefits of Forcing The Use of Close Variant Keyword Matching?

There was for my campaign. My ads were showing for keywords that had NOTHING to do with my business and it cost me money. Google ended up refunding a portion of that money.

Oct 02, 2015

Exact keyword match could save you more money than broad match keywords.

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