HomeBlogBreaking: Exact Match Keywords No Longer Exact Match

Breaking: Exact Match Keywords No Longer Exact Match

Author: Mark Irvine
Last Updated: November 23, 2021 | Paid Search Marketing

It’s not unusual to have things get a little…confusing on St. Patrick’s Day. Maybe your speech falls apart, your words fall out of order, and some of what you say might get misinterpreted. Well, Google announced changes late Friday afternoon to how they define keyword match types, and PPC advertisers can now expect this kind of behavior every day from their exact match keywords.

What’s Changing with Exact Match Keywords?

Advertisers have relied on match types since the dawn of Google Ads (formerly known as Google AdWords) to control how their keywords match out to a user’s search. A staple of any successful Google Ads account was the use of exact match keywords, which would only serve an ad when a user’s search exactly matched the keyword. Exact match keywords prevented you from serving an ad if a user’s search didn’t exactly match your keyword. Effectively, exact match keywords gave you complete semantic control over what search terms your ads showed for – the search term had to include those words, only those words, and in that exact order.

Well, Google’s recent announcement changes all that. Now, exact match keywords can show when search queries share the same words of that keyword, but in different order. For instance, the exact match keyword [men’s dress shirt] is now eligible to show to the exact search term men’s dress shirt and to the not-exact search term dress shirt men’s.

google adwords exact match keyword change

Google’s recent change also allows for exact match keywords to disregard the functional words within a user’s search query, including appropriate prepositions (such as “in,” “to,” “for”), conjunctions (such as “and,” “but,” and “or”), and articles (such as “a,” “an,” and “the”). For instance, the exact match keyword [jobs in united states] could potentially serve an ad to someone searching for “jobs in the united states” even though the keyword didn’t include the word “the.”

adwords exact match keyword change examples

Google estimates that advertisers will see 3% more clicks from this type of “additional exact match” traffic. This isn’t the first time that Google’s changed the rules of exact match keywords. In 2014, Google began automatically including misspellings, plurals, and other close grammatical variants of exact and phrase match keywords. We saw that change increase the reach of those keywords by roughly 2%.

Who Benefits from the Change?

So Google just found a way to serve more ads from exact match keywords. What’s the upshot?

Some small advertisers may benefit from this change. Local advertisers uniquely benefit from the simplicity of this new exact match. For instance, let’s say you were advertising your new hotel in Boston’s Copley Square. Previously, the exact match keyword [Hotel Copley Square] would only show your ad to that exact search query Hotel Copley Square. You’d have to create multiple keywords or experiment with other match types to get more traffic. Now that exact match keyword [Hotel Copley Square] will attract a lot more relevant searches that you might not immediately consider such as Copley Square Hotel, Hotel in Copley Square, Hotel on Copley Square, Hotel near Copley Square, Hotel by Copley Square, etc.

If this change excites you and sounds like it will help your account serve to additional relevant searches, good! You might also benefit from modified broad match keywords, which effectively match out to a lot of the same traffic.

Who This Change Hurts

Semantics may not be the most exciting thing you’ll talk about with your CMO this week, but if word order matters to you—and in some cases it definitely does—your PPC accounts may be in for a rough transition.

Brand advertisers may notice their accounts struggle because of the exact match change, particularly if their brand name includes a location or other common words. In direct comparison to the previous example, consider The Copley Square Hotel bidding on the exact keyword of its brand name [The Copley Square Hotel]. To them, someone searching for the exact term The Copley Square Hotel is highly qualified brand traffic whereas someone searching for the term Hotel by Copley Square is effectively a non-branded search as they’re competing with a dozen or so other brands.

Advertisers in niche industries should also be on high alert following this change, particularly if you’re using long-tail keywords or nouns as adjectives to qualify traffic. For instance, if you’re a bloodstock agent, you may be interested in people who are searching for the exact query race horse but may have obvious reasons against paying for traffic for the more popular search horse races. If you’re helping professionals learn how to become licensed in their field, you may be interested in paying for the exact query architect license but not the more popular (and expensive) query license architect.

The change hits close to home for paid search marketers too. Here at Wordstream, we’re proud to admit that we’ve used paid marketing to recruit top talent. Because of this change though, the exact match keyword [paid search jobs] now also matches out to considerably more searches, and the reordered queries paid job search or search paid jobs attract a lot more traffic and are much less likely to match our open positions.

What Should We Do to Prepare for These Changes?

Google’s changes to exact match keywords don’t all go into effect immediately. Per their announcement, the change will be rolled out to English and Spanish keywords over the following months, with other languages to follow throughout 2017. Here’s what you need to do before Google changes your exact match keywords:

Review your top exact match keywords

review your adwords exact match keywords


Look at your most popular exact match keywords. Are they all one word or are they more than one word? If your keywords include multiple words, write down each word of that keyword and then write out every permutation of those words in different orders. If any of those re-ordered search terms could potentially be irrelevant to your business, you may be in trouble.

Preemptively add new negative keywords

Adding new negative keywords is an important routine for every PPC manager. If after reviewing your exact match keywords you discover that they’ll start serving traffic to irrelevant reordered search terms, you should preemptively add that search term as a negative keyword to prevent you from losing precious budget on that search term soon.

Consider adding other match types

adwords phrase match keywords

If the idea of losing control over word order or not being able to control the addition or removal of function keywords sounds like a nightmare for you, consider relying more heavily on phrase match keywords. Google has confirmed that phrase match keywords will not be affected by this change.

broad match modified keyword adwords

Conversely, if you’re particularly excited about this change making your keyword management easier, consider adding more modified broad match keywords to your account. Modified broad match keywords enjoy many of these same benefits such as disregarding word order or the addition of new words in a search query.

Remove any newly duplicate keywords

If you’ve previously included exact match keywords in different word orders, such as [Boston Hotels] and [Hotels Boston], or included keywords with prepositions or other functional words such as [Hotels in Boston], this change effectively eliminates those differences between those keywords. Consequently, all those keywords would now be competing in the same auctions within your account. Duplicate keywords not only make it harder to manage an account, but can also drive up your own CPCs for each keyword, so be sure to remove them ASAP!

Very few advertisers appear to be celebrating Google’s recent announcement. Many are upset over losing the semantic control over their search ads they’ve had for so long. Some people have argued that exact match keywords are now dead. I may not fully agree there, but they are most certainly no longer exact match.

UPDATE: The impact so far

My colleagues in marketing, Allen Finn and Josh Brackett, did some data analysis on our client accounts to see what the impact of the exact match change has been so far. You can read their analysis here.

new exact match keyword rules

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Meet The Author

Mark Irvine

Mark is the Director of PPC at SearchLab Digital. Previously, Mark worked at WordStream and was named the Most Influential PPC Expert of the Year by both PPC and Microsoft.


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