Exact, Broad, and Phrase: Matching Keywords to Your Needs

Google offers four primary “match types” for keywords you can bid on in their AdWords platform, reflecting different degrees of specificity in your targeting. Understanding how they work in a basic way is handy, but even with that knowledge, it’s not always completely clear which you should choose for your campaigns. Scroll to the strategies if you’re already familiar with the basics, but read on if you’re not.

First, That Basic Introduction to Match Types

Exact match represents bid for the exact phrase you want to bid on, your ad only triggering if the Google user searched specifically exactly those words in exactly that order. These keywords are typically represented in square brackets. So, you might bid on [womens leather jackets], and your ad would only be shown if that exact entire term was searched.

Phrase match gives you some exact control over the core of the keywords you want to bid for, but allows you to account for variations on the phrase that users may search. You specify a set of keywords you want to keep in their exact order, but are willing to have your add triggered even if extra words are included in the search before or after your chosen set. These phrase match keywords you bid on are typically represented in quotation marks. So, if you bid on “leather jackets”, your ad could be triggered for searches for leather jackets, womens leather jackets, mens leather jackets, leather jackets for purple ponies, and so on.

The third match type is more broad than the first two, and as such is called, as you might expect… broad match! This is used when you want Google to show your ad as long as there is a connection to at least one of the terms in your phrase. Word order is irrelevant, and you are giving Google the freedom to make much looser connections. Broad match keywords don’t use additional formatting to identify (like the square brackets or quotation marks of the other match types). So, bidding on leather jackets can show ads for searches for mens leather jackets, jacket for pony, leather coat, leather on the weekends, and any other loose connection for plural/singular distinctions and related terms.

As of last year, there is a way you can get more control of your broad match terms, using modified broad match. This allows a lot of the reaching flexibility of broad match, while allowing you to specify keywords that must be in the search query. To bid on a broad phrase but insist on a particular keyword’s inclusion, simply add a + before the keyword. So, bidding on leather +jackets will return the results that bidding on leather jacketswould bring, but only for queries containing the word jackets.

Here is a table that Google provided on their AdWords blog to summarize what I’ve written above (click to see full size):


The broader the search term, the greater the chance of you bidding on terms that are irrelevant to you. You can specify that you don’t want your ads shown for and queries containing terms you indicate as negative keywords. You specify negative keywords in exact, phrase, and broad terms, to control how you want the exclusion to play out.

The table below, also provided on the AdWords blog, will serve better than any written explanation:


Now, Which to Pick?

Now that we’re all on the same page, here are strategic concerns and considerations to help you actually decide which of these to pick. These are general guidelines that may have cases where you would consider acting differently, but should help with some issues.


Don’t make the mistake of only using broad match, just because you’re not prepared to put the time into telling Google exactly what you want. Broad match has lower conversion rates, and needs to be supplemented with some specificity. Also, while broad match can be useful for higher traffic with a wider reach, you must be willing to put the time in to run query reports to identify keywords that have absolutely no business being there, and add words to your negative keywords list. Broad without negatives means burning money.


The search query report will definitely highlight problem areas, but if you’re looking to highlight problem terms before you start, use the Google keyword tool and search for broad terms. You will, in most cases, find negative keywords in the suggested list.


Use them all! Each match type has strengths in different ways, which may not be entirely apparent when you start. Try them all out, and see what performs and what doesn’t. Cut what doesn’t. Just make sure you don’t sacrifice too much of your budget on broad terms that are less relevant than your exact match terms which are much more likely to convert. Don’t be afraid to bid a bit more on exact terms to give a greater chance your money is spent there.

Exact match represents the bigger stones you put in the jar first that make sure you convert. Phrase match are the pebbles you use to fill out a bit more with a reasonable mass of performance. Broad match is the sand you use to fill the rest of the budget jar. The idea is that you don’t want to put too much sand in before you have your stones taken care of.

Note, you don’t need broad, phrase, and exact versions of every term in your list, but do make sure the highest volume key terms at least start at all three match types.


Don’t use it on broad match. Use it on the exact terms that are more likely to convert. Even if you spend more per click, the results will, in most cases, make the extra spend per click worth it.


That’s what broad match is really for. Rather than potentially spend more on exact terms, let broad match do what it’s meant to do, and just keep on top of your negative keywords to make sure you’re still bidding within reason.


Sometimes yes, but often it’s the worst of both worlds. You might end up spending more because you are reaching a wide audience, but converting less because your terms end up not specific enough. By all means, try it out, but keep a close eye on it.


Bid on your brand or any key product with an exact match keyword.

Any other strategic questions regarding match types? Put them in the comments, and I’ll help!

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