Digital Marketing

AdWords Expanding Phrase and Exact Matching Technology

AdWords has started releasing a feature that will expand the matching technology for Phrase and Exact Match Types.  Essentially, Phrase and Exact Match Types will begin matching closely related search terms, when Google’s technology is able to establish that the search intent is the same.  The opt-out functionality is live today; All Advertisers are auto-opted into this feature as a new Advanced Campaign Setting.  The matching technology will not actually change until mid-May.  Advertisers can begin preparing now, and opt-out now if they choose to.
My Take: This is a classic win-win-win.  Users get better results, Advertisers expand coverage with good performance, and Google increases the relevance of their search results and ads.  Of course, they are most likely also increasing keyword competition, i.e.: profitability for the auctioneer.

AdWords Opt Out Settings

Eric Enge and I had the opportunity to catch up with Jen Huang, a Product Manager on the Google AdWords team responsible for the new matching technology.  Ms. Huang filled us in on some of the details of what exactly is changing.
“Jen Huang: The technology is attempting to expand Advertiser Keyword coverage for Phrase and Exact Match when we can match to the same user intent. Keywords that reflect similar user intent.”


Search Engines use matching technology to match a limited set of Advertiser Keywords to an infinite set of possible search queries.  Match Types help Search Engines match Keywords beyond their literal, character-for-character match, to all of those possible search queries.  While Phrase and Exact Match are as close as Advertisers can get to literal control, Search Engines also use normalization (or canonical form). That is a broader topic, which I covered previously on Search Engine Land with this article – Canonical Form: The Hidden Keywords in Paid Search.  Normalization has always normalized Phrase and Exact Match on capitalization, for example. [nasa] has always matched [NASA], before and after this release. This release takes that further, to closely related variants, based on the notion of user intent.
When Search Engines match various keywords, they have to play a balancing act.  If they can maintain relevance and also expand the coverage, then they increase competition and profit as a result.  However, if they expand without preserving relevance, then Advertisers would notice the decline in value, competition would decrease, and falling profitability would soon follow.
Interestingly, Broad Match Modifier already uses a similar version of this technology.  This AdWords Help Center Topic, states:

Each word preceded by a + has to appear in your potential customer’s search exactly or as a close variant. Close variants include misspellings, singular/plural forms, abbreviations and acronyms, and stemmings (like “floor” and “flooring”). However, synonyms (like “quick” and “fast”) and related searches (like “flowers” and “tulips”) are not considered close variants.

“Jen Huang: This new matching technology is similar to Normalization, and to the technology that finds close variants in Broad Match Modifier. The whole point is to match to keywords with the same intent, helping users find what they are looking for, and Advertisers serve more ads.”
I remember when broad-match was introduced with AdWords. It was not originally received well.  Advertisers found the technology was often way too far-reaching, and lacked relevance.  This was long before search query reports, when we actually had to do real work to parse server logs, extract the query string from the referrer_URL field… but I digress.  Most recently, AdWords added Broad Match Modifier, and adCenter is rumored to be following suit soon.
Long term, I am eagerly anticipating this shift towards intent-based advertising.  It will be an important shift that should enrich the user experience, provide some welcome simplification for Advertisers, and hopefully attract more direct-marketing advertising spend in an industry that has historically been dominated by branding and other non-ROI-focused advertising spend.

When Is This Happening?

The opt-out feature is live as of today, at the Campaign Level, giving Advertisers an opportunity to opt-out, or otherwise prepare.  The matching technology is planned to go live starting sometime in Mid-May, presumably in a rolling release.

Expected Impact

AdWords tested this feature in the marketplace with various Advertisers, across numerous verticals.  On average, with accounts already receiving greater than 33% of their traffic from Exact and Phrase Match Types, Advertisers generated 3% more clicks.  Performance metrics such as CTR, Conversion Rate, and Cost Per Acquisition were consistent.
In practice, we can expect there to be some variability between industries, and certainly amongst individual Advertisers.  With our clients, we will be advising that we take this one cautiously, and monitor performance closely.
Another impact for Direct Advertisers would be the ability to compress conversion data into one tracked keyword, while matching for more traffic on closely related searches.  This might be especially interesting for Advertisers with sparse conversion data.  On the other hand, Advertisers with a surplus of Conversion data, and the tools to support it, might choose to stay with the old technology, and the precision it allows.

What is Changing, Exactly?

Pardon the pun…
The technology uses the search engine to map similar keywords, and will generate a match along one of the following manipulations:

  • Spelling Correction
  • Word Stemming
  • Plurals
  • Acronyms
  • Abbreviations
  • Accents

It is worth noting that nothing else is changing as a direct result of this release.  In particular, Negatives remain unchanged.  They still get minimal normalization, and will continue to work with the same level of precision they do today.

Spelling Correction

This will work similarly to’s auto spell correction feature:

Spelling Corrections in Google

Essentially, Advertisers should not have to invest extra time in misspelling keywords.  Hopefully, it recognizes fat-thumb spelling errors from smartphones and helps get relevant searchers pointed in the right direction.

Word Stemming

This will match a root word with its various prefixes and
suffixes.  [snare] might match “snared”, “ensare” etc.

Word Stemming Example

This one has more potential to conflict with the Advertiser’s intention when advertising on a word.


For example, “car” will match “cars”. Advertisers interested in distinguishing between singular and plural versions of their keywords might consider opting out.


For example, “NYC” and “New York City”  might be considered equivalent in this new technology.  Watch out for acronyms that might not work as intended, such as the state Abbreviations for Indiana (IN), Delaware (DE), Los Angeles (LA), etc.


For example, “abbrev.” might match with
“abbreviation”, and vice versa.


This shouldn’t impact US-English traffic as much as it might Canadian traffic or US-Hispanic traffic.  Of course, internationally this should provide some interesting results.

How Can We Measure the Impact?

As Advertisers, our ability to measure the impact will, for the most part, be limited to a “before” and “after” analysis.  We should be looking for an increase in traffic from Phrase and Exact Match
Keywords, with steady or tolerable performance metrics like CTR, CPC, ROI, etc.
My inner Excel Nerd is pondering if a more detailed analysis might work? Could we pull a Search Query Report? It might tell us the Keyword and the various expanded Search Queries? The current ones do not – they show us the normalized Search Query for Exact and Phrase. We may have to wait and see about that one…

Quality Score

Quality Score will continue to be calculated based on the performance of the original exact match keyword. Any close variants added by this new expanded matching technology will not impact Quality Score for keyword that triggered the ad.
Improving exact match and phrase match

Search Query Reports

Close variants matched by this technology will shows as a new derived Match Type “e; Exact Match (close variants)” in the Search Query reports, once the technology is live.

Who Should Avoid It?

Advertisers who measure a decline in performance, for starters.  Additionally, Advertisers who use Brand terms with very different bids or ads, especially Brands that are intentional misspellings.  In this case, Advertisers may find the precision offered by the older technology allows them to maintain the control they need to treat Branded versus Non-Branded terms appropriately.  Likewise, any Advertiser who derives enough value from the precision of the old technology to offset the opportunity in the new version, should opt-out.


The opt-out feature is live as of today as an advanced Campaign Setting (you are auto-opted-in already), the matching technology changes in Mid-May.  You should expect good results, but I recommend keeping a close eye on things, as every Advertiser, and every Account, is different.

About the Author

Eric Enge is part of the Digital Marketing practice at Perficient. He designs studies and produces industry-related research to help prove, debunk, or evolve assumptions about digital marketing practices and their value. Eric is a writer, blogger, researcher, teacher, and keynote speaker and panelist at major industry conferences. Partnering with several other experts, Eric served as the lead author of The Art of SEO.

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