Breaking: Exact Match Keywords No Longer Exact Match


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 AdWords to control how their keywords match out to a user’s search. A staple of any successful AdWords 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 this 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

About the author

Mark is a Senior Data Scientist at WordStream with a background in SEM, SEO, and Statistical Modeling. He was named the 14th Most Influential PPC Expert of 2016 by PPC Hero. You can follow him on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google +.

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Gary L.
Mar 20, 2017

What's the difference between exact match and modified broad?

Mark Irvine
Mar 20, 2017

The difference is becoming increasingly more subtle, but broad modified does serve on for more searches.

Exact match would now allow for the reordering and/or addition of functional words in the search query

Broad modified match allows for the reordering and/or addition of ANY words in the search query.

So the exact match [Hockey Tickets] could show an ad for "Tickets for Hockey" but not "Hockey Season Tickets", where as the modified broad +Hockey +Tickets could serve to both terms.

Mar 22, 2017

So if broad match shows when any words are added do they now not show if it's a functional word? If not then wouldn't modified broad and exact match still compete against each other since modified broad would show for both examples given above?

Mark Irvine
Mar 23, 2017

Yes! That's true, these match types will compete more under these changes.

Mar 23, 2017

So then is there a case to use one type over the other?

Mark Irvine
Mar 24, 2017

If reach is more important - Broad modified gets you more reach but less control
If control is more valuable - Exact match gives you more control but less reach

And there's no reason to choose one instead of the other, you can easily have multiple match types in your account and cater your bids according to their performance!

Mar 23, 2017

Hi, Kari! I just had the same thought. Someone knows the answer? Do mod. broad keywords compete with exact match now?

Veronica Berkemeier
Mar 21, 2017

Great article, love the examples!

Ray Lenci
Mar 26, 2017

Will this exact match change also be implemented for organic search results as well?
I have to think what Google thinks is good for one aspect of their biz, it must be beneficial for organic search results too.
Organic and paid all fall on the same page if this change holds true

Mark Irvine
Mar 27, 2017

Hi Ray,

At the moment, Google has not announced any plans to change it's organic algorithm to mimic these changes to exact match keywords. In the past, many organic searches would automatically match to reversed ordered queries as is, so I don't anticipate a change like this would change much for SEOs.

Mark Irvine
Mar 27, 2017

Hi Ray,

At the moment, Google has not announced any plans to change it's organic algorithm to mimic these changes to exact match keywords. In the past, many organic searches would automatically match to reversed ordered queries as is, so I don't anticipate a change like this would change much for SEOs.

Kristofer Salberg
Mar 27, 2017

Hey Mark,

I really enjoyed your article.
My colleges and I were discussing and we are wondering how the new exact match will behave as a negative.

If you add preemptively negatives wouldn't this then block your main traffic? Since exact match also includes close variants?

I am curious about your thoughts on the matter.

Best regards,
Kristofer Salberg.

Mark Irvine
Mar 27, 2017

Hi Kristofer,

Luckily, this change is not affecting negative keywords at all. You can continue to use negative keywords to prevent close variant terms from showing.

Mar 28, 2017

Not certain I understand fully...what is new? This article and others like it were announced in 2014 and Ive already known about this in my adwords account awhile ago. In fact he same "mens dress shirts" example was used then if you google exact match keywords youll see.

So am lost why this article resurfaced as new info?

Mark Irvine
Mar 29, 2017

Hi Lance,

This change is slightly different. The change from 2014 automatically included GRAMMATICAL variants - misspellings, singular/plural forms, stemmings, accents, acronyms and abbreviations. The 2014 respected word order and didn't introduce new words to "exact match" queries. The keyword [men shirt] would match to "men's shirt", but not "shirt men"
That 2014 change is described here:

This change allows for matches of reordering of queries ([men shirt] matching to "shirt men") as well as for the addition of new words (also matching to "shirt for men").

Apr 06, 2017

Great post! However, I don't see how the examples under "Who this change hurts" could be an issue, at least if you believe Google's claim that “keywords won’t be reordered to match with a query when it changes the original meaning of those keywords.” Or am I missing something?

May 17, 2017

Is this statement accurate?

"Duplicate keywords [...] drive up your own CPCs for each keyword"

If this were true surely a "phrase" and [exact] match keyword with the same phrasing would also compete. I was always taught that Google selects the keyword with the highest Ad Rank and relevancy from your account for the auction.

Jul 31, 2017

Great post ! Everything I was looking for !
Except one thing maybe : How come that Google says that the top of page bid estimate is different for [word1 word2] and [word2 word1] if they among to the same thing ?
As you said that they were competing I was going to delete the duplicates but seeing that made me have second thougths...
Thanks a lot

Nov 05, 2017

Question: Let's say you were The Copley Hotel and did not want to serve ads to users searching "Hotel by Copley Square". Could you add [Hotel by Copley Square] as a exact match negative keyword to filter the unwanted traffic?

Allen Finn
Nov 06, 2017


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