July 10, 2024

Written by Héctor Ariza

Search Query Matching: Positives, Caveats, and Tips for Advertisers

Google Ads recently made a major change to search query matching, which is the way Google matches the search terms that users enter into the search engine with the keywords that advertisers have selected for their ads. In essence, Google is simplifying search query matching, which should prove to be simpler and more transparent for advertisers is – and possibly even more cost effective. In this post, I’ll break down the technical details Google’s actions and why they matter to you as an advertiser.

Search Query Matching Defined

Before I get into Google’s announcement, some context is in order. Search query matching helps ensure that your ads are shown to the right audience based on the user’s intent and the relevance of the ad content. It all starts when you choose specific keywords that you believe potential customers might use when searching for products or services similar to theirs. For example, if you sell running shoes, you might select keywords like “buy running shoes,” “best running shoes,” or “affordable running shoes.”

Different Keyword Matching Options

Google Ads uses different types of keyword matching options to connect a user’s search queries for running shoes with the keywords you’ve chosen:

  • Broad match: Your ad may show for searches that include misspellings, synonyms, related searches, and other relevant variations. For example, the keyword “running shoes” might match with “buy sneakers” or “jogging footwear.”
  • Phrase match: Your ad may show for searches that include the meaning of your keyword. For example, “buy running shoes” might match with “where to buy running shoes” or “buy running shoes online.”
  • Exact match: Your ad may show for searches that exactly match your keyword or close variants of that exact term. For example, “running shoes” might match with “running shoes” or “shoes for running.”

In addition, you can exclude certain search terms from triggering your ad through negative match. For example, if you don’t sell men’s running shoes, you can add “men’s” as a negative keyword. Just as there are broad, phrase, and exact match types for positive keywords, the same is true for negative keywords.

When a user’s search query matches your keywords (based on the type of match), your ad should be eligible to be displayed for that search. Of course, the ad’s visibility and position on the search results page are determined by Google’s Ad Rank, which encompasses elements such as bid amount, ad quality, and relevance. The cost of each type of keyword matching in Google Ads can vary depending on several factors, including the competitiveness of the keywords, the industry, and the quality of the ads.

What Google Announced

Google has made several advancements in how it matches search queries to advertiser keywords, with a focus on simplification and improved understanding of user intent.

  • Increased transparency in search term reports: Previously, advertisers faced challenges with limited visibility into which search queries were triggering their ads. Google has improved its search term reports, offering more detailed insights. This transparency allows advertisers to better understand the performance of their keywords and optimize their campaigns more effectively.
  • Simplified negative match: Google has streamlined the process of using negative keywords, especially for handling misspellings and close variants. In the past, advertisers had to manually add multiple variants of a negative keyword to block irrelevant traffic. Now, Google’s algorithms can understand and filter out these variations automatically, saving time and effort.

According to Google, advertisers can expect to see better performance from their campaigns, with less manual effort required to manage keyword variations and exclusions.

Algorithmic Evolution

These advancements represent a significant shift towards more intelligent and efficient search query matching, thanks to how Google is applying AI.

Google’s algorithms have evolved to better determine user intent. Where advertisers once had to bid on exact terms like “blue tennis shoes” and all possible variants, the system now understands the intent behind these searches, even if the query isn’t perfectly specific. This allows for broader yet more accurate targeting. As a result, Google has significantly improved the functionality of Broad Match keywords. This matching type now better understands the underlying intent behind user queries, meaning it can connect related but not identical search terms to your chosen keywords. For example, if you bid on “running shoes,” your ad might also show up for searches like “jogging footwear” or “sneakers for runners,” without needing to specify every variation.

The Positives

Based on our experience with Google Ads, we expect these positive outcomes:

  • Greater reach with improved relevance: The advancements in Broad Match capabilities mean that ads can reach a wider audience while still maintaining relevance. This is particularly beneficial for advertisers looking to expand their reach without sacrificing the quality of their traffic.
  • Time and resource efficiency: With simplified negative matching and enhanced algorithmic understanding, advertisers spend less time managing keyword variants and more time focusing on strategy and optimization. This efficiency can lead to better overall campaign performance.
  • Better insights for optimization: The improvements in search term reports provide advertisers with more granular data. This transparency helps in making more informed decisions about keyword performance and campaign adjustments, ultimately driving better results.

The positive changes brought by Google’s updates enable advertisers to expand their reach more efficiently while maintaining relevance. With these improvements, campaigns can become more effective, requiring less manual intervention and allowing marketers to focus on strategic planning and optimization.

The Caveats

Advertisers must be mindful of the potential drawbacks:

  • Reduced control: One downside of relying heavily on Broad Match is the potential loss of control over which specific queries trigger ads. While Google’s algorithms are more sophisticated, there’s still a risk of ads appearing for less relevant searches, which can affect campaign efficiency and ROI.
  • Dependence on Google’s algorithms: As Google continues to refine its algorithms, advertisers may feel they have less direct influence over their campaign outcomes. Trusting Google requires confidence in Google’s ability to accurately interpret user intent, which can be a leap for those used to more hands-on management.
  • Potential for increased costs: While broader reach is generally positive, it can also lead to higher costs if not managed carefully. Advertisers need to monitor their campaigns closely to ensure that the increased exposure does not result in inefficient spending.

Advertisers need to stay vigilant, continuously monitoring and adjusting their campaigns to maintain efficiency and relevance. Balancing the use of these advanced tools with strategic oversight will be key to maximizing the benefits while mitigating the risks.

Tips for Advertisers

As with all Google Ads developments, advertisers need to pay close attention to the implications and make the most of the changes, like so:

Simplify Campaign Structures

Given the enhanced capabilities of Google’s algorithms, it’s now recommended to streamline campaign structures. Instead of organizing keywords into ad groups by theme and match type, combine related keywords with different match types into the same ad group. This not only simplifies management but also gives Google more data to optimize against.

Test Broad Match Keywords

When testing broad match keywords, try them alongside exact match versions (keeping phrase match keywords paused). Google has sometimes recommended testing only Broad Match keywords inside a specific campaign, but since exact match keywords still supersede broad match, we tend to run exact match keyword variations alongside broad match keywords (under the same campaign) to maximize reach and capitalize on opportunity. This way, we expand reach through the use of broad match keywords, but we also ensure our ads are shown for specific searches by using exact match keywords.

Use Negative Keywords Strategically

While Google has simplified negative matching, it’s still important to regularly review and update your negative keyword lists. Ensure that irrelevant traffic is consistently filtered out to maintain high relevance and efficiency.

Use Brand Inclusion Lists

For brand campaigns, consider using brand inclusion lists. This tactic ensures that your ads are only shown for searches explicitly related to your brand, thereby improving relevance and performance. For example, a campaign for McDonald’s cheeseburgers should include terms specifically related to McDonald’s to avoid unrelated (non-branded) traffic. As a side note: advertisers can use brand inclusion lists in search campaigns, but this will automatically update all keywords under the campaign to broad match keywords. Notice the alert message shown below: “when you save your brand lists, you’ll turn on broad match keywords [a campaign setting that lets Google update all your keywords under said campaign to use Broad Match type]”:

Brand Inclusions

Use Brand Exclusion Lists

These are the opposite of brand inclusion lists. Band exclusion lists were first introduced for PMAX (Performance Max) campaigns. Brand exclusion lists allow advertisers to exclude certain brands. For instance, if McDonald’s is trying to acquire new customers, it would create a brand exclusion list and apply it to its campaign as an exclusion, effectively excluding McDonald’s customers (because I am trying to find potential customers who have not shown an interest in the brand). With Google’s recent update, brand exclusion lists are being rolled out to search campaigns across all match types. This is key, because as noted above, brand inclusion lists are only available for Search campaigns when the campaign is using broad match keywords exclusively.


Monitor and Adjust Regularly

Continuous monitoring and adjustment of your campaigns are crucial. Use the insights gained from enhanced search term reports to refine your strategies and make data-driven decisions. Regularly check performance metrics and be ready to tweak your keyword bids and match types as necessary.

Bottom line: Google’s improvements in search query matching should bring advertisers added benefits, including greater reach, improved relevance, and better optimization capabilities. However, these come with the caveat of reduced control and potential for increased costs. By simplifying campaign structures, using negative keywords strategically, using brand inclusion and exclusion lists, and regularly monitoring performance, advertisers can maximize the advantages of these advancements while mitigating potential downsides.

At True Interactive, we have extensive experience helping clients succeed with all forms of digital advertising. Learn more about our capabilities on our website.

Lead image credit: Rubaitul Azad via Unsplash.