Adwords “Exact Match” Targeting Gets Not So Exact Anymore

Gone are the days when “exact match” meant exact. On March 17th, Google announced changes to the way in which exact match keyword targeting works in AdWords. In essence, exact match targeting will include close variants, such as plurals, abbreviations, adverbs, typos, etc. But that’s not all.

adwords exact match update


Exact match targeting will also be widened to include variations in word order as well as function words, such as “the,” “like” or “but.” As a result, Google may ignore both function words and word order when determining whether an ad should be triggered for an exact match keyword. This new diluted definition of exact match is expected to be quite the burden on precision-oriented advertisers.

Machine Learning Trending Forward

Back in 2012, Google introduced “close variants” as a mechanism to capture plurals, typos and other similar versions of exact match and phrase match keywords. The intention of close variants was to broaden coverage while helping advertisers save time constructing otherwise very intricate keyword lists. Advertisers who wanted greater control had the ability to opt out of close variant matching. But to the dismay of many, in 2014 Google removed the ability to opt out of close variants for exact match and phrase match.

The recent announcement that’s redefining the parameters of exact match is indicative of Google’s increasing trust in its machine learning system. In other words, Google has reached a point where it encourages advertisers to let the algorithms take over and focus their efforts elsewhere. According to Google, early tests have shown an average of up to 3 percent more exact match clicks while maintaining comparable click-through and conversion rates.

Confusion Over Clarity

So what do these recent changes mean for AdWords advertisers? Ginny Marvin says it best in her Search Engine Land post on the topic:

There are many cases in which variations can change the meaning of a keyword. Take a recent example of [pancake mix] being matched to a search for “pancake mixer.” Those are not the same thing. However, there are many cases in which variations don’t change the meaning at all.

What These Changes Mean

Here are the in’s and out’s of how these mew changes are intended to work:

Function Words

Function words are most commonly bind words, like “in,” “at” or “for.” They’re also conjunctions, such as “and” and “but,” as well as prepositions, pronouns, quantifiers like “some,” “like” or “could.” In simpler terms, function words are words that do not hold much meaning on their own.

With this recent change from Google, function words may be ignored, replaced or added.

For example, the exact match keyword [seafood restaurants Atlanta] could match to the query “seafood restaurants in Atlanta.” Google shares a few additional examples of function words and what they mean for exact match targeting:

adwords exact match function words

Word Order

In most instances, word order doesn’t make a big difference with intent, and search engine users often don’t use natural word order. Take a keyword like [college recruiting giveaways]. The meaning doesn’t change with [recruiting giveaways college] or [giveaways college recruiting]. Although you’d probably never say either of those examples aloud, the intent is clearly the same.


Navigating The New Changes

The new changes brought on by Google require advertisers to think ahead about the unintended consequences when word order matters. Further, they need to be increasingly diligent when it comes to mining search query reports.

In the previously mentioned post, Ginny Marvin outlines a few things advertisers can do to prepare for the coming changes.

1. Review existing exact match queries and determine if the loss of function words or a reordering of the words changes the meaning. Add those variations as negatives in your campaigns.
2. Review close variants in your Search Query Reports to see if other variations are currently being triggered that might be affected by these changes. Add those as negatives.
3. Starting in April, step up your mining of Search Query Reports, particularly for close variants.
4. Get ready to update your scripts. If you are using a script like the one from BrainLabs to make exact match exact, it will need to be updated. 

adwords search terms exact match filter

The primary concern surrounding most AdWords PPC advertisers is Google matching queries to keywords that don’t have the same meaning or intentional relevancy. However, Google emphasizes that it won’t alter exact match word order or function words when it understands changes would alter the true meaning of the query. I suppose the keyword there is “when it understands.”

To dovetail on one of Ginny Marvin’s example, take the case of a query like “TVC to ATL flights.” Users clearly do not want to see ads for “TVC from ATL flights” or “ATL to TVC flights.” Obviously that’s a clear-cut scenario for Google to recognize. Yet, there are a number of possible queries that could be gray. For more insights and to stay current on Google Ads updates, visit our friends at, an online educational platform that provides training videos to help you learn Google Ads and other internet marketing platforms.