Is Phrase Match Still Worth It?

Google match types are a constantly evolving part of Google Ads. Google has increasingly made its match types broader, allowing keywords to be triggered by more search queries. This has been especially noticeable in phrase match keywords. With this in mind, my team and I have been exploring if phrase match is still worth using. In order to understand where we are currently with match types, you need to know the history behind how match types have evolved. Before 2021, the match types were Exact, Phrase, Modified Broad, and Broad.

Exact keywords started as being as precise as possible. For example, the exact keyword “blue shoes” would only show your ad if someone searched ‘blue shoes’. It would not show your ad for ‘blue shoess’ or any other misspellings unless you added those as exact terms as well.

Phrase keywords allow you to keep the root of your keyword intact but add additional words before and after it. For example, the phrase keyword ‘blue shoes’ could trigger your ad on the search term ‘nike blue shoes’ or ‘blue shoes near me’.

Modified broad match keywords added modifiers throughout your keyword while still making sure the keywords preceded by a plus sign were included in the search query. For example, ‘+blue +shoes’ as a modified broad match would allow your ad to show on ‘blue tennis shoes’ or ‘blue suede shoes’.

Broad match keywords really open up what your ad can show on. For example, the broad match ‘blue shoes’ keyword would let your ad show on the search terms that are related to the meaning of your keywords. This means broad match ‘blue shoes’ could lead to your ad showing on ‘navy sneakers’ or ‘colorful slippers for women’.

Match types worked this way until Google introduced close variants and later removed modified broad as an option for match types. Google defines close variants as “keywords match to searches that are similar, but not identical to the targeted keyword, and help you connect with people who are looking for your business—despite slight variations in the way they search—reducing the need to build out exhaustive keyword lists to reach these customers.”

Close variants are applied to both exact and phrase match keywords and have greatly widened what search terms will trigger keywords. It is worth noting that close variants are automatically applied to keywords, and there is no opt-out option. This change has given phrase keywords a very similar reach to the reach that broad match keywords used to have.   

My team and I have increasingly seen phrase match keywords show on broader searches.

For example, we have a client that sells custom flags. The phrase match term “custom flags” showed our ad on unwanted searches. We showed on: “recumbent trike flags,” “vispronet flags,” and “custom flag pole.” The search query of “custom flag pole” is a great showcase of close variants having too much flexibility. We want to reach people looking to buy custom FLAGS. NOT people buying flag POLES. Google uses close variants in this case because it thinks that flags and flag poles have similar meanings. Even with Smart Bidding on and target goals, there is still a lot of waste happening on poorly matched keywords to search queries. One of our account managers, Jeremy, recently wrote a post, Get the Best of Broad Match + Smart Bidding, regarding this topic. 

Now you could be saying, “Well, just add in some negative keywords, and you are good to go.” Sure, that can work for some campaigns and ad groups, but it can be difficult because you do not want to add negatives that would stop you from showing up on good search terms. Also, you can spend a lot of time chasing negative keywords.

This is only one example of the negative side effects of phrase match. The other part has to do with actual performance and numerical data.

By default, we run phrase and exact match in the same ad groups at the same time. Recently, we have seen campaign performance drop off due to ad groups being dominated by phrase match keywords. 

Back to my custom flag example, the campaign (set to Maximize Conversions after tCPA – regardless of how low or high the goal was – was throttling volume) was heavily influenced by spend on phrase match keywords. Performance was okay but not to the level we needed it to be. By pausing the four highest spending/lowest converting phrase match keywords, we saw conversions increase, CPA drop by 19.5%, and ROAS increase by 19.8% from 4.05 to 4.85. This small change of pausing over-spending phrase matches not only improved our metrics, but it also improved the quality of the search terms we showed on. 

Since realizing the impact removing phrase match terms had on this one campaign, we have been paying closer attention to any over-active keywords in our campaigns. The more we look, the more we find campaigns dominated by phrase match spend, even if the exact match has the better conversion metrics on Smart Bidding campaigns!

So, to answer our initial question of ‘is phrase match worth it?’, I believe this depends on the situation. If you or your client is focused on growth, then it makes sense to include phrase matches in your build. The main benefit of phrase match is the massive reach it has, especially since close variants have been introduced.

However, if you have a client that is heavily ROAS-focused or has a limited budget, it makes sense to think about starting with just exact match keywords. Close variants should bring in enough search volume to have a successful campaign.

The good thing is pausing and unpausing match types is incredibly easy, so you can always add phrase match into campaigns that are not generating enough volume, or remove them from campaigns that are underperforming.

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