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Google Phrase Match: Everything You Need to Know

Keywords are no longer just about words; they’re about meanings. Learn how phrase match works in Google Ads to improve PPC performance.

Keywords and match types are one of the most fundamental elements of PPC but like almost everything else in technology, there is constant change.

Even if you’re a seasoned PPC veteran, the Google Ads phrase match you grew up with is probably no longer the phrase match we have today.

In fact, the current iteration of phrase match has only been around since the middle of February 2021, when it absorbed some of the functionality of broad match modified (BMM) keywords.

In this post, you’ll learn the key things you need to know about the new phrase match. But first, let’s cover the fundamentals of match types.

What Are Keyword Match Types?

At their core, match types define how close a user’s search query needs to be to an advertiser’s keyword in order to be eligible to trigger an ad.

In the early days of Google Ads, match type behavior was very straightforward:

  • Exact match: Show an ad only when the query is the exact same as the keyword.
  • Phrase match: Also show the ad if there are extra words before or after the keyword.
  • Broad match: Show the ad so long as all the keywords are part of the search, regardless of word order.

As you can see, exact is the most restrictive match type and broad is the loosest. Phrase match sits somewhere between.

By offering match types, the ad platforms let advertisers specify their willingness to show ads for searches of varying degrees of similarity to their keywords.

Rather than having to think of every possible query a user could do if they were looking for what an advertiser sells, they can use looser match types like broad and phrase to still show ads for those queries.

Close Variants

But like I said, things change all the time and those easy-to-understand match types became muddled when Google introduced close variants.

Regardless of which match type you use, close variants change what your keywords really are and give the ad platform significant leeway in how they match keywords to search queries.

Think of close variants as a set of defined ways that Google is allowed to change your keyword. What may look like one keyword in your ad group is in fact potentially hundreds of pretty similar keywords behind the scenes. You don’t see them, but they’re all there ready to serve your ad.

Fortunately, it’s no secret how Google comes up with all these variations. They’re based on 11 specific manipulations:

Close Variants in Google Ads.The 11 documented ways ‘close variants’ keyword matches work in Google Ads

What Is the New Phrase Match?

So match types have gotten more complicated. What does phrase match look like now?

By today’s definition, “Ads may show on searches that include the meaning of the keyword which can be implied, and user searches can be a more specific form of the meaning.”

The big shift is that it’s no longer about words in the keyword, but what those words mean.

Meaning has replaced keywords.

For phrase match, the meaning of the keyword needs to be part of the query — but there can be additional text in the query.

Any references to word order, which used to be part of the original definition of phrase, are gone. Because Google’s machine learning is now good enough to be able to distinguish whether the word order matters, it is no longer necessary to always maintain a strict word order.

This sounds a lot like the original broad match. But broad match itself has also evolved and can now show ads for related searches, even if their meaning is different.

The following table explains the differences between the match types and will help show where phrase match fits relative to broad and exact.

Keyword Match Type Behavior in Google Ads.Examples of how Google’s 3 main keyword match types operate.

If we revisit the definition of the 3 match types, here’s what match types are in 2021:

  • Exact match: Show an ad when the query has the same meaning as the keyword
  • Phrase match: Show an ad when the query includes the same meaning as the keyword
  • Broad match: Show an ad when the query relates to the keyword

Google Match Types.

Phrase match remains in the middle of the spectrum of specificity.

Now that you know what phrase match is, let’s look at some related things that are helpful to understand.

Know What Google Considers to Be Same Meaning

Phrase match relies on machine learning (ML) to determine things like when the order of words in the search does or does not change the meaning.

As a simple example, it helps Google determine if searches for [buy chocolate milk] and [buy milk chocolate] mean the same thing.

Does the change in the order of the words [milk] and [chocolate] change the meaning?

By using phrase match, you’re accepting that Google’s ML will make these decisions for you.

But do they always get it right? We don’t know unless we monitor it.

Fortunately, Google breaks out query match types for us in reports so we can see when a query was a simple phrase match versus a phrase match with close variants.

In the reporting section, build a table report and include rows for “search keyword,” “search term,” and “search term match type.”

Notice that some search terms are “Phrase” and others “Phrase (close variant).” By adding a filter, you can see just the close variants and decide whether negative keywords are needed.

You can do the same thing for exact match keywords, by the way.

Build a phrase match close variant report.Use reports in Google Ads to report on what Google considers to be close variants of your phrase match keywords.

With more advanced automations, you could even analyze the semantic difference between the keyword and search term and automate the negative keywords when Google strays too far from the intended meaning.

Smart Bidding Is the Friend of Phrase Match

Another automation you have control over is bid management. And you should seriously consider automating bids if you let the ad engine decide some of the keyword matching for you, like when you’re using phrase or broad match.

As match types have loosened significantly, it’s well worth considering automating your bids.

When Google decides to show your ad for less-related queries, you don’t want to be stuck bidding the same amount for those searches.

When they are less related, they may convert at a lower level and may need lower bids to perform at an acceptable level in terms of CPA or ROAS.

Negative Broad Match Has Different Rules

By adding keywords, we tell Google when to show our ads. It makes sense that Google deploys close variants and gives advertisers options for looser match types like broad and phrase because those make it easier to reach more people who could possibly want to buy what we sell.

Negative keywords, on the other hand, serve an entirely different purpose. They are used to eliminate searches we don’t want, either because they perform poorly, or because they are irrelevant.

So negative keywords don’t use close variants and expansions and are much more strict about the words advertisers want to exclude.

They only block ads from appearing when the exact words from the negative keyword appear in the search.

With that said, negative keywords come in different match types.

So a negative phrase like [chocolate milk] means we should not show ads for [buy chocolate milk] while still showing ads for [buy milk chocolate].

Word order matters for negative phrase match keywords.


Keywords are no longer just about words, they’re now about meanings. But the ad engines still give advertisers a spectrum of match types so they can inform Google about how loosely or closely a search query should match their keyword.

Phrase match sits between exact and broad, so it offers a balance between precision and volume.

When you understand how the new phrase match works, and you deploy monitoring and bidding automations, it’s a very useful match type for advertisers.

More Resources:

Image Credits

All screenshots taken by author, June 2021

VIP CONTRIBUTOR Frederick Vallaeys Optmyzr

Frederick Vallaeys is a Co-Founder of which offers a Historical Quality Score Tracker, One-Click AdWords Optimizations, a custom report ...

Google Phrase Match: Everything You Need to Know

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