Advertising on AdWords revolves around an auction system where you bid on keywords expected to be profitable to your business. When a user types these keywords, your ads show and you only pay when someone clicks through to your site.

At least that’s the theory – but since Google killed off exact match keywords in 2014, this isn’t technically what’s going on when one of your ads shows on the results page. In fact, the default settings in AdWords mean your ad could be showing for queries that don’t include your keyword at all.

What you’re actually bidding on in AdWords isn’t keywords; it’s a range of search terms your ad is eligible to show for and understanding this nuance is vital to mastering campaign performance.


Keywords vs search terms: What’s the difference?

As soon as you start advertising on AdWords, you’re going to be swamped in keyword data. The most basic examples are things like “PPC advertising” or “personal injury lawyer”, which are all highly competitive keywords that’ll cost you a fair sum every time someone clicks on your ad.

Let’s be clear: expensive keywords aren’t a problem as long as you turn enough of those leads into paying customers.

What you can’t afford to do is have an unprofitable amount of PPC traffic click your ad and ­not convert. Let’s say you’re bidding on the keyword “personal injury lawyer” because this is your field and you’re looking to drive new clients to your website. Your campaign looks great until you start getting a bunch of traffic from people who aren’t looking for a lawyer at all – they’re searching for things like “personal injury lawyer jobs”.

This query isn’t going to get lawyers new clients but they’ll still have to pay for any clicks their ads generate if they show for this search term.


These are users who will never convert and the last thing you want to do is pay for clicks from people like this.

Let’s imagine a more costly scenario where you’re bidding on “health insurance” and your ad starts showing when people search for insurance from a specific provider. They’ll be typing in something like “[brand name] health insurance” which means they’re already invested in this provider to some extent, meaning they’re less likely to buy from you even if they click your ad.

The fact is, people don’t search using keywords; they use search terms and Google has had to change the way AdWords deals with keywords in order accommodate for this. So, while it seems like you’re bidding on a keyword like “health insurance”, you’re actually bidding on a long list of potential search terms that could trigger your ad, such as:


  • “Cheapest health insurance provider”
  • “Does my health insurance cover me abroad”
  • “What kind of health insurance do I have”
  • “Does health insurance cover car accidents”
  • “how to make a claim on my health insurance”


The list of potential search terms a generic keyword like “health insurance” could trigger is huge and these all include the actual keywords you’ve bid on. In many cases, your ads can show for search terms that don’t include your keyword at all.


AdWords keyword match types

When you add keywords to an ad group, one of four match types is going to be applied to them, which determines the kind of search terms that could trigger your ads. The default match type applied to any keyword is “broad match” and we’re going to explain what this means – plus the other match types you can use – right now.


Broad match

This is the default keywords match type for new AdWords campaigns, which means your ad could show for spelling mistakes, synonyms, related words and other variations from the keywords you specify.

For example, using broad match on your campaigns could show your ad to users searching for “boots” rather than “shoes”.

The benefit of using Broad match is your ads will be seen by more people. The downside is users who type variations rather than the specific search term you’ve specified will be less relevant, which can impact impressions, CTRs and ad spend.


Broad match modifier

Broad match modifier is a more restrictive version of broad match, which only allows your ads to show for close variations. So while users searching for “boots” might see your ad for “brand name shoes” if you stick with broad match, they won’t see it if you use broad match modifiers. However, similar variations such as “roof” and “roofer” can trigger the same ad with this keyword setting.


Phrase match

Phrase match introduces an even tighter control over the kind of variations that trigger your ads, which only happens when your keyword term is included in a search query in the exact order you specify.

So, for example, if your keyword is “second-hand cars for sale”, then your ad will only show for queries that include that exact phrase – eg: “second-hand cars for sale in Manchester” or “find second-hand cars for sale in my area”.

The word order must be exactly the same and no variations like “used cars” are eligible.


Exact match

Exact match is the most restrictive keyword match type, which only shows your ad for the exact search term you specify or close variants. In this case, the meaning of your keyword should remain intact although variations of prepositions, conjunctions, articles and other “function” words can be different.

For example, if your keyword is “men’s trousers” your ad could still show for “trousers for men” using exact match but not “jeans for men”.


As you can see, there’s a lot of room for variation thanks to these keyword match types. Exact match used to mean that your exact keyword had to be typed in but this is no longer the case, which means there’s always room for unwanted search terms triggering your ad.


How can you deal with this keyword vs search term problem?

Well, first of all, this isn’t exactly a problem – it’s something you can use to your advantage with the right ad group settings. Once you understand how the different keyword match types work, you can create campaigns with different audience targets in mind.

If you only want the most relevant search terms to trigger your ads, go with exact match. If you want your ads to reach a wider audience, then you can go with phrase match or broad match modifier. And then you have something called negative keywords which you can use to place tighter control on the kind of queries that will trigger your ads.

A few negative keyword examples to stop your ads from showing for people who want to learn web design rather than pay for the service.


For example, if you’re targeting “web design” as a keyword but you want to rule out search terms like “best places to learn web design”, you can add “learn” as a negative keyword to prevent your ads from showing for search terms including this keyword.

Better yet, you can also use match types for negative keywords (except broad match). Which means, if you add “learn” as a broad match modifier negative keyword, you’ll also rule out search terms with close variants such as “best sites for learning web design”.

Now, what you can do is combine regular and negative keyword match types to get all the pros of broad match modifiers, for example, while ruling out all of the unwanted search terms they would normally show your ads for. So you set “web design” as a broad match keyword to get your ads showing for queries like “web designer” but add “web design jobs” as a negative broad match modifier to stop your ads showing for people on the lookout for work as a web designer.

This isn’t a single keyword strategy that will work for all of your campaigns but it shows you the level of control you can still have while using broader match types.


How to check which search terms you’re paying for

Realising that you’ve been paying for clicks from unwanted search terms is a difficult thing to accept – especially once you add up the wasted ad budget on clicks that’ll never convert. The good news is you can see exactly what search terms you’re paying for under the Search Terms tab in AdWords.

Navigate to any ad group and click on Keywords in the left column menu. Here you’ll see three tabs for Search Keywords, Negative Keywords and Search Terms. Click on the Search Terms tab and you’ll get a full break down of all the search terms that lead to clicks on your ads.

You can use this optimise your keyword and negative keyword strategy to make sure you’re maximising your reach for the right audiences and ruling out clicks from search terms that have no commercial value to you or simply aren’t profitable enough.


Now that you understand you’re actually bidding on potential search terms – not keywords – you can start to use AdWords’ keyword and bidding features to their full potential. Above all, you need to make sure you’re not wasting money on clicks that’ll never convert and you’re not showing your ads to irrelevant audiences (this hurts your CTRs, impression share, Quality Score and various other performance metrics) even if they don’t click.

Once you’ve mastered this you can start to combine different match types with negative keywords and targeting options to make sure your ads are seen by the widest possible audience without inviting clicks from people who’ll never convert.