Get Descriptive With Your Keyword Match Types

For this month’s series PPC Hero decided to go back to the basics, but with a twist.  We’ll be tackling all of the standard best practices for bidsads, and keywords.  But we’ll also share some of our personal insights about what works, what doesn’t, and what you can apply to your own accounts.


Anyone who’s just getting into the world of PPC has surely seen the below chart:

google keyword match types

Or, for the sake of fairness

bingads keyword match types

Although these match types have been around since time immemorial (which in the Internet age is anything more than three years old), here’s the basic gist:

Broad: anything that’s approximately what you’re looking for, including synonyms (and session-based stuff that could drive you crazy {look under Understanding the “Match Type” column in your search terms report})

Phrase: the query has to appear in the order in which your keywords are laid out

Modified broad: anything that’s preceded by a “+” has to be present in the query in order for your ad to show.

(Possibly annoying tangent: I personally feel as if Flexible Phrase would be a better name for this match type. Not only would the advertisers get the added benefit of alliteration, it would reflect intent a lot better {at least according to the ways in which I use it}. Advertisers are interested in showing for a particular set of words, only they don’t care about them being in the right order. I recognize that modified broad can be combined with regular old broad match type, which is why it is named as it is, but wouldn’t Flexible Phrase be so much better? Maybe someday, were we really to go whole hog, it could be Flexible Frase. Are you telling me you wouldn’t buy that t-shirt? {which would show up pictorially as +flexible +frase})

Exact: the query equals your keyword or else your ad doesn’t show.


Now, there has been one major change over the past twelve months when it comes to phrase and exact match: close variations. Misspellings, singular and plural forms, acronyms, stemmings, abbreviations and accents can all be included in your phrase and exact match keywords should you feel courageous enough to include them. (You should.)

Whenever we perform keyword research on a new account or as part of an existing account, we brainstorm and extrapolate and apply everything to a template to create our account’s overall structure. Which follows best practices and is a great way of doing business. I think, though, that there’s a way to go about your match type strategy that could go beyond the established norms.

What I’m talking about has a lot to do with my favorite essay that I’ve ever read: “Authority and American Usage” by David Foster Wallace (my link is to the original publication which had a different title, but I will always think of it in its anthologized form in Consider the Lobster). One of the main issues that the essay tackles is the major decision for dictionaries to use descriptive linguistics or prescriptive grammar. Basically, is a dictionary’s job to describe what the current state of language is, or is it to proscribe how people should be speaking (regardless of what the most common practice is)?

It’s a fantastic essay that you should read if you have the time/interest in stuff like the politics of dictionaries (who wouldn’t be sold by that description?). But I think that the same decision has to be made when it comes to what types of match types you should pursue in your accounts. Everything that I’ve ever heard from other PPC account managers regarding their structure is that they are being proscriptive on a basic level. I think that we need to be as descriptive as possible when it comes to the ever-evolving search marketplace (which runs counter to David Foster Wallace’s argument, but that can be forgiven as he was a writing purist and we’re writing ads for Google).


Here’s the way that I see it:

Proscriptive – performing keyword research, implementing and optimizing (all of which involves guessing at a certain level what people are going to search for)

Descriptive – seeing what queries are actually occurring in the engines and letting that dictate your account’s structure

I fully recognize that part of our account’s routine maintenance is looking at search query behavior and adding in keywords, which is a fundamentally descriptive practice. However, at an elemental level, almost every single account that I’ve ever laid eyes on is still proscriptive. They have to be proscriptive at their launch, as there’s no data to go on.  But years later it still goes back to what someone thought would happen after they did research. I’ve also talked to more than a few people that only use phrase and exact keywords (and sometimes modified broad) in their account’s structure, which basically assumes that their keyword research is both exhaustive and infallible.

With the amount of data that we have at our fingertips, it is so exciting to be able to review it and make a plan of attack with it. Any account that’s been running for over a year has so much data to actually describe what is happening in your target market.

You know this. You’ve seen the data. You’ve added in keywords that you were missing initially.

But we have an opportunity to do so much more than that. We aren’t writing dictionaries; we’re trying to sell somebody something. It’s best if we speak to them in a language not only that they understand, but that they’re speaking themselves. Returning to optimize a proscriptive campaign that was merely an educated guess back during account launch doesn’t have to be the standard operating procedure. We can assemble all of our data, using humble search term reports, and find the real queries that people are typing in on a daily basis. We can build a new campaign based on the things that people have actually searched time and again.

I understand why DFW wanted his dictionaries to be proscriptive. Language is important and worth defending (I was clearly an English major in school). But in PPC we can’t take that approach. We have to know what our audience is searching for so that we can tailor our approach accordingly. With years and years of data, you’re going to have so many exact keywords at your disposal, and almost none of them will have a status of Low Search Volume, that indicator of an overzealous keyword researcher who missed the mark.

I recognize there are hurdles. I know that Google loves a campaign with a healthy amount of history. I know that it’s scary to possible re-organize an entire account, so if you take up this call you should do it with trepidation. I can also admit that I have yet to roll this approach out fully with my own match types. I’ve done it in only one campaign, but it was glorious. And I am going to try it out even more in the months ahead. I’m planning on checking back in later on down the road to see how it goes, so if you have any words of wisdom to share along the way please let me know. If you’ve already done this, then kudos. Please drop a comment to say how it’s going and that I’m a cloistered buffoon for assuming this was a new technique. It’s new to me, at least, and I plan on giving it a go.