In the world of digital media – and in paid search in particular – it can feel like we’re always on high alert, waiting to jump on the next product announcement or new beta that will come along and help us to squeeze incremental performance out of our paid marketing budget.

So it’s maybe somewhat counterintuitive that in 2022, the single biggest improvement you can make to your paid search program comes from a product that has been around since the inception of Google AdWords, over 2 decades ago. Broad match is that product.

What Is the Size of the Prize?

From their internal studies, Google suggests that advertisers using smart bidding who adopt broad match see an average conversion increase of 30%, at a similar CPA. The exact figure you hear quoted may vary depending on the exact nature of the test – for instance, if your KPI is conversion value rather than conversions – but broadly speaking, the number you hear won’t deviate too far from this 30% mark.

As an agency, our role is to run our own experiments that either validate or reject these claims from media partners, so that we can present the right solutions to our clients. At Brainlabs we’ve invested heavily in this capability, and our “Hippocampus” database allows us to track the results of all tests that have been run across the agency.

From our extensive recent testing of Broad Match, our experiments uncovered two major findings.

1.  We found convincing evidence corroborating Google’s claims. Whilst falling just short of the 30% figure, the median uplift we recorded was +19%, which is by no means a figure to be scoffed at.

2. Arguably more interestingly, our analysis reminded us just how much can be hidden behind an average. We didn’t just see an impressive median uplift; we also saw broad match deliver successful tests with remarkable consistency. Out of all 54 tests we have on record, broad match emerged as the winning variant on 46 occasions. When you consider the array of external factors that can impact testing in digital media, an 85% success rate is almost unheard of.

But let’s take a step back from the nuances for a moment. Regardless of whether the uplift is 19% or 30%, that’s a number you can’t afford to ignore – especially for a feature that requires almost no effort to implement. And if your budget won’t stretch as far as a 19% increase, the good news is that it doesn’t need to: by enabling broad match and maintaining your current investment, you can instead convert that added value into an improvement towards your CPA or ROAS goals.

If there has ever been a silver bullet in paid advertising, broad match is it.

So How Have We Got Here?

Over the years, broad match has made a bit of a bad name for itself – and it’s easy to see why. It’s not too long ago that the presence of broad match in an account was a surefire indicator of a hands-off approach to management, leading to suboptimal results, and ads being served to users who were really not even close to converting with your product.

As time has passed, the rise of broad match has been the story of gradual & consistent technological progress. Whilst there’s a lot of noise around the topic nowadays, there probably aren’t too many outside of Google’s engineering & leadership teams that could have anticipated just how big a hit it would become more than three years ago.

If there ever was a turning point, it came in February 2021. In one of their flagship announcements of the year, Google told the industry:

Encapsulated in that small print was the fact that there had been a fundamental algorithm shift towards semantic matching, rather than syntactic matching. With this change, broad match ceased being the fire-hose it once was, and became a genuinely viable tool to accurately expand your ad targeting.

The product improvements haven’t stopped there, and today, Google’s vision for broad match continues to reflect a slow burn of updates and performance enhancements:

  1. Utilizing state-of-the-art natural language recognition models
  2. Continual improvements to data quality and infrastructure
  3. Simplified management of broad match
  4. Updates to the keyword prioritization process
  5. Building a joint optimization process across creative, bidding & keyword targeting

Of course, nowadays Google are anything but subtle in the way they talk about broad match with their agencies and advertisers. Recommendations tabs in Google accounts across the World are littered with the call to arms of “upgrade your existing keywords to broad match”, as one of the most consistently highly ranked opportunities.

Despite the bolder approach that Google are now taking in their comms, the steady stream of product changes and refinements will continue, with it being likely that many will go unnoticed for the most part.

When Can Broad Match Go Wrong?

You already know this by now, but auction-time bidding is table stakes in paid search. However, this is never more true than when combined with broad match. If you aren’t using this Google Ads feature to tailor your bids in real-time, then for sure broad match will see you spending a lot of money across a lot of users who each have very little interest in your product right now.

Flipping that logic on its head though, it’s also crucial to appreciate the value that some of those more tenuous-looking queries bring to the table when combined with smart bidding. As humans, we can very easily dip into a search query report, find a handful of questionable examples & overreact: “these queries will almost never convert for us, we need to exclude them!” But as long as there is a non-zero probability of those users converting, then by setting an appropriately low bid you are well justified in serving an ad.

To be clear, we’re not advocating an entirely hands-off approach to search query reports, and you will need to use some element of human judgement. But if performance is your goal, then you really should be trying to give the algorithm as much freedom to optimise as you’re comfortable with.

Another common pitfall is to start focusing on the wrong metrics. The dynamics of your paid search account won’t look the same after adopting broad match – and that’s okay because the numbers you care about will be going in the right direction. All else being equal, a move to broad match should typically see your campaign metrics do something like the below:

it’s true that some of these numbers are in the red, and you can already hear the reaction from the less assured marketers in the room – “Why’re my CTR & conversion rate going down?! Broad match must be driving less qualified traffic!” But the point is, you’ve delivered incremental value and conversions with that additional traffic – and because your bid strategy has paid less for the clicks, there’s not been any adverse impact on your CPA & ROAS.

Finally, there’s an increasing emphasis on being able to steer Google’s automation in the right direction. Remember: an algorithm will optimize single-mindedly towards achieving a conversion goal. So if you haven’t developed a conversion goal that’s sophisticated enough to distinguish your most and least valuable customers, then you should be prepared to see an increase in low-quality customers. Depending on your business, that might mean MQLs that never turn into sales, or it might mean one-off shoppers who never come back for repeat purchases. Sharing first-party conversion data with Google is the solution to offset this trade-off.

In Conclusion

As a matured, world-weary PPC marketer, you’ve every right to have a healthy level of skepticism about broad match. Try to overcome that, and bear in mind the steady progress that has been made in the field of machine learning.

Whilst you’re going through that mindset shift, make sure you stay focused on the objectives of your marketing – and ideally, think about how you can advance these objectives to better target your most valuable customers.

But most of all, make sure you take action – don’t let that 19% uplift pass you by. It’s no exaggeration to say that broad match is at a stage where we’d consider it a fundamental component of your search activity. If it isn’t on your roadmap, assess how you can bring it to the forefront – and get testing today.