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Google shifts from broad match modifiers to phrase match

Categories: PPC

Google announced on Thursday that it is set to phase out broad match modifiers in Google Ads over the coming months. This is a major change on the advertising platform and the latest of many to impact how keyword targeting operates.

In this article, we explain exactly what’s changing with the phasing out of broad match modifiers and what this means for your advertising strategy.

Google sunsets broad match modifiers

Google released a statement on Thursday 4 February, announcing changes to both phrase match and broad match modifiers in Google Ads. Basically, the search giant is calling time on broad match modifiers, which will gradually phase out between mid-February and July this year.

So, by July 2021, you’ll no longer be able to create new broad match modifiers in Google Ads.

Google is expanding phrase match to include similar behaviours of broad match modifiers and phrase match as we currently know it.

In other words, once this change is fully rolled out, using phrase match in Google Ads will essentially use phrase match and broad match modifiers, but crucially without the same levels of precision and predictability.

Example of before and after the broad match changes

“To give you more control and better reach, we’re bringing the best of broad match modifier into phrase match. As a result, phrase match will expand to cover additional broad match modifier traffic, while continuing to respect word order when it’s important to the meaning. This makes it easier to reach customers and manage keywords in your account.”

The key distinction here is that Google will “continue to respect word order when it’s important to the meaning,” which means its search algorithm will make the call on whether word order is important or not.

Google says this change simplifies keyword settings in Google Ads, allowing advertisers to reach the searches they want while only using phrase match – “without worrying about the searches you don’t want”.

There is some truth to this, especially as broad match modifiers and phrase match cover a lot of the same ground following previous changes to how keyword match types operate in Google Ads – although these moves don’t always go down too well with advertisers who typically prefer to have more control over keyword settings, not less.

How is Google phasing out broad match modifiers?

Google hasn’t given a lot of notice, considering the fact that they will start phasing out in the next two weeks. However, this is a gradual transition and Google is being upfront with how this is going to work – so there is, at least, time to adapt to changes as they happen.

Here’s the time frame Google specifies:

  • Starting mid-February, both phrase match and broad match modifier keywords will begin to transition to this new matching behaviour. Because this behaviour will be applied to both match types, you won’t have to take any immediate action—you’ll keep your performance data and have no need to migrate your keywords. 
  • In July, once the new behaviour has been rolled out globally, you’ll no longer be able to create new broad match modifier keywords. However, existing broad match modifier keywords will continue to serve under the new behaviour. That’s why starting now, we recommend creating new keywords in phrase match going forward.

Google has also told us that rollout will affect English, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese and Russian first, before global rollout is completed in July.

Throughout the rollout period, advertisers can continue to use broad match modifiers but after the change is completed no new broad match modified keywords can be added.

What does this mean for advertisers?

Google says advertisers don’t need to change anything but suggests monitoring the Recommendations page in Google Ads for notices on duplicate keywords.

That’s a little bit optimistic in our books as the loss of keyword control always impacts campaign performance and forces us to work harder when we need to specify which keywords trigger ads – and which ones don’t.

This is a major change for Google and it will alter the way we need to manage keywords in the account. It’ll mean we may have to restructure campaigns or use negative keywords to control traffic relevance in different ways.

This is a major change for Google and it will alter the way we need to manage keywords in the account.

To understand the significance of this change, let’s quickly remind ourselves of the difference between broad match modifiers and phrase match keywords.

What are broad match modifiers?

Broad match modifiers told Google that “these terms must all be present in the search query,” allowing you to specify that every word should be included (within the tolerance of broad match variations).

This is an important keyword technique for ensuring your ads serve for highly relevant searches whilst avoiding ambiguous queries – especially when you’re targeting transactional and service specific keywords that are so common in modern search.

What are phrase match keywords?

Prior to this change, phrase match keywords operated quite differently to broad match modifiers in that Phrase specified that “search terms must appear in this order,” providing a decent level of control over the search terms that trigger ads using phrase match keywords.

The expansion of phrase match means this match type will combine both of these functions and Google will determine when word order and search term matching is important.

This may not sound like the most significant change but it’s going to have a significant impact on how we manage accounts and campaigns in Google Ads.

Here are some more examples from Google, showing how matching will change after the update:

Examples from Google, showing how matching will change after the update:

Broad match modifiers are very predictable and give us fine control over which search terms are triggered. Losing this predictability and control means we need to work harder to prevent ads showing for unwanted search queries.

Losing this predictability and control means we need to work harder to prevent ads showing for unwanted search queries.

In order to deal with this change, we’ll need to manage how campaigns behave and transition to using phrase match, and potentially adopt additional broad keywords which are not triggered by phrase match, combined with extra negatives.

Google also offers the following advice:

  • Monitor performance and shift budgets where necessary: Traffic may fluctuate due to these changes, so make adjustments as needed.
  • Regularly check your Recommendations page: “Add new keywords” helps you maintain keyword coverage, and “Remove redundant keywords” helps you consolidate duplicate keywords.
  • Consider using broad match with Smart Bidding: If you’re concerned about losing coverage, broad match with Smart Bidding helps you reach more relevant searches that meet your performance objectives.
  • Continue to use negative keywords: Exclude matches you don’t want with negative keywords. Note that this update does not impact your negative keywords.

Monitoring performance and using negative keywords echoes the advice offered by James and the Recommendations page may offer some basic keyword suggestions to help you manage keyword coverage. However, the combination of broad match and Smart Bidding should only be used if you’re happy for Google to take the lead with optimising your bids.

Unfortunately, the only way to regain granular control is to add negative keywords and manually optimise bids, which increases the workload of managing PPC campaigns. You can still find negative keywords in the search terms report in Google Ads but the tool no longer provides data for every search query triggering your ads.

While a loss of control is always frustrating, the fact is Google Ads continues to move away from controlled keyword targeting with a stronger focus on browsing behaviour and audiences, which is more in line with targeting on other advertising platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn.

If you’re worried about the phasing out of broad match modifiers or the extra workload this means for managing accounts, you can speak to our PPC specialists for advice on 02392 830281.

James is Head of PPC at Vertical Leap.

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