Keyword Match Types in Google Ads – Complete Change For 2021

In 2021, the way keywords are matched in Google Ads has fundamentally changed.


We’re not talking about the broadening of Exact Match since 2018.

Nor the continuous rise of automated targeting and decision making.

Nor the recent loss of Broad Match Modifier – although this seems to be what pulled the plug.

We’re talking much higher level. A change to the foundations that keyword match types are built on.

And we need to fundamentally rethink our understanding of how it all works, and how we apply it to our campaigns.

Most importantly, we need to accept that targeting is no longer based on key-words.

This is: the keyword itself, its synonyms, and close variants (plurals, mis-spellings etc.).

The actual words have lost their significance.

Match types no longer behave like filters on a spreadsheet, where we can isolate specific words and phrases.

Now, they’re much more focused on the moral of the story – the meaning, or the intent behind a phrase as a whole.

For those of us who have been running Google Search Ads for a little while, we generally understand that keyword match types work are as follows:

Not any more.

Because sometime between January 2021 and now, Google updated their guidance on how this works.

Google provide guidance on how their keyword matching options work here.

The below screenshot from just a few months ago (dated 17th January 2021 – thanks archive.org!) details match types working very similarly to the example shared above.

However now, in April 2021, you’ll see this (screenshot dated 15th April 2021) instead.

Things have drastically changed.

As of 2021 – the new guidance on how keyword match types work are as follows:

Broad match

Ads may show on searches that relate to your keyword.

Phrase match

Ads may show on searches that include the meaning of your keyword.

Exact match

Ads may show on searches that are the same meaning as your keyword.

This paints an entirely different picture, detailing the most significant change we’ve seen in recent years.

There have been signs of this coming down the track for a while, but now it’s official.

Keyword targeting in Google has switched from keyword to semantic search.

Which means that (among other things):

  • Campaigns will have a natural tendency to spend more money, more easily. And exhaust daily budgets earlier in the day.
  • Negative keyword strategies will need to be revisited (and not having one will be much more unforgiving).
  • Strategies will need to become more, well, strategic. Searcher intent is now more important than ever before – use an exclusively technical approach at your peril.

The broad match modifier update was a change we thought called for an overhaul of negative keywords. Instead, it brought the need for new strategies to emerge.

So, while there’s no clear guidance on how we adapt practically (be assured, it’s being worked on), we need to stay focused on what we do know…

That targeting is officially much broader, that a lot of information, frameworks and guidance will now be obsolete and that we need to be mindful that searcher intent is more powerful than ever before when it comes to planning, strategy and optimisation.

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