broad match vs exact match keywords which is better

Exact match keywords have been a fan favorite of PPC marketers for over a decade now.

We adore exact match, because it allows us to target our audience with pinpoint accuracy. 

But Google has been evolving its AI and machine learning capabilities for years now, and is ever increasingly suggesting that marketers use a broad-match approach, and that the wonders of their technology will always win out vs. exact match and single keyword evangelists. 

So should we give up control and opt for broad match? Or is exact match and phrase match the better option?

👉 We're going to solve this once and for all in this article will multiple examples and viewpoints. 

Broad Match vs Exact Match - Which is Better?

What if the tides are turning and broad match is slowly but surely becoming the optimal approach for Google Ads vs. Google Ads?

The Limitations of Exact Match

The limitations of exact match keywords

Many PPC marketers use broad match campaigns to help them "discover" new keywords that perform well.

They will then take those discovered keywords, and place them into a newly dedicated exact-match ad group.

Let's look at a specific example...

Running shoes example 🏃‍♂️

For example, a company selling running shoes might discover that "gym sneakers" suddenly starts driving them a ton of cheap conversions from their broad match campaign.

They decide to cash in on the "gym sneakers" keyword performance and set up a dedicated exact-match ad group.

😰 But much to their dismay - the keyword performance drops off a cliff...How can this be? 

The simple answer is that when this keyword was being served by Google in a broad match, they were only serving your ad to people who they deemed highly likely to convert.

So for example, if 1,000 people searched "Gym Sneakers" Google might have only served the ad to the 20 people it believed would be more likely to convert, based on their huge amount of data.

The problem was, when you switched that keyword to an exact-match ad group, you essentially told Google to serve your ad to a larger swath of people searching for that specific term.

Now all we have is a ton more people clicking our ad who are less likely to convert.

Google, leveraging thousands of unseen data points, originally fine-tuned the visitors from your broad match campaign, ensuring that only those most likely to convert were shown your ads.

By switching to exact match, we lost this selective advantage, potentially leading to a higher spend without the expected increase in conversions.

The Broad Match Paradox

Broad Match Keywords

Enter the Broad Match Paradox. 

There's a very counterintuitive situation now where broad match keywords will often outperform their exact match counterparts.

The reason is Smart Bidding.

Google's machine learning algorithm uses literally thousands of data points to optimize bidding in real-time. 

Smart Bidding harnesses these data points during the Google Ads auction process to decide when and where your ads will be most effective.

It really is magic.

It means that broad match keywords, when paired with Smart Bidding strategies like Target Return on Ad Spend (ROAS) or Cost Per Acquisition (CPA), allow Google to cherry-pick the best opportunities for your ad to convert. This is because Google's algorithms can access and analyze more signals and data than any intelligent human possibly could.

Should I Ditch Exact Match?

The answer is no, absolutely not.

To be clear, exact-match ad groups can still have incredible performance.

Most businesses we work with will have a good 4-5 exact-match ad groups that just have incredible performance. They drive the best leads and they make for insanely profitable campaigns.

The problem is one of scale.

Once we reach a certain level of ad spend, we literally cannot spend any more on those tried & tested exact match keywords.

We have no option but to test the broad-match waters at this stage, because we're spending all we can on those moneymaker keywords, and we're getting diminishing returns as we scale spend on those exact-matches as well.


The point is this - If you have ambitions to scale your advertising spend and start reaching customers higher up the ppc funnel, then at some stage you will have to trust broad match & Google's automations.

Automation & Machine Learning

How do PPC budgets work

Machine learning is just another name for AI.

Google has been using this technology for years, before AI was cool. 

The trend is very obvious. Google Ads is pushing us more towards automation:

  • Performance Max
  • Smart Bidding
  • Broad Match

These are all developments from Google Ads aimed at letting the power of machine learning get the best possible performance from your ads. 

I Say Exploit Google's Technology

OK, it's obvious that ultimately Google wants more clicks because that leads to more profit for their company.

The naysayers will argue that Google's automated advertising strategies have one goal - To put more money into the hands of Google.

And while there may be some truth in that, I still think that as marketers we can exploit Google's extensive data analytics to our own advantage.

Why not test and try out broad match keywords to help scale your ad spend efficiently?

That doesn't mean we have to give up exact match keywords, far from it! 

And it doesn't remove the vital need for negative keywords either. 

It just means that it's worth exploring yourself to see how broad match might be able to take your ads account to the next level, by leaning on Google rather than fighting with them.


The Counter-Argument

One counter-argument we must make is that Google is still just a machine.

If you're a lead generation business for example, broad match keywords might be driving you a ton of cheap conversions, and everything looks great.

But when you look behind the curtains and see the quality of leads, the results are appalling. 

Once again, Google's algorithm is a machine. It's only goal is to drive results for you (in the form of conversions) in the most efficient manner possible. 

So if you're not feeding lead quality information back into Google ads, it'll keep going after low-quality leads, because that's what it's trained to do. 

Summary - Test Yourself!

Testing broad match vs exact match

The key thing you should take from this article is a willingness to at least test broad match in a fair environment.

We are absolutely not saying that broad match is "better" overall, but what it does do is give Google's machine learning algorithm the opportunity to target far more people, and that is very powerful.

Of course, testing broad match vs. exact match might be a hard sell when marketing budgets are on the line, but if you're serious about scaling a business through PPC and you really want to push results hard, then it's a test I'd strongly recommend.

Stewart Dunlop