Phrase Match and the End of the Middle Ground

What happened to Phrase Match?

It’s easy to think of Phrase Match as a safe middle ground.

Not too expansive. Not too restrictive.

And traditionally, that’s the role it has played.

First with the old, purely semantic match typing rules – by requiring an exact match within the search, but allowing for additional words before and/or after, it was more permissive than Exact, but far less open than Broad.

Phrase match was then largely dissociated from its semantic bindings in 2021 and cast as the replacement for our old favourite Modified Broad Match (as Google got a little overexcited about their recent developments in natural language processing and put too much faith in its ability to determine search term intent).

From then on Phrase Match would be styled as capturing searches that ‘include the meaning’ of the keyword.

The other current official definitions are:

• Exact Match – searches that have ‘the same meaning’ as the keyword
• Broad Match – searches that ‘relate to the keyword’

Needless to say, these definitions leave more than a little room for interpretation.

Phrase Match: Losing its Role

So – why is Phrase no longer an effective middle ground between Exact and Broad?

If Phrase match is to serve as the ‘moderate’ choice, we should expect its search terms to deviate further from the strict keyword than Exact match does, but less widely than Broad.

One fair measure of that scale is the average number of different search terms matched by a keyword in each match type. We should expect Phrase to sit in between Exact and Broad on that scale.

Does it?

So – why is Phrase no longer an effective middle ground between Exact and Broad?

If Phrase match is to serve as the ‘moderate’ choice, we should expect its search terms to deviate further from the strict keyword than Exact match does, but less widely than Broad.

One fair measure of that scale is the average number of different search terms matched by a keyword in each match type. We should expect Phrase to sit in between Exact and Broad on that scale.

Does it?

A 2023 Study by PPC Ad Lab showed that Phrase Match keywords matched, on average, 29.4 unique search terms. This is far higher than 7.2 matched by Exact, but dangerously close to the 33.7 matched by Broad Match keywords.

So – strictly speaking, yes, Phrase Match is in between the two, but there’s not much in it at the top of the scale.

Meanwhile, does it compensate for the very-slightly lower reach than Broad offers, with better performance on CPA and ROAS?

No. The same study revealed an average CPA for Phrase match of $53.58, vs $34.59 for Broad.

These studies are fraught with potential pitfalls, so let’s find another…

The ever-reliable Adalysis ran a study on match type performance, published in March this year, revealing again (amid some important nuance) no particular advantage for Phrase Match:

(Here Phrase Match CPA was level with Broad, but this is largely due to Broad Match achieving higher conversion rates, thereby allowing for higher bids to capitalise on its otherwise-higher CPA.)

All of the recent studies (and personal experience) point the same way.

Phrase Match may be tempting as an intuitively middle-of-the-road option, but the data tell us that it is not playing that role successfully.

For now, I advise sticking with Exact or Broad. Both play better-defined roles, which can complement each other well.

Phrase Match may be back in the future, but for now it seems to have lost its place in the PPCer’s essential toolkit.

This is just one of the crucial topics covered in the latest unit: How to Use Match Types Well, in the Google Ads Level Up course.

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