From the start of AdWords in October 2000 up until September 2014, exact match keywords worked just as the name suggests: an ad was triggered when a user’s search query matched the keyword exactly. Since then, the way in which exact match keywords work has changed significantly, and now relies less on queries being that ‘exact’.
In 2012, Google announced that exact match keywords would include plurals, misspellings, and close variants (unless this was opted out of within the interface). This resulted in increased volumes for exact match keywords, and seemingly meant that performance would improve too due to a greater number of relevant search queries that previously wouldn’t have triggered an ad to show.
Close enough, but no longer exact
In 2014, Google announced that close match variants would now automatically be included in exact match keywords, with no opportunity to opt out. This left advertisers with less control over what ads would show for search queries closely matching a keyword which could have a different meaning, for example:
Search query: Cardio program
Advertisers with granular accounts who bid differently on singular and plural keywords as well as misspellings and other close variants would now have to accept that Google wouldn’t distinguish between them anymore.
Exact match broadens further
The next change came in 2017, when Google declared that ‘word order’ and ‘function words’ would be ignored for exact match keywords. Function words such as ‘the’, ‘for’, and ‘in’ would no longer be considered when matching a search query to a keyword, which further broadened the matching range for exact match keywords:
Search query: Men jacket
Keyword: Jackets for men
Google did, however, mention that it wouldn’t change the word order or function words if that change would alter the meaning of the search query. The idea behind this update was to reach a broader audience, following the rationale that the matching of potentially good keywords would outdo the matching of bad ones.
Today, exact match means intent-based search
A few months ago, Google released the news of its latest update to exact match keywords (which just recently came into effect), whereby exact match keywords would now match the intent of the search query, while making use of machine learning technology to improve targeting and matching. As the update is still very fresh, it’s hard to anticipate the impact this will have, but it’s advisable to keep a close eye on performance overall and review search query reports for exact match keywords on a more frequent basis.