About a month ago, Adwords announced to us that it was changing the behaviour of exact and phrase match to match close variants, including misspellings, singular/plural forms, stemmings, accents and abbreviations.

The changes, due sometime in mid-May, have been sold as a positive change for users, creating a behaviour similar to that already employed for organic search. Google hopes advertisers too will like the changes, as it will help them avoid missing out on relevant traffic.

The reaction amongst advertisers has been mixed however, with some suggesting that the changes serve only to increase revenue by reducing advertiser control.

Google has offered an opt out in the interface for advertisers who don’t wish to take advantage of the changes.

Our own analysis indicates that this may not have yet taken place (search query reports are usually a couple of days behind), meaning that if you haven’t considered the impact of these changes yet, it could be your last chance.

Considering the impact

Being able to take advantage of different match types is one of the most powerful aspects of search marketing. The ability of an advertiser to define whether they want to attract just the most relevant traffic, or catch a wider net of interested searchers, has always given Adwords a wide appeal to businesses of all sizes.

Although most people have deduced that this change will affect only a small percentage of queries, the caveat is that it’s likely to vary by advertiser.

Having considered the impact on our clients and a few other scenarios, it’s become clear to me that there’s probably a little more to this change that people might consider. Although there are definitely some positives to the change, I want to focus here on the unintended drawbacks it could have for some advertisers.

Plurals  & stems

Plural and singular terms can often have a very different user intent. There is the obvious problem of differing quantity, as a user searching “insure my vans” would probably need a very different insurance policy to one looking to insure a single van.

Where quantity is irrelevant, I’ve often noticed that plurals for some major terms have performed significantly better than the singular variation. Take “mobile phones” for instance – while the plural may indicate somebody who wants to look at a range of phones to purcahse, the singular term “mobile phone” seems more informational. Both the performance and the subtle difference in the organic results appear to back this up.

While with plurals the difference may be slight, the opportunity for a difference in intent grows with stems. Where a freelancer using Adwords to support his website design business may have been happy receiving traffic for “website developer”, would they really be happy to receive traffic for “website development”?

Although the end product delivered may be the same, the former is clearly indicating a preference for dealing with an individual, whereas the latter is not.

Fortunately unexpected matches can be controlled through negative keywords for advertisers who don’t opt out of the changes – we’ve already done this, and given the magnitude of difference in potential user intent, I suspect many others will too.


This is actually one of the areas where I am least concerned. Adwords identifies 7% of users misspelling a search query, and our research into some industries suggests it can be significantly higher. This is a large chunk of the market to miss out on, and while many advertisers already cater for misspellings, it’s not easy to catch them all.

Historical data has often suggested that when aggregated, misspellings convert almost as well as the exact term, so I doubt it’ll have an impact on many.

That’s not to say there won’t be exceptions here. One area where I find misspellings change the meaning of words is with Brands. Brands often choose words which are a misspelling for brand identity – think of words like “byke”.

If the new changes mean your generic word is matched to a word with a brand intention, they could bring unwanted consequences.


This is the area that could prove the most controversial when advertisers get back their first set of search query reports. It’s difficult to know just how broad the interpretation of abbreviations would extend. Does it include acronyms for instance?

The fundamental problem here is that when a word or phrase is significantly shortened, there’s a chance that it will also be an abbreviation for another word (in some cases, many other words). The conversion rate for a word with multiple meanings is obviously going to be lower; meaning the need to at least separate bidding strategies is a must.

We’ll be observing the impact of this closely, but if you’ve experimented with abbreviations before and know it’s not good for you, then don’t take the chance – use negative keywords.

Taking action

Don’t let these changes take your by suprise, be ready to react to the changes:

  • Have a good look through your exact and phrase match keywords and consider whether they could affected by the changes.
  • Consider whether you want to add extra negative keywords, or opt out of the changes altogether.
  • If you choose not to opt out, monitor your search query reports, keeping an eye on new phrases.
  • Even if you do opt out, don’t forget that your competitors may not do. Expect some change. 

Should I opt out?

Most of my focus in this post has been around user intent, but that’s only part of the story. In establishing the impact it may have on your campaigns, you’ll need to consider whether it renders structural elements of your campaign obsolete.

Advertisers and agencies that’ve made a good effort to control campaigns at a granular level will either need to opt out or potentially restructure.

Then there is keyword history, quality score and data consistency to think about – all in all, a bit of a headache!

Despite the negatives I’ve mentioned in this post, however, we will be adopting the new match settings for the time being, controlling the unwanted side effects with negatives, at least until we’ve had a chance to fully review the impact.

I can’t help feeling that the opt out mechanism in the campaign settings tab is a temporary message to keep advertisers happy for now, but will ultimately be retired (“we noticed that few people were using the feature…”).

With this in mind, I’m keen to work with the new matching rules. Despite the small loss in granular control, it does allow for more straightforward campaign and keyword structures, and that has to be a positive thing.