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Google Exact Match, Close Variants Update

SEM Channel Lead

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Google is implementing an update to exact match keywords. As this rollout impacts all sectors, SEM experts are working to understand the case for change and the implications for advertisers. In this POV, we attempt to separate speculation from substantive changes, and specifically outline the implications for life sciences marketers.

What is Exact Match?

Search advertisers leverage keywords to target the users they want to serve ads to. Match types are different settings that can be applied to those keywords. They indicate to the search engines how close to the actual query the advertiser wants those keywords to match.

Exact Match: The user query must match identically to the advertiser’s keyword with the exception of plurals and misspellings which the search engine automatically associates to the keyword.

Phrase Match: The user query must include the advertiser’s keyword as a phrase within their query. For example, if the advertiser is bidding on the keyword “blue shoes”, an ad will be eligible to trigger for the query “where to buy blue shoes”.

Broad Match: The user query can be a misspelling, synonym, related to, or relevant to the advertiser’s keyword. For example, if the advertiser is bidding on the keyword “blue shoes”, an ad may appear for the query “buy blue sneakers”.

Modified Broad Match: This match type works like a hybrid between phrase match and broad match. It requires certain advertiser’s keywords (as chosen by the advertiser) to be included in the phrase but any part of the keyword not chosen by the advertiser still functions like a broad match keyword. For example, if the advertiser is bidding on “blue running shoes” and the advertiser chooses to add modifiers to both blue and running but not to shoes, the query must include both blue and running, but could include any synonym or related query to shoes, such as “where to buy blue running sneakers” or “affordable blue running kicks”.

What’s Changing?

Google is now entering the next phase of broadening the exact match keyword setting. Initially, a keyword with this match type would only serve ads when it matched up with the precise user query. As search marketing has evolved however, close variants such as plurals, misspellings, abbreviations, accents were eventually introduced (several years ago) as suitable matches for exact match keywords. About a year ago, another update rolled out to include or exclude function words and support word reordering. This next phase introduces matching exact keywords with stemmings, implied words, synonyms & paraphrases, as well as same search intent. See below for the full list of what Google specifies now as close variants:

Source – Google Ads Help Center with pharma-specific example paraphrasing provided by Klick.

Here are some key considerations regarding close variant targeting we feel are important to point out:

These changes will likely create questions about the impact that this will have as far as regulatory approvals and how to proceed with keyword submissions moving forward, which we’ll touch upon later in this POV.


With searches happening by the minute and machine learning on the rise, the goal of this change is to allow both searchers and advertisers alike to be connected to and reach content and audiences more efficiently by taking the guesswork out of how each individual may search. Conversely, this also means that the precision targeting which search is known for will need to take extra measures if the precise search terms are imperative to a brand’s success.

What Does This All Mean?

There has been a longstanding recognition that as pharmaceutical advertisers, we are unable to control the content a publication may place around our assets; but we are committed to doing everything in our power to ensure we associate our brands with the most precise indication-based content as possible. This same philosophy can be applied to this change. As long as a brand only actively bids on terms that are focused on where they would like to show, and all reasonable efforts are made to ensure that, a brand should be able to move forward. That said, all companies, all brands, and all teams need to assess their unique situation and risk tolerance.

Onward and Upward

  1. Education. All stakeholders for a brand need to understand how this works, what is going to be reviewed, and how it can be used
  2. Keyword submission and review processes remain the same at their core; but the negative keyword list will need to be added. Through strategic use of negative keywords and alternative match types, advertisers can still ensure certain high-risk scenarios are avoided (e.g., branded ads serving on unbranded keywords or vice versa)
  3. The conversation doesn’t have to end here. If you still have questions or concerns, reach out to us. Our client service team is always saying they want to spend more time with the SEM team, so give them another reason to. We can talk through solutions that address your specific business needs.

It should be noted that Google has stated that they recognize they need to equip advertisers in the pharmaceutical space with more information about how they are handling semantic matching for this industry and are in the process of preparing formal communications and documentation they can share externally. Klick will share more information as it becomes available to us.

More About the Author

Mike Ott

Mike Ott buys traffic depending on how engaged the user is and what the clients objectives are. For him, it’s all about the end result: when he can produce a profitable campaign for a client. He's been doing SEM for over a decade now and loves that the industry is constantly changing and coming out with new innovations.

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