Google AdWords Keyword Match Types and Negatives: The Ultimate Guide

Please note – there is now a more up-to-date version of this post: Common PPC keyword mistakes (Understanding broad match vs. phrase match vs. exact match)

On search engines, it’s all about the keyword. What’s in a keyword?

Keywords connect a searcher’s search terms to relevant ads created in AdWords. We want to make our ads as relevant to the searcher as possible, so this involves understanding not only the keyword itself, but also the intention behind the keyword.

For example, if someone is searching for “blueberry muffins” we have to be prepared to understand if they are looking for a recipe or a local bakery that sells blueberry muffins.

Keywords and match types has become more complicated over the years, yet its mastery is also critical to PPC advertising success.

For each keyword we can assign a match type, which basically determines how broad or narrow a user’s search query will match to the keyword in our AdWords account.

Ranging from broad to narrow, there are several different match types: broad match, broad match modifier, phrase match, exact match, and negative match.

The broader the keyword, the greater the reach, but unfortunately the relevancy can also slip since ads can be served on less relevant keywords. Here’s how each match type can work for or against you.


Broad Match

Broad match: laptop computers

May show for: computers, desktop computers, sony computer reviews

Broad match allows your ad to show on similar phrases and close variations of the keyword. Close variations include misspellings, singular and plural forms, acronyms, stemmings, abbreviations, and accents.

This can further complicate things when your ads can also appear for “related searches” or when someone searches for synonyms of your keywords.

Sometimes close variations can be undesirable and cause problems, so broad matched keywords should be monitored carefully.

On the Google Display Network, all keywords are considered broad match only. This means we don’t need to worry about other variants of the keywords.

Broad Match Modifier

Broad match modifier: +laptop +computers

May show for: laptop computer reviews, laptop computer manual

Keywords with the “+” sign must appear in the user’s search exactly or as a close variant, such as misspellings, singular/plural forms, abbreviations and acronyms, and stemmings (like “computer” and “computing”). Additional words may also appear in the user’s search.

Phrase Match

Phrase match: “laptop computers”

May show for: laptop computers for sale

Allows your ad to show for searches that include the exact phrase and possibly includes other words as well.

Exact Match

Exact match: [laptop computers]

Only show for: laptop computers

Allows your ad to show for searches that match the exact phrase exclusively in that order, no other words.

Negative Match

Negative match: -cheap

May show for: Other words similar to cheap, such as inexpensive or sale.

Ensures your ad doesn’t show for any search that includes that term. For example a search query for “cheap laptops” shouldn’t trigger the ad with “cheap” as a negative.

Another example of how negative keywords can improve relevancy is if we’re promoting blueberry muffin recipes, we may want to use a negative to prevent us from showing up when people are looking for bakeries. We’d use keyword “-bakery” to ensure our ads are most relevant to the search.

Negative keywords can also be match-typed, except broad match modifier. There are three types of negative keyword match types:

  • Negative exact: Would only not show when the exact term is the entire query.
  • Negative phrase: Would not show anytime the term showed anywhere in the query in that order.
  • Negative (essentially negative broad): Would not show anytime the entire term showed anywhere in the search query in any order.

How broad is negative broad match? One of the strangest things about match types is that broad match keywords and negative broad match keywords don’t behave the same, at least according to the many AdWords reps I have asked. Negative broad match keywords won’t trigger on close variations.

Also in this case of both/all words in a negative keyword must be present in the search query to exclude the ad from showing. Note that they do not expand to synonyms, singular or plural, and other variations as in the case of expanded broad match.

For example, “-quick blue” and “-fast blue” would be needed to be added differently, as negative broad would not expand. In fact, even a negative keyword such as “-blue” would not expand to “-blues”, and hence you’d have to exclude both separately.

Here’s how the different versions of the negative keyword “fast blue” would affect this ad, as an example. This is the same example all of the AdWords customer service reps send out to explain how this works.

1. -fast blue (Negative)

Possible searches:

  • blue mercedes car – WOULD SHOW
  • mercedes fast car – WOULD SHOW
  • blue fast mercedes car – WOULD NOT SHOW
  • car blue mercedes fast – WOULD NOT SHOW
  • fast blue – WOULD NOT SHOW
  • blue fast – WOULD NOT SHOW
  • fast blue mercedes car – WOULD NOT SHOW

2) -“fast blue” (Negative Phrase)

Possible searches:

  • blue mercedes car – WOULD SHOW
  • blue fast mercedes car – WOULD SHOW
  • mercedes fast car – WOULD SHOW
  • car blue mercedes fast – WOULD SHOW
  • blue fast – WOULD SHOW
  • fast blue – WOULD NOT SHOW
  • fast blue mercedes car – WOULD NOT SHOW

3) -[fast blue] (Negative Exact)

Possible searches:

  • blue mercedes car – WOULD SHOW
  • blue fast mercedes car – WOULD SHOW
  • mercedes fast car – WOULD SHOW
  • car blue mercedes fast – WOULD SHOW
  • blue fast – WOULD SHOW
  • fast blue mercedes car – WOULD SHOW
  • fast blue – WOULD NOT SHOW

Negative keywords work on the Google Display Network. When you add terms as negative keywords called “keyword exclusions” for Display Network targeted campaigns, ads won’t show on sites that contain those keywords. Although, the negatives will only be broad match type, so think carefully through how one word keywords will work.

According to Google, an exception to this is compound keywords: For example “baby spinach.” If you were to just use the negative keyword “-baby”, your ad might still appear on pages that contain the term “baby spinach” because the meaning changes when “baby” and “spinach” are combined.

No Keywords

Important note: in AdWords, one type of ad, Product Listing Ads, doesn’t use keywords at all. Instead of keywords, PLAs use product targets to determine when products in the Merchant Center account appear in the sponsored results.

However, also strange is that while keyword lists won’t have any effect on ads, you can use negative keywords to limit the searches for which ads show. Negative keywords can be applied at the ad group or campaign level.

Review Your Search Terms

How can you tell if you’re matching it all up correctly? One way is to refer to the query reports, or search terms report, to see how your ads performed when triggered by actual searches. Here you can see search term or exact word or set of words a person enters when searching on Google.

The report will contain a “matchtype” column. This is a “search term match type” and it tells you how closely the person’s search term (that triggered your ads on Google) is related to the actual keyword in the account.

For example, you may find a customers search term is a close variant (misspelling) of your exact match keyword.

Use the terms in this report to learn more about how your customers search for you both in terms and intent to help craft your online marketing strategies. Then use the report to generate negative keywords lists you don’t want to show on.

Some PPC managers will do this as exact search queries they find, or as themes of terms they find or both.

This video shows how to the find the report:

The Final Word on Keyword Match Types & Negatives


When it comes to keywords, finding the right match isn’t always easy and as you can see, fairly complicated. However, mastering effective use of keywords is one of the simplest ways to run a highly relevant PPC program.

For more information on negatives, dig deeper on the AdWords here, here, and here.

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