A Beginner's Guide to 3 Types of Keyword Matches

Companies must carefully choose between the three types of keyword matches in order to target their digital advertising in the right areas. This guide breaks down how to do that.

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Keyword matching is a fantastic way for a business to target customers highly likely to convert while paying the minimum amount possible for that traffic. Companies allocate business advertising budgets to pay search engines a certain amount per click to have their ad shown when a person searches for a specific keyword or phrase.

But while keyword matching seems like a simple process, in reality, it’s a difficult thing to master and requires extensive keyword research on the company’s part to make sure that money isn’t wasted on the wrong kind of advertising.

This guide breaks down the three main types of keyword matches and will help you understand what keyword strategy is best for your next advertising campaign.

Overview: What are the keyword match types?

Understanding keyword matching is critical in digital advertising strategy involving, say, a pay-per-click campaign in Google Ads. By being effective with keywords, you drive traffic to your website where you can harvest more qualified leads and increase conversions and sales revenue, as opposed to just getting as many random visitors as possible.

The keyword matches generally fall into three categories: broad match, phrase match, and exact match.

  • A broad match will reach the widest audience because Google or Bing will show your ads to people who searched for terms loosely related to the keywords and phrases you’ve identified.
  • A phrase match is an option if the broad match is bringing in too many people who aren't interested in your product. This is when the user enters the keywords in the exact order (although there might be other words before or after them).
  • An exact match is necessary if you want to be even more targeted. In this case, users would only see your ad if they typed in your exact keyword phrase and nothing else.

How keyword match types work

Keyword matches help you create an ad campaign that brings in website traffic most likely to convert to paying customers. Basically, keyword matching ensures only people who are searching for stuff related to your products and sales are seeing your ads.

If your product has broad appeal, you might go with a broader ad approach and seek to have your ad shown as much as possible. But if you have a very niche product, you might be very restrictive about when your ads are shown to prevent spending money on clicks that aren’t likely to convert.

The 3 keyword match types

As mentioned above, there are three main keyword match types: broad, phrase, and exact. However, these categories can be broken down into further subcategories to give you a deeper understanding of keyword matching strategies.

1. Broad

Broad keyword matches are key for brands seeking to capture a large market. These keywords tend to be broad enough to draw in a wide range of potential customers with different interests.

Primary keywords

Sites that employ a broad keyword matching strategy will use primary keywords, which are the essential words that fundamentally describe your business.

For example, a company that sells coffee — a very broad market that appeals to a large percentage of the population — might target “coffee” as the primary keyword and build an ad strategy around it with broad search terms, such as coffee drink, cafe, or similar keywords. The business is looking to find any customer with some interest in coffee.

Market segment keywords

A market segment keyword allows a company to hit a target market more closely while still staying relatively broad in its approach. This is a generic strategy linked to an industry or a brand, and it involves using terms the target audience also uses. This allows the company to get into general search results for a market-related search term but be a little more specific than primary keywords.

For example, the company in the previous example might seek to target “office coffee machines” rather than just coffee in general.

2. Phrase

A phrase match involves displaying an ad to a potential customer who searches for a phrase in the search engine, although it may also include other words in the search string. Companies may pursue short-tail, mid-tail, or long-tail keyphrases using this strategy.

Short-tail keywords

A short-tail keyword is a phrase-type search term that features a high volume of traffic because it targets a small number of keywords — typically one or two words — hence the term. These are the most competitive in terms of rank, so companies will have to spend more money to rank highly for these search terms.

Mid-tail keywords

Mid-tail keyword matching involves keywords that are a bit longer than short-tail, typically around two or three words in length. These are less competitive, but they still feature a good bit of competition and are not the cheapest keywords to match. However, they may represent a sweet spot for companies that want to reach a lot of people while still having a fairly high conversion rate.

Long-tail keywords

Long-tail keywords are the longest search terms, sometimes stretching to four words or more. These keywords have much lower traffic due to their specificity, but they allow companies to more effectively target only customers who are likely to buy. This boosts the conversion rate and lowers the cost per acquisition. This is an ideal strategy for companies that sell niche products within relatively small markets.

Negative keywords

Negative keywords are an extension of phrase keyword matching in that they improve the specificity of the search by eliminating keywords from consideration that have certain contexts.

For example, if Starbucks is advertising on the keywords “Starbucks Pumpkin Latte,” the company might introduce the negative keyword “calories” to filter out people just looking to find out how many calories are in the drink and probably aren’t interested in purchasing it.

3. Exact

Exact keyword matching aims for customers who are specifically looking for what your company has to offer. There are a few ways to do this.

Product keywords

Product keywords are ideal for generating leads by targeting customers looking for your exact product. The customer will look for terms specific to your goods, services, or even brand, with keywords sometimes explicitly referencing your brand’s offering.

Brands may target these keywords to provide a direct route for these customers to find the company and place an order. An example is if Starbucks targeted the term “Starbucks Pumpkin Latte” and ran ads for a store locator whenever someone searched for the term.

Branded and navigational keywords

Similar to product keywords — and sometimes one and the same — branded keywords always explicitly feature the brand name. Sometimes they only include the brand name in an attempt to find and collect customers specifically searching for the company.

Navigational keywords, sometimes referred to as “go” keywords, are similar and seek to direct users to a specific website. Companies use them when they’re targeting customers researching brands for options. For example, if someone searches for “Starbucks coffee,” the ad would invite the searcher directly into the website.

Work with your team to create a keyword matching strategy

The great thing about keyword matching is that it does a lot of the prospecting and lead generation work for you. Rather than you having to go out and look for the right prospects, search engines send them right to your doorstep.

But if you haven’t done your homework and adopt the wrong strategy, you’ll be paying through the nose for traffic that isn’t converting on your site. Therefore, you must do the proper preparation beforehand.

Set aside time to talk with your team and brainstorm keyword matching strategies based on your organization’s needs and overall vision. Draft a plan and vet it several times before settling on it so you can be confident in your ad strategy going forward.

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