A Defense Of Broad Match For SEM

“A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat is a renowned work of art that currently sits in the Art Institute of Chicago. You’ve probably seen it at some point or another.

It’s known for its size (almost seven feet tall and over ten feet wide) and its style (pointillism). Pointillism, a style of art that Seurat himself invented, involves making colorful dots coalesce into a picture. If you look at some of Seurat’s works close enough, all you’ll see is a bunch of dots.

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat, courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons

A closeup of that painting

A closeup of that painting

The Art of Keywords

So what does that have to do with AdWords and broad match keywords? A lot, I think. Talking to a lot of advertisers, I’ve noticed that a style of pointillism has emerged when it comes to managing keywords.

Omitting broad match entirely, some advertisers build out massive exact match keyword lists in an attempt to cover their canvas, that of search volume in their industry. If you look close enough at some accounts, all you’ll see is exact match keywords (the equivalent of colorful dots).

Your next question may be why that’s considered a bad thing. Seurat’s work is stunning, after all.

For me it comes down to a matter of practicality. That painting of his took over two years to complete. That’s a lot of dots. Each dot has to be maintained — changing bids, improving creative (PDF), matching to extensions (PDF), allocating budget. It is a ton of maintenance.

There’s also the question of coverage. While it’s possible that your account and its keyword list is like Seurat’s painting, without a speck of canvas uncovered, it’s also possible that your account is more like the minimalist style of a Wall Street Journal pointillist portrait.

Pointillist photo of Albert Einstein, courtesy of SketchPort

Pointillist photo of Albert Einstein, courtesy of SketchPort

Definitely cool looking, but with a whole lot of white space. That white space is wasted potential, and broad match is intended to make sure that you’re getting full coverage. It adds brushstrokes to the dots. If you’ve stopped using broad in your account, take a little bit of time to reconsider. Give it another chance.

You may roll your eyes when you read that someone from Google wants you to add in broad match keywords. It’s a common refrain — that we want you to use broad match simply to increase your spend. That isn’t the case. I believe that broad match is a useful tool that will actively benefit your account. As is true of mostly anything, you just need to use it wisely.

The Importance Of Semantic Targeting

First, the comparatively wide net that broad match casts is intended to bring in traffic that you haven’t thought to target before. You want to be present on searches that are semantically relevant to what you offer, even if the specific language that they use is something that you hadn’t seen before.

Semantic targeting is about the meaning of a user’s search (broad), while syntactic targeting is about the order of words in a user’s search (phrase/exact). Here at Google, we’ve long been obsessed with interpreting a user’s meaning when they’re looking for something. It’s what Google was invented to do.

For high volume queries, exact match is great — you’ll benefit from that additional control. But an account that is overlooking semantic targeting entirely is missing an important aspect of keyword management — query coverage and the ability to observe search behavior that’s occurring in the wild.

Search behavior is always evolving. The canvas that you guys are painting on is getting bigger all the time — there are over 100 billion searches on Google every month. People are searching in new ways, too — ways that don’t always lead to consistent typing or phrasing (think voice search or thumb typing on smart phones).

If you want a user-driven approach to account expansion, broad match is a great way to do it. You’re using actual people’s queries to decide where to take your account next. Odds are that you’re already capturing a good number of your important queries with your existing keyword lists. But what are you missing? How will you even know what you’re missing if you’re only using exact match?

You can (and should) use the Keyword Planner to get ideas of what else is out there and how you’re already doing on those new potential areas. In addition to research, though, running broad match in the wild will show you actual user behavior.

(Click to enlarge.)

Decide where to experiment by expanding to broad match based on your current account’s setup. If you don’t have any broad match at all, start with your top-converting exacts. If you have a wide mix of broad and exact, run important exact keywords through the Keyword Planner looking for broadly related ideas and review your account’s impression share on the queries that come up.

Here’s just one way to estimate what a new broad match keyword could get you. Download the estimates from the Keyword Planner that we talked about above. Focusing only on those places where your impression share is zero, identify how many monthly searches you might be able to pick up.

At the same time, identify negatives that you’d deploy alongside your new broad match keyword. I think it’s helpful to use the ad groups the Keyword Planner generates for you to generate impactful negative phrase match terms.

(Click to enlarge.)

And remember, you won’t need to add broad match at a 1:1 ratio to your exacts. By design, you’ll get coverage on multiple queries with your broad match. One keyword should account for a number of closely related exact matches.

Do this exercise and project out how much adding a new keyword might get for you (keeping in mind that all of these numbers are just estimates and things in your account could end up being quite different).

Keeping Broad Match In Check

If you decide to give broad match a try in your account, use two tools to keep things in check:

1. Diligent negative keyword additions (both pre- and post-launch)

2. Enable bid automation on broad keywords

Flexible bid strategies in AdWords take into account the queries that are triggering your ads as your bid is determined. Set a target that you want from your keywords, then let that target dictate your bids for queries that come in. Finally, make sure to routinely review the search terms report to look for negative keywords.

You can expand your volume in an intelligent, controlled way using broad match with these controls in place.


Pointillism is beautiful. I’ve seen those types of paintings (and accounts) first hand and they are breathtaking. But in the art/science world of search engine marketing, keyword lists shouldn’t rely on one approach to keyword matching behavior. Keep your dots, but consider adding in some targeted and controlled (and maybe even swirling) brushstrokes, as well.