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What Are Search Terms In Google Ads?

· FAQs

If you’ve been running Google Ads for your business, then you might have come across the notion of “search terms”.

But what exactly are search terms in Google Ads?

In this short article - part of my Digital Marketing FAQs series - I will explain exactly what search terms are and why it’s so important to understand them and how they work if you want to succeed with Google Ads for your business.

Long story short, a search term is the actual search a user makes in Google that triggers your ad to show.

You will no doubt recall that when you set up a Google Ads campaign, you specify keywords.

For example, let’s imagine you have a dog walking business. You might specify the keyword:

‘Professional dog walker’

You would likely have included a keyword such as this in the hope that someone who jumps on Google and searches for ‘professional dog walker’ sees your ad and decides to try your service.

However, depending on what sort of match type you are using in Google Ads (broad match - which is the default - broad match modified, phrase match, or exact match) the search terms that are actually triggering your ads could vary quite substantially!

For example, someone might search ‘dog walking jobs’ (because they want a job) and your ad could very well show, generate a click and that click costs you REAL money.

With ad click costs in some industries reaching into double digits, every wasted click on your ads costs your business, has a negative impact, and could actual be taking away precious budget from people who might turn into leads, customers and sales (cannibalisation of budget by irrelevant search terms is a massive problem in many Google Ads accounts, especially those that are managed on a DIY basis).

Hopefully you will recall that Google provides four different levels of preciseness when it comes to specifying keywords:

  • Exact match - This is where a user’s search must exactly match (with slight variations and misspellings permissible) the keyword you have specified. You enter an exact match keyword with square brackets. 
    • Example: [professional dog walker] - ad would show for someone searching ‘professional dog walker’ but not ‘dog walking service’.
  • Phrase match - This is where a user's search must contain the phrase you have specified (with variations/misspellings permissible) but can contain other words before or after. You enter a phrase match keyword with speech/quote marks - ""
    • Example: "professional dog walker" - ad could show for someone searching for 'professional dog walker service' but not 'dog walking service'
  • Broad match modified - This is where a user's search must contain the words you have denoted with a plus (+) symbol but order is irrelevant, and words can come before or after as well. You enter broad match modified keywords with a + symbol. Once again, there is some leeway for Google to show on close matches, misspellings etc of the "required" words. 
    • Example: +professional +dog +walker - ad could show for someone searching for 'dog walker professional near me' but not for 'dog walker' (as the word 'professional' is missing). 
  • Broad match - This is the standard/default option when you use Google Ads. With broad match you cede maximum control/authority to Google. In exchange, your ads reach the widest number of people. Broad match keywords are denoted by typing in your keyword phrase with no punctuation.
    • Example: professional dog walker - ad could show for someone searching for 'professional dog walker', but could also show potentially for searches like 'dog walking service' or even product-terms like 'dog walking lead' - Google has a lot of leeway here! 

As you work your way down that list, you can see that you give up more and more control to Google.

With standard broad match keywords (which many DIY advertisers will specify without even realising it!) you are basically giving substantial leeway to Google to show your ads to a more diverse array of searches than you might want.

Now sometimes this will work in your favour, as Google will help you get your ad and message in front of people who you might not have otherwise reached with a more precise targeting option.

However, in my experience, giving Google too much leeway to show your ads to a ‘broad matched’ audience (unless you are expert in the use of Google Ads and deployment of negative keywords etc) can result in your ads showing for a lot of irrelevant searches, resulting in clicks that cost you money but have very little chance of yielding any positive business outcome. In the current challenging economic climate, it’s critical to avoid throwing money away, so you MUST understand how search terms work and their relationship with keyword match types.

The key thing to understand and remember is that search terms and keywords in Google Ads are NOT the same thing.

If you only take one thing away from this article, then this should be it.

What you think you are showing your ads for (your keywords) and what your ads are actually showing for (your search terms) are two different things and can vary massively depending on the keyword match types you have used.

I see many business owners get understandably frustrated when they are shown their search term reports, and they see how many potentially irrelevant searches their ads have generated, and how much money has been wasted on poor quality clicks that were never going to turn into leads and sales.

By understanding the difference between search terms and keywords (and the relationship between search terms and keyword match types) you can work to prevent your ads from showing for the wrong kinds of searches.

With that in mind, how do you actually see what search terms have triggered your ads?

Here's a short video that explains more about search terms in Google Ads, and how to access and interpret them. I hope you find it helpful.

To recap, imagine you run an art gallery in Christchurch and you advertise on Google Ads. You'd want to show up for someone searching for "art for sale in Christchurch" but not "DIY" art ... that is why understanding search terms is so important!

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