Semantic search for Google Ads - What it is and why it matters

Semantic search is the future of advertising on Google. In fact, Google continues to change its algorithm in line with how we are searching and how it understands search user intent.

In 2017, Google reclassified exact match type keywords from the syntactic category to the semantic category.

You’ve probably heard semantic search thrown around in discussions related to SEO but most people aren’t sure how it actually works.

So it’s important that you have a good handle on how it works and how it can benefit your campaigns.

As a Google Ads advertiser, understanding match types is key if you want to benefit from semantic search. And it’s essential to craft your Google Ads’ strategy to target the right searchers.

What is semantic search?

Semantic search focuses on the meaning and intent of a users search. It focuses on the principles of language semantics and unlike other search algorithms, it is based on the context, intent, and concept of the search query.

In Google Ads, broad match keywords target semantic searches and incorporate synonyms, misspellings, stemming, plurals/singulars, and close variants. The most important of these are synonyms which are unique to broad match keywords and not other match types like the phrase and modified broad match.

Broad match seeks to uncover a wide range of searches and trigger your ads when user intent is matched.

The exact match also focuses on semantic searches but it only matches queries that have the exact intent as your keyword. So, synonyms of your keywords will not trigger your ads with an exact match keyword but will trigger misspellings, close variants, plurals/singulars, and other similar word types.

Exact match vs. Broad match queries

A keyword like flower arrangements will trigger the following searches:

Broad match: “flower arrangements”

  • flower delivery
  • floral delivery
  • floral arrangements
  • flower arrangements
  • arranging flowers
  • plus many others

Exact match: “flower arrangements”

  • flower arrangements
  • floral arrangements
  • arranging flowers
  • plus others

So, in your PPC campaign, include a mixture of exact match and broad match keywords ideally in unique ad groups. Broad match will target long tail searches and your exact match keywords will be primarily for volume and value drivers for targeted searches that have higher demand with competitors too.

Why is it crucial for Google Ads campaigns?

Semantic search makes it possible to reach a wide range of users that you could never have otherwise reached. According to Google, 15 percentage of searches each day are queries that they have never seen before. And most of these are long tail searches that have four or more words in them.

In the case of search advertising, the long tail is very long. A single keyword could drive hundreds or thousands of different search queries that you could never find during keyword research. You can see this in your search terms report, especially if you customize columns and show the search terms next to the keywords that triggered them.

And if you don’t capture these highly specific searches that are transactional, you’ll be missing out on a big opportunity.

Understanding the intent of a long tail search is also a lot easier than a high volume, short tail search query.

For example, these two search queries represent long tail and short tail search queries, respectively:

1. Men’s clothing – A generic short-tail search term

2. Men’s clothing with free delivery – A long tail search term that’s highly targeted

How and when to use it?

In Google Ads, using semantic search is achieved by adding broad match keywords and a few exact match keywords.

Quite often, a PPC specialist setting up a new campaign will use other match types like the phrase and modified match. Reason being, broad match keywords drive a wide range of searches and can quickly waste the budget if there isn’t a comprehensive negative keyword list in place.

However, besides doing positive keyword research, you should also carry out thorough negative keyword research to identify potential keywords to block. And this is where many advertisers fail. They look for keywords to bid on, but spend very little time doing negative keyword research.

Syntactic versus semantic search

Syntactic search, on the other hand, is focused on the order of the words in a search or close variants of the specific words in that search. For example, a search term like “window glass replacement” will only trigger an ad if all three words are in the keyword you are bidding on.

And there are two match types that trigger syntactic searches, phrase and modified broad match types.

Phrase keywords are enclosed in quotation marks “window glass replacement.” The words in the search query should be in this same order for the ad to be triggered, and can have other words before and after. The ads won’t show if a word is added to the middle of the phrase.

Modified broad match keywords only trigger ads when searches include the words designated with a plus sign before them like this +window+glass+replacement. The words in the search query can be in any order.

In Google Ads, phrase and modified broad match type keywords match to syntactic searches. Using our example above, this is how you would add the keyword in the two syntactic match types:

Phrase match: “window glass replacement” (This will trigger searches such as the ones given below)

  • window glass replacement
  • window glas replacement – misspelling
  • windows glass replacements – plural/singular
  • sash window glass replacement – with other words before or after the main words

And this is a real world example found in a search terms report:

A real world example of a search terms report

Modified broad match: +window +glass +replacement (This will trigger searches such as the ones given below)

  • window glass replacement – same order as the keyword
  • replacement glass window – reversed order
  • new glass window replacement for 2019 – with other words and in any order
  • and various searches with misspellings and close variants with the main keywords in any order

It’s important to note that phrase, exact and modified match types target all keyword types including plurals/singulars, close variants, stemmings, and misspellings, but not synonyms.

Synonyms are reserved for broad match type keywords which capture long tail searches and use Google’s long history of deciphering the meaning of search queries.

So, don’t over-complicate your account by including minute variations of your phrase, modified broad and exact keywords. These match types expand to cover close keyword variations, acronyms, abbreviations, stemmings, plurals/singulars and accents. Focus your syntactic match types on high value and high volume searches that bring benefits of greater control over bids and ad creatives.

Mike Ncube is a Google Ads expert. He can be found on Twitter .

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