Google Ads Keyword Matching Guide

I run an online t-shirt shop. I recently noticed that one of my keywords, binary tree shirt, generated a click. Problem is, the person who clicked on my ad was searching for edd china binary t shirt which is distinctively different than the binary tree shirt I’m selling. That money may have been better spent if I threw it in a wishing well.

How can I prevent this from happening in the future? Before we answer that, it’s important to understand a few key concepts.

Close Variations

When I started making keywords for my t-shirt campaign, I created a bunch of variations of the same phrase like

  • dog t-shirt
  • dog t-shirts
  • dog t shirt
  • dog t shirts

Later I found out this was completely unnecessary. Google deems these terms to be “close variations” of each other. It’s hard to give a precise definition of close variations, but it essentially refers to a keyword that is extremely similar to another keyword in terms of semantic meaning. If, for any search phrase, you can replace keyword A with keyword B without changing its meaning, then B is a close variation of A. For example, dog t shirt is a close variation of dog t-shirt because practically any search phrase involving dog t-shirt could be replaced with dog t shirt and the search’s meaning wouldn’t change. On the other hand, dog t-shirt is not a close variation of puppy t-shirt.


Close variations are not always symmetric. For example, dog t-shirt is a close variation of dog shirt, but dog shirt is not a close variation of dog t-shirt. That’s because a t-shirt is a shirt, but a shirt is not necessarily a t-shirt.


Close variations are not always transitive. lady shoes is a close variation of ladies shoes and ladies shoes is a close variation of women’s shoes, but lady shoes is not a close variation of women’s shoes.

Word Order

Word order matters only if it changes the semantic meaning of a phrase. red dog shirt is a close variation of dog shirt red, but dog on red shirt is not a close variation of red shirt on dog.

Keyword Match Types

Google Ads supports four different types of keyword matching.

Broad Match

This is the most generic match type. It matches any searches that are closely related to your keyword. For example, the keyword blue shirt matches searches for blue tops, buy blue tops, sell blue tops, blue shirts from Macy’s, … but doesn’t match searches for blue pants, green shirts, … because those searches are significantly different than the keyword.

Broad Match Modifier

This is like broad match but you can put a plus sign “+” in front of individual words to require that they (or close variations) appear in the search. For example, blue shirt will match the search buy blue button downs but blue +shirt won’t because button downs is not a close variation of shirt.

Phrase Match

With phrase match, you wrap a keyword in quotes to guarantee that it (or close variations of it) appears in the search. For example the keyword "shirt with dog" matches the search buy shirt with dog and buy shirt with a dog, but not buy shirt with a red dog. By contrast, the modified broad match keyword +buy +shirt +with +dog would match both searches.

Note: As far as I understand +keyword and “keyword” are identical if keyword doesn’t contain any spaces.

Exact Match

You can wrap a keyword in square brackets to force an exact match. This is like phrase match, but it’ll exclude searches with extra stuff before or after the keyword. For example, [shirt with dog] will match the search shirt with a dog but not buy shirt with a dog.

Negative Keywords

You can use negative keywords to prevent some searches from matching other keywords. For example, the broad match keyword blue shirt matches searches for buy blue shirt and sell blue shirt. If we only want to match the former, we could add sell to our negative keyword list. All of the match types available for keywords are also available for negative keywords, so we could include negative keywords like [sell] or “sell blue shirt”.

Pro Tip: You can define negative keywords just by placing a dash “-” in front of a normal keyword like -sell or -[sell].

Also note that negative keywords take precedence over normal keywords, so if you have the keyword [dog shirt] and the negative keyword -[dog t-shirt], a search for dog t-shirt will not match your ad for [dog shirt].


Enough definitions. More examples.

Search Keyword Match Explanation
lebron new jersey lebron james vs new jersey tickets True broad match
new lebron james jerseys True broad match
+lebron +james +lakers +jersey False lakers does not appear in the search
+new +lebron +jerseys True each word appears in the search
"new lebron jersey" False the phrase "new lebron jersey" does not appear in the search
"new jersey" True the phrase "new jersey" appears in the search
"lebron jersey" False the phrase "lebron jersey" does not appear in the search
[new jersey] False the search does not exactly match the phrase "new jersey" or a close variant
[lebron new jersey] True the search exactly matches the phrase "lebron new jersey"
[lebron james new jersey] True the search exactly matches a close variant of the phrase "lebron james new jersey"

Ad Preview and Diagnosis Tool

The ad preview and diagnosis tool is incredibly useful for testing whether various searches will match your keywords and trigger your ads. You ought to play with it if you haven’t already.

Note that if you search for X and the tool displays keyword Y with a message like “Your ad isn’t showing”, it means that the keyword successfully matched the search phrase, (but for some unrelated reason, your ad isn’t showing).


Answer To The Problem

If you’re curious how I solved my issue, where searches like edd china binary t shirt matched my keyword binary tree shirt, I

  1. added -[binary t shirt] to my list of negative keywords and
  2. changed my broad match keyword binary tree shirt to the phrase match "binary tree shirt".

Either of these techniques would be enough to solve my problem, but together they make me a little more bullet proof.


The information in this article comes from three sources..

  1. About keyword matching options
  2. Change keyword match types
  3. Lot’s of trial and error using the Ad Preview and Diagnosis Tool