Keywords are at the heart of SEO. After all, we need to know what searches we want to appear in before we can start optimizing pages and content. Keywords are typically evaluated by their search volume, how difficult they are to rank for, and their relevance to the target audience. But there’s another aspect to keyword selection: do they have to match search queries exactly?
Exact match keywords are keywords that match exactly what the user is searching. The answer as to whether or not you need to use exact match actually depends on what you use them for.
Exact Match Keywords and Keyword Stuffing
Once upon a time, in the web of yesteryear, exact match keywords were very important in organic search. The side effect of this was something called “keyword stuffing.” Keyword stuffing is the practice of cramming in as many keywords as possible on a page. This resulted in poor content; messy, difficult to read, and unorganized. More unethical SEO practitioners would even stuff keywords that weren’t related to the content on the page, hijacking traffic from other more relevant and better quality keywords.
Exact Match Keywords and the Google Algorithm
The goal of tuning the Google algorithm is to constantly improve the experience of search users. This means serving links to better quality content that’s relevant to the user’s search query. Naturally, Google wanted to put an end to keyword stuffing.
Over time, through both small tweaks and big updates, Google has tuned their algorithm to better understand the context of the page containing a keyword, and to understand natural language. This enables the algorithm to avoid promoting poor quality content, including pages that use keyword stuffing.
Additionally, different users search in different ways. One user may search for “Botox chin,” while another one may search for “can botox be used on the chin.” The algorithm’s understanding of context allows it to understand that these two queries are similar, and can provide relevant results for both.
This is important, because it changes the way that we write search optimized content.
Essentially, for organic SEO, partial match keywords and exact match keywords carry the same value. The exception to this is when partial match keywords use natural language and good grammar. It is difficult to write a natural sentence using the phrase “botox chin.” In this case, a partial match keyword is actually better when it facilitates the use of natural language.
Google’s John Mueller, a Webmaster Trends Analyst, says repeatedly that the most important way to optimize content for SEO is to write high quality content using natural language. With each algorithm update, this becomes more and more true as Google pursues its goal of providing the best and most relevant content to search users.
Exact Match Keywords and PPC
While partial match keywords may be as valuable and even more valuable than exact match keywords in organic SEO, exact match keywords carry a great deal of importance in PPC, or paid ads.
Google AdWords, the most popular paid search service, offers three keyword targeting options for ads on their platform. These are exact match, broad match, and phrase match.
Broad match tells Google to display your ad for queries similar to your targeted keyword. Phrase match displays your ad for searches that include your target keyword inside a longer phrase.
Some PPC providers may assume that the broader the match, the more traffic an ad will drive, and to an extent this is true. But broad match targeting may drive non-converting traffic to certain pages, increasing cost without increasing revenue. So it’s important to choose the right targeting option for your ad.
But that’s not the whole story.
While it’s true that exact match keywords were necessary for PPC content (typically landing pages, product and service pages, etc), Google has made tweaks to the way AdWords works. AdWords will now treat exact match keywords the same regardless of the order the words are in. For example, “chin botox” and “botox chin” will be treated the same.
Additionally, AdWords now excludes what they call “functional words.” These include words that make keywords into natural language phrases, like and, or, but, then, etc. Because of this, “Botox in chin” will be treated the same as “Botox chin” or “chin Botox.”
This may seem to be the same as broad match, but it isn’t. Broad match will include related queries, so a search for “botox chin” may return results like “is botox in the chin safe” and “where can I get chin botox in San Diego, California.” You can see how these are different.
The algorithm is getting better and better at understanding the user’s intent, but in PPC, exact match keyword targeting may be essential for certain clients.
So, whether exact match keywords are important depends on whether you’re optimizing for organic search or paid search (or both), the goals of the campaign, the target audience, and the needs of the client.
While exact match still matters for paid search, Google AdWords has been updated to promote content on natural language searches. This gives you a little leeway in writing the best possible content.
Good content and natural language are still essential, and according to Google staff, the most important ranking factor of all.