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The Broad Jump

"Automatic matching" is just an extension of another AdWords feature known as "broad matching." Broad matching works in exactly the same way, except it doesn't target accounts with excess budget. It targets just about everyone.

Eric Schmidt

Google CEO Eric Schmidt

Ordinarily, Google's platform offers three ways of matching ads to keywords: exact match, phrase match, and broad match. With an exact match, an ad won't appear unless you type in a keyword character-for-character - and nothing else. Phrase match also requires character-for-character entry, but the ad will still appear if you tack on a few extra words.

Meanwhile, with a broad match, Google will serve ads against keywords it decides are somehow related to the terms an advertiser is bidding on. "Google really takes liberties with broad match. If you're bidding on 'dog gifts,' you may show up for 'hot dog buns,'" says Adam Audette.

AdWords account records from Mulesource, the San Francisco-based open source outfit that has spent close to $90,000 on the ad system since November 2006, show the unpredictability of broad matches. When the company bids on a word like "mule," Google may broad match on "muele," "mula," "mula spain," "mulapelada," "riding mules for sale," "trainer mules," and "yamaha mules." And the list goes on.

"With broad match, the Google AdWords system automatically runs your ads on relevant variations of your keywords, even if these terms aren't in your keyword lists," Google told us. "Keyword variations can include synonyms, singular/plural forms, relevant variants of your keywords, and phrases containing your keywords.

"For example, if you're currently running ads on the broad-matched keyword web hosting, your ads may show for the search queries web hosting company or webhost. The keyword variations that are allowed to trigger your ads will change over time, as the AdWords system continually monitors your keyword quality and performance factors. Your ads will only continue showing on the highest-performing and most relevant keyword variations."

It wasn't always this way. Google seemed to overhaul its broad match back in July of last year. "In the past, a broad match was when someone typed any of your keywords - in any order - with any other keywords, but the keyword you were bidding on had to show up in the query," explains Don DeVange, a search engine consultant who blogs on SEM issues at a site called Serpzone.com. "But then Google started expanding that to other 'relative' terms. So, there are cases where this 'expanded' or 'advanced' broad match trigger ads for terms you don't want to be bidding on."

And broad matching is turned on by default.

Yes, advertisers can turn it off, adding exact and phrase match qualifiers to the words they're bidding on. And when used in tandem with something called "embedded matching" - a way of determining which keywords are actually driving conversions - broad matching can be a very good thing. But so many advertisers don't even realize that broad matching exists. And if they do, they're given little help with the various ins and outs behind the system.

"Google can't get paid if someone does a search and there's not an ad in place that a person can click on."

When Mulesource CEO Dave Rosenberg first started using AdWords, he was unaware of broad match. And even now, nearly a year and a half later, he doesn't understand it. "Google does give an explanation for broad match," he told us. "But I don't get it." And he doesn't use embedded match.

"Embedded match is a way to refine what keyword matching works, but it's really time consuming, and it's not well documented. In fact, some experts call it the least documented functionality on AdWords," Audette explains. "And unless you use embedded match correctly, you're going to be wasting money. You'll be showing up on all sorts of keyword matches you don't want to show up on. And you won't necessarily know."

But there's no doubt that broad matching suits Google. In a big way. It puts more ads on more pages. And that makes Google more money. "If you're Google, the way to expand revenue is to expand 'coverage.' Google can't get paid if someone does a search and there's not an ad in place that a person can click on," says Adapt's Erick Herring. "Google has to have a system that encourages a diversity of advertising, so that there are ads in more places. One way to do that is to use various forms of broad matching."

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