What are Identical Keywords and why they matter for Google Ads

Google Ads has clarified what identical keywords are. But does this tactic go against what Google has been preaching for years?

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While Google’s newest campaign type, Performance Max (PMax), is devoid of keyword data,  some new information may help advertisers better steer their efforts with the product.

PMax campaigns are unique to all other campaign types as no keywords are required and no keyword data is delivered to advertisers. The closest existing campaign type is the fully automated shopping-only product, “Smart Shopping” which will be shuttered in July.

The big difference between the two is that Performance Max campaigns can run without a product feed and can also include local ad elements. 

Those PMax campaigns without a feed or local inputs can gain inventory on Google search by simply inputting a website or pages into the campaign. Due to the fully automated nature of the campaign, Google will then choose keywords to show on Google Search as well as other placements on Gmail/YouTube/Display/Discover

Many advertisers rightfully want to know what this means for their existing search campaigns, many of which have had keywords painstakingly pruned for optimal performance.

Google has stated multiple times that Performance Max campaigns on Google Search will not take traffic away from existing eligible keywords that are “identical” to a user’s query.

If you have a keyword in your campaign in any format (broad, phrase or exact match) that identically matches the user’s query and is eligible (has a high enough quality score/bid/budget/AdRank to show) then the existing campaign will trump Performance Max campaigns.

However, many advertisers aren’t buying it.

Google: PMax won’t cannibalize existing campaigns

At a recent Friends of Search event, Rodney Ip, Global Product Lead, Google Ads, Google, stated that “when you see brand traffic in PMax it’s not cannibalization, it’s likely that your standard brand campaign is capped or maxed out and PMax is stepping in to deliver more brand traffic.” according to Mike Ryan of Smarter Ecommerce:

The responses to that statement painted a much different picture.

Most of the advertisers strongly disagreed with the statement and a healthy dialog ensued. A comment from Collin Slattery brought up competing data points to Ip’s statement.

This should not be the case if users have the corresponding “identical keyword” in a search campaign, according to Google Ads Product Liaison Ginny Marvin:

What exactly are ‘identically matching’ terms?

So what is an “identical keyword”? Marvin gave a surprising answer: 

“Identical means the keyword is the exact same or spell-corrected. When there is not an exact match to the user query, prioritization is based on Ad Rank to determine which campaign is predicted to deliver the most relevant ad & best ROI.”

Recapping, an identical keyword is now defined as:

  1. Independent of match type (broad/phrase/exact).
  2. Is a term where the search query is the “exact-same” as keyword existing within an advertiser’s campaign.
  3. Spell-corrected keywords/search terms.

In order to keep the wide reach of a Performance Max campaign from cannibalizing other campaigns, one simply needs to ensure that they have the desired “identical keyword” in their campaigns (in and match type) as long as it is eligible to serve.

Does this fundamentally go against Google’s best practices?

For years now, paid search advertisers have moved away from a massive number of iterations of search queries as matching has gotten looser (and smarter) in Google Ads.

Close variants and smarter machine learning has allowed advertisers to have greater success using fewer keywords (in most cases). 

With the need to now have an “identical keyword” in a campaign, the astute question arose: Do these recommendations of ensuring all identical keywords are in an account go against what Google has been preaching for years now?


In order to keep PMax from stealing traffic from other campaigns, said campaigns should now protect their reach by building out in-depth lists of all possible identical keywords.

For example, an eligible phrase match search query in a search campaign like “Nike Sneakers” that would normally match to “buy nike sneakers” may now lose that traffic to a Performance Max campaign as the keyword is not “identical” to the query.

In order to be protected from PMax stealing that traffic, Nike would need to include the term “buy nike sneakers” in their campaigns in order to have an identical keyword.

What this means for you

We know that an exact match keyword doesn’t match to a query exactly.

We now know that an ”identical keyword” is a “match-type less” keyword that must exactly match the user query or be a keyword that shows a misspelling.

Honestly, this is quite confusing to explain to clients or other departments. But it is quite necessary if running PMax campaigns. 

If you are testing out PMax campaigns, in order to protect your other campaigns, you may now find yourself circa 2010 working on adding as many possible iterations and variations to build out “identical keywords” in your search accounts.

With PMax not providing any keyword data to advertisers, this effort may be a painstaking – but fruitful. 

If you have a good Google Ads rep, they may be able to put negative keywords into a Performance Max campaign for you to help guide the system in a different format.

However, this feature isn’t built into campaigns for advertisers. You need a special exception.

Contributing authors are invited to create content for Search Engine Land and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the search community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.

About the author

Greg Finn
Greg Finn is the Director of Marketing for Cypress North, a company that provides digital marketing and web development. He is a co-host of Marketing O'Clock and has been in the digital marketing industry for nearly 20 years. You can also find Greg on Twitter (@gregfinn) or LinkedIn.

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