The Main Difference Between Keywords & Search Terms & How to Use Them Both in Your Ad Campaigns

Last updated on by Stephanie Mialki in Advertising, Google Ads

One of the biggest challenges in digital advertising is learning the nuances of the industry, including the large set of terminology. A common issue, even among experienced advertisers, is using the terms “keyword” and “search term” (or “search query”) interchangeably. Both are critical components of PPC advertising, and are closely related, yet have different meanings.

Keywords vs. search terms

A keyword is the exact word or phrase a marketer is targeting in a paid or organic search campaign. For instance, to win an auction for “meal delivery,” you’d need to make that your keyword phrase.

Keywords are what marketers and advertisers identify as central to the business they work for, used to define their overall strategy.

Search terms or queries are what a user types into a search box.

The set of words may be out of order, have other words tacked on, be only somewhat related to the actual search term, or even include misspellings (in which case Google will automatically correct it):

What’s the difference & how do they relate?

The major difference between the two depends on who uses them and why:

Typically, users don’t even know what keywords are, or what specific keywords brands are targeting. They just type words into a search box, hoping to find information on a product or service that will meet their needs.

Conversely, marketers use search terms and queries to help inform their keywords. It would be impossible to target every single search query that users type into search engines. Hence, marketers try to make sense of them and strategize over them to determine keywords to best match what potential customers are searching for.

For example, search queries like:

…would all be relevant to keywords like:

Knowing the difference and relationship between Google Ads keywords vs. search terms, there are multiple ways that information can be used to improve campaigns.

How to use this information

1. Target keywords, but expand them into queries

Every successful campaign starts with keywords. Advertisers bid on keywords hoping users will search those words, which will trigger their ads, leading to clicks and conversions.

Keywords aren’t the reality, though. Keywords only represent what you want, not what real-life search engine users are doing. Therefore, search terms are the reality. That’s why it makes sense to begin with specific target keywords, but also expand those into search queries.

If you’re targeting the keyword “business startup,” you could do some research around this term, and discover that a variety of different queries surrounds your target keyword:

These are important to track and target since they include your exact keyword, but what if someone doesn’t use “business startup” in their query? That’s why it’s necessary to go a step further to discover other relevant queries:

Recognizing all of these related queries helps you develop even more targeted keywords.

2. Use the Google keyword search term report

One way to discover new keywords from queries is the Google keyword search term report that shows a list of search terms people have used within the Search Network and your ads were shown and clicked.

Within the report, the “Keyword” column indicates which keywords matched someone’s search term and triggered your ad, while the “Match type” column tells you how closely the search terms that triggered your ads are related to your exact keywords.

The following two tables show how keyword match type is determined, and how different search terms that triggered your ads on Google are related to your keywords:

Once you know which of your keywords matched someone’s search term and how closely it’s easier to manage your keywords.

3. Manage your keywords based on search terms data

Using your keyword research and data from the search terms report, you can make changes to your keyword strategy to positively impact campaign performance. For example:

Add high-performing search terms as keywords

After researching queries, you have a better idea which target keywords to add to your SEO and PPC strategies. Additionally, if you find search queries with keywords you don’t target yet, you can start creating content around those keywords to generate more traffic.

Since queries in the search terms report are already receiving traffic, consider adjusting your bids as well.

Select the correct match type for existing keywords

To further optimize your keyword lists, you can use match types and modifiers:

Note: The + modifier can only be used with the broad match type, as there is no equivalent for exact or phrase match.

Add negative keywords

If a search term isn’t relevant enough to what you offer, you can add it as a negative keyword. This will prevent your ad from showing to people looking for something you don’t sell, so you don’t waste money on obscure, off-brand, potentially explicit searches, or any other unqualified traffic. Instead, you can better target potential customers with your search keywords, likely increasing your ROI.

For search campaigns, you can use broad, phrase, or exact match negative keywords:

Negative match types perform slightly differently than their positive counterparts, in that you must add synonyms, singular or plural versions, misspellings, and other close variations if you want to exclude them.

Use search terms to inform your keywords

The difference between keywords vs. search terms is subtle but essential. Knowing how to distinguish between the two — and how to use them with one another — will increase your chances of connecting with the most relevant target audience.

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