The Negative Keyword Primer for PPC

By Brad



Negative keywords are just as important to the success of your paid search account as positive keywords.

At their basic level, negatives are filtering words – they stop your ads from showing.

At a more crucial level, they can keep your ads from wasting money and impressions on irrelevant search queries, which leads to:

  • Increased CTRs
  • Increased conversion rates
  • Lower CPA
  • Higher ROAS

You should be regularly monitoring your search queries and conversion rates to find negative keywords. Before we look at how to find and add negatives, we also need to examine how they actually work.

Negative Keyword Match Types

Negative keywords have match types just as positive keywords do. However, the match types are used differently with negative keywords:

  • Negative keywords do not match to singulars, plurals, or misspellings
  • If you don’t want to show for a singular and plural version of a word, you need to add the word in both formats

When you add negative keywords, you will also choose a match type:

  • [Exact match]: The search query must be the same as the negative keyword to stop an ad from showing
  • “Phrase match”: The negative keyword must be contained, in the same order, within the search query
  • Broad match: All the negative words must be in the search query, but can appear in any order

Match types determine the order of how negative keywords function in blocking search queries. Here are some examples:

Negative Keyword Match Type Search Query Will Your Ad Show? Note
-[Plasma TV] Exact Plasma TVs for Sale Yes The negative keyword is not the exact same as the search query
-[Plasma TVs] Exact Plasma TVs No The negative keyword is the same as your search query
-“Plasma TV” Phrase Plasma TVs for Sale Yes The negative keyword is not contained within the search query (the query is plural, the negative is singular)
-“Plasma TVs” Phrase Plasma TVs for Sale No The negative keyword is contained within the search query, in the same order, and therefore the ad will not be displayed
-“Plasma TVs” Phrase Plasma vs LED TVs Yes While both of your negatives are in the search query, they aren’t in the same order, and thus won’t stop the ad from showing.
-Plasma TVs Broad Plasma vs LED TVs No Both negative keywords are in the search query, and with broad match negatives, the order of the words doesn’t matter. Hence the ad won’t show
-Plasma TVs Broad Plasma TV for Sale Yes The search query is singular and the negative is plural; hence the ad will show.

It’s useful to note that since negatives do not expand to similar keywords, and the only thing that match types determine is the order, that a single word broad match negative and a single word phrase match negative function the same since one word doesn’t have an order to it.

Where to Add Negative Keywords

There are three places to add negative keywords:

  • Ad group
  • Campaign
  • Campaign negative list

Negative keywords follow a hierarchy system and flow downwards in your account, like ad extensions, and they only affect the keywords that fall at the same or a lower level as the negative.

For instance, if you add a negative to an ad group, it will only affect the search queries from that ad group. If you add it at the campaign level, then it will affect all search queries in that campaign.

Negative keyword lists are a special entity found within your shared library. You can create a list of negatives, and then apply that list to one or more campaigns. If you have lists of words that you never want to show an ad for, then add those words to a negative campaign list and apply that list to all your campaigns. If you find new negatives you never want to show for, you can simply add it to the negative list and it will automatically be applied to all the keywords in your account.

A common mistake is ‘negative whacking’. Think of this like whack-a-mole. You hit the mole once and it just appears from another hole. You hit it again, and yet again, it keeps popping up elsewhere. The same thing can happen with search queries if you don’t add negatives at the proper places.

If you add negatives to an ad group, you might stop the query from showing for that ad group; but it could easily appear from another ad group. If you don’t want a query to show at all for a campaign, you should add it as a campaign negative. If you don’t want it to show for multiple campaigns, then you should add it to a negative keyword list.

How to Find Negative Keywords

When adding negative keywords, the most common method is to examine your search query data, looking for keywords that aren’t converting, and adding them as negative keywords.

The advantage of this is that it’s very easy to do within the AdWords interface. The downside is that you often end up adding the search query, and not fixing the actual problem.

For instance, let’s say you have these search queries as negatives:

  • 15” plasma TV
  • 18” plasma TV
  • plasma TV
  • Sony plasma TV
  • LG plasma TV
  • Plasma TV Samsung
  • Curved plasma TV
  • Plasma display TV monitor
  • Plasma TV mounts

If you were adding the search queries one by one; then it’s easy to end up with lists like this. However, there is a common thread to all of these negatives, everyone contains:

  • Plasma
  • Plasma TV (the words aren’t always in the same order)

You could simply add -plasma or -plasma TV and your ad wouldn’t show for any of these queries. To find the common words throughout entire campaigns that can be made into negatives, you can use n-gram analysis.

N-gram analysis is very powerful as it not only lets you find trends for negative keywords, it can give you insights into new products or services you want to add or market to differently.

Working With Negative Keywords

Working with negative keywords is straightforward:

  • Find search queries or n-grams that you don’t want to show for
  • Determine the match type necessary to stop your ads from showing for those queries
  • Determine at what level the negative needs to be added (ad group, campaign, campaign list)
  • Add the negative keyword in the appropriate match type to the correct level

While negative keywords are straightforward, there are some pitfalls to avoid that we will address in a future article (Subscribe to future updates).

You should research negative keywords on a regular basis to ensure you are only showing ads and spending money on search queries that help you achieve your business goals. By managing negative keywords, you can increase your CTRs, lower your CPAs, and ultimately increase your overall PPC profits.



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