It’s said that, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” In the case of Google Ads, it’s a bit more like, “a few hours of research is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Negative keywords are easy to overlook, but they can be critical to finding your target market with PPC.
You spend time carefully crafting your keyword list. You write compelling ads that are sure to drive clicks. Your bids and your budgets are spot on.
Yet your efforts suffer from low CTR, and the traffic you’re driving just doesn’t seem to convert. Enter negative keywords.
In this article, I will:
- Refresh you on the basics of negative keywords;
- Look at two cases for negative keywords that you may have overlooked;
- Discuss negative keyword research during Ad Group or Campaign setup.
Table of contents
- What are negative keywords?
- Campaign-level negative keywords avoid cross-campaign matches
- Super focus match types with negative keywords
- How to research potential negative keywords
What are negative keywords?
Negative keywords are words and phrases that tell Google Ads not to show your ads if a search contains those words. Negative keywords have three match types: Broad, Phrase, and Exact.
Modified Broad negative keywords do not exist, because Broad negative terms work similarly to Modified Broad match terms. PPC Hero wrote a really great piece demonstrating how negative keyword match types work.
The negative keywords menu lives with the Keywords section of the Google Ads interface. Negatives can be set up at either the Campaign level or the Ad Group level.
Campaign-level negative keywords avoid cross-campaign matches
Campaign negatives and Campaign negative lists are incredibly useful if you want to segregate your efforts by a particular brand, product, or intent.
For example, if you’re a sporting goods retailer, you may have one Campaign aimed at Adidas shoes and a separate Campaign for Adidas apparel.
Notice that the budget for apparel is smaller than our budget for shoes. This could be for a number of reasons—maybe the customer lifetime value for apparel customers isn’t as high—so we can’t afford to waste money on clicks that don’t count.
One of the challenges we face is the fact that Adidas provides shoes and apparel for a number of sports, such as running.
We might see some conflicts between our apparel keywords and our shoes keywords, especially in cases where products share familiar names, such as Supernova:
We can, of course, manage this challenge by restricting our keyword sets in our apparel Campaign to include only product-specific keywords, such as “supernova SMT jacket,” but we could miss out on some valuable matches for searches that don’t reveal intent for shoes versus apparel:
We can keep these two keyword buckets separate by adding “shoes” and “running shoes” to our negative keyword list at the Campaign level of our Adidas apparel Campaign (and doing something similar for our shoes campaign).
Adding these negatives to each of our Campaigns serves two purposes:
- It allows us to use similar general keywords in both Campaigns without worrying about Broad or Modified Broad match terms serving ads for jackets in our shoes Campaign or shoes in our apparel Campaign.
- It prevents shoe-related searches from eating up the budget of our apparel Campaign by blocking those terms.
Take this technique to the next level
You can use Exact match terms you’re bidding on from the shoes Campaign and add them to the Exact match negatives to your apparel Campaign (at the Campaign level).
You may be able to do this with focused Phrase match terms also (e.g., “adidas running shoes”).
This will help keep your apparel Campaign much more focused on appearing for searches directly related to the product you’re trying to sell. Better focus leads to more relevant ads, which leads to more motivated clicks, and, ultimately, more leads or sales.
It also stops almost all shoe-related searches from matching to your apparel Campaign keywords, which can prevent budget-burning mismatches.
A word of caution about this method: Don’t simply pull your Exact and Phrase match keywords and dump them in at the Campaign level. For example, if you had “supernova running gear” in your shoes Campaign, you wouldn’t want to make it a negative in your apparel Campaign.
Why? Because if we excluded that phrase term, ads from our apparel Campaign wouldn’t appear in searches for a query like “sale on supernova running gear.” Those results skew toward apparel rather than shoes, which means it would be a mistake to set “supernova running gear” as a negative keyword in our apparel Campaign.
We should consider moving this keyword out of shoes completely. Thus, this review has showed us three important things:
- The keyword originally in our shoes Campaign should not be used as a negative in our apparel Campaign
- The keyword “supernova running gear” should be moved to the apparel Campaign because it’s a better fit based on current search results.
- “Supernova running gear” should actually be set as a negative for our shoes Campaign.
This type of review prevents you from cutting off potentially important matches and can help you discover how better to categorize your bidding terms in the process.
If you have massive amounts of keywords and this manual review seems daunting, pick one brand, product, or service. Keyword patterns may hold true across multiple products. For example, Nike product searches likely return results similar to Adidas product searches.
Super focus match types with negative keywords
This particular use case for negative keywords ensures your Broad and Modified Broad terms aren’t stealing the thunder from your Exact and Phrase terms.
It’s not easy to see, but your match types can conflict with one another, even when terms aren’t exact duplicates with different match types.
Luckily for us, negative keywords let your Exact match pull its weight without competition from other match types. At the same time, they also let your Broad and Modified Broad match terms widen your reach for the unusual, long-tail queries you need to keep growing.
This process works by preventing duplication across match types, stopping Broad, Modified Broad, and in some cases Phrase match from competing with Exact match terms.
There are pros and cons to this approach.
You can more confidently target ads for Exact match ads because a generic ad set up for your Broad match efforts won’t show up. Your Exact and Phrase match terms also capture all the traffic for that keyword, rather than most of it (with the occasional Broad match term getting the traffic instead).
It all works to make your bidding and performance tracking much more accurate along match-type lines.
The cons to this approach are, well, more work. Extra work may not be your cup of tea if you’re already overwhelmed, but setting this up is a simple routine that saves money via better bid control and time reporting.
To get started, split your keywords into groups by match types, then set your Exact and Phrase terms as Exact match and Phrase match negatives in your Broad or Modified Broad match Campaigns.
Clear as mud, right? Let’s walk through the steps.
Step 1: Separate match types for stronger Ad Group control.
When you have a set of keywords that share a central theme, such as “buy Nike shoes” and have Modified Broad, Phrase, and Exact match keywords, split them into separate groups by match type.
Keep Broad and Modified Broad match terms together, with Phrase and Exact each in their own groups. Be sure to name your Ad Groups with their match types. (This will become an important filtering key in the future.)
Since all three groups share targeting goals, they can also share ads. This means you can use the copy-paste function in Google Ads to duplicate new ads as you create or test them.
Step 2: Copy and paste keywords as negatives.
Create a filter within the Keywords tab to show only the Phrase and Exact match keywords. (This is why it’s vital to include the match type in the Ad Group name.)
If you have many different Ad Groups covering many different topics, expand your filter to include the term your Ad Groups all share (e.g., Nike).
Once you’ve got your keyword set filtered down to just your Phrase and Exact, download them. This step is necessary because we can’t use the copy-paste function of the main Google Ads interface within the negative keyword section.
Instead, we’ll use the CSV we downloaded and copy our keywords from a spreadsheet.
Once we’ve copied our Phrase and Exact keywords, it’s time to go back to our Broad match Ad Group and add them as negative keywords.
You can also take your Exact match terms and set them as negatives in your Phrase match Ad Group for even greater control.
Step 3: Maintain your negative lists.
This step is the maintenance required to keep things running smoothly. As you add additional Exact and Phrase match keywords to your Groups, go back and add them to your Broad match negative list as well.
This is as simple as copying your Phrase or Exact match keywords after you’re done adding them and pasting them into your Broad match Ad Groups as negative keywords (using the method detailed above).
Likewise, if you delete or pause Exact or Phrase terms from your Ad Groups, you have to take them out of your negative list in your Broad match Group (if you want to continue to get traffic for those terms). Obviously, if an Exact or Phrase match term is money wasted, leave the negative in place.
This can be tedious because there aren’t filters in the main Google Ads interface to help you search for specific negative keywords.
Google Ads editor can help with this issue, however. It allows you to search for specific terms within negative keywords. Ads Editor also allows for some faster copy-paste operations between Groups and positive/negative keyword lists.
Ads Editor will even warn you of potential conflicts or issues. (There are some false positives.) Review your warnings and alerts before making changes to make sure you aren’t missing critical issues.
How to research potential negative keywords
Darian Schouten wrote a great post over at TechWyse called 75 Negative Keywords to Include in Your Google Ads Campaign. Read it. It provides lists of keywords that are unlikely to be relevant to any campaign.
However, no list can outperform business-specific keyword research, positive or negative. In this case, the research we should be doing is examining our keyword set for any negative terms we add before we start up a new Ad Group or Campaign.
A great example of a common word that deserves proper negative research is “diamond.” Many online businesses might use the term “diamond” in their keyword lists:
- Diamond anniversary gifts;
- Diamond tennis bracelets;
- Diamond candles;
- Diamond bows;
- Diamond aircraft manufacturing;
- Diamond resorts;
- Blue Diamond almonds;
- Lawyers with the name of Diamond;
- Restaurants with Diamond in the name;
- And so on.
In fact, according to DuckDuckGo, there are dozens of uses of the word diamond—and that counts only the disambiguation results.
Even if you think your keyword list is rock solid (get it?) in terms of relevancy, make it a point to search common terms. There are at least three methods for discovering negatives by searching common terms—each of which relies on a different search engine.
1. Search DuckDuckGo for your terms.
DuckDuckGo is a great search engine in general, and one of the things it does very well is provide definitions and disambiguation for as many terms as possible.
It also provides direct links to search for your term in other places, which are context dependent.
You can cherry pick obvious terms to use as negatives, such as names of famous people that irrelevant to your product (e.g., Jack Sock, Wilfried Sock, Gene Ammons), or highly specific uses of your general term that don’t relate to your business (e.g., sockpuppet, The Sock).
If your business sells novelty women’s knee-high socks, you might discover through this search that you need to set a term like “compression socks” as a negative keyword.
If you click one of the panels, you’ll run a search for that term that’s been disambiguated from other uses. In doing so, you may discover synonyms that lead you to more keywords, both positive and negative. You might also discover keywords in news stories that you want to set as negatives (or positives).
“Sock full of quarters” or a similar term would not be something you’d want your ads running alongside, since it has negative connotations.
2. Search Google for your terms.
This should be a no-brainer, but searching common terms on Google provides a wealth of suggestions and possible negatives.
On a search results page, the two main ways to get ideas for negatives come from the very bottom, with related searches:
…and from the very top, with search suggestions:
It’s also worth skimming all the results in between, which will give you a sense of core topics—including those you may want to exclude:
- History of cheese;
- Connecticut Cheese Challenge;
- American cheese makers;
- Cheese as the name of a webcam application;
- A page on how cheese is made;
- A few specific creameries and specialty gift shops.
If you make goat cheese outside the United States, most of these results would give you terms to add as negative keywords. Anyone making or selling cheese could easily add “cheese drug” and related drug terms to their negative lists immediately.
The other benefit of this research is that it gives you an idea of which properties Google values for that very generic, top-level term.
You can also use the Search Tools button above the search results to change the freshness of the content or type of results (all or verbatim):
3. Search Bing for your terms.
This is especially important if you’re already using Microsoft Advertising (which includes Bing and Yahoo). Understanding how a search engine prioritizes results for common terms can give you a better understanding of how to tailor your advertising efforts for that engine.
Much like Google, Bing shows you what it values most for the search term. Bing also has auto-suggest for search, and a few searches indicate that the auto-suggest results from the Bing homepage differ from those on a search results page. It may be worth your time to check both.
Among all three strategies to search for alternative meanings and potential mismatches, using DuckDuckGo is probably my favorite. They offer detailed, no-nonsense results that are less commercial than the other search engines, which makes it easier to surface potential negative keywords.
However, you may find information that’s better suited to your business’s needs on Google or Bing. All three have merit, and the end goal of the exercise is to find the terms that don’t fit your business goals.
Negative keywords can improve your signal-to-noise ratio immensely. In the context of Google Ads, that means a more efficient ad spend and less money wasted.
However, there is a cost: time to maintain negative keyword lists within Ad Groups and the manual review of search results to spot costly but irrelevant terms.
As with everything, you’ll have to find the right balance for your Google Ads account.