The What and Why of Negative Keywords

Note: This is Part 1 of a three-part series on negative keywords. Part 2 details reach of audience and audience relevancy. Part 3 provides a valuable list of negative keywords to improve your campaign and increase your ROI.  

Negative keywords are a cornerstone of effective PPC account management. Most commonly a feature employed in Google AdWords and Bing Ads, negative keywords can cut your costs, increase your Click Through Rate (CTR) and help focus the association between your keywords and your ads.

In this post, you’ll find information on what negative keywords are and how you might use negative keywords to boost your PPC results.

What are Negative Keywords and what do they do?

You can think of negative keywords as gatekeepers, ensuring that none of the bad stuff gets through to your website. For the gatekeeper to be effective, you need to tell it what is considered bad. So, you add negative keywords to a PPC account to block search queries from triggering your ads.

You can add negative keywords lists on a campaign level or on an ad group level. If you add the negative keyword “Chicago” to a campaign or ad group, your ads will never display in search results when a search engine user’s search query contains the word “Chicago.” Negative keywords will block out the keywords you choose, so it’s important to consider the keywords that you do want to target when choosing negative keywords to add to your account.

Why Should You Use Negative Keywords?

There are four main reasons to use negative keywords in your pay per click campaigns: to cut advertising costs, increase click through rates, direct traffic to the most appropriate ads, and to keep your campaigns and ad groups as honest as possible. Below, we’ll explore each of these reasons in more detail.

1. Cut Down on Your Advertising Costs

First, negative keywords can cut down on your advertising costs by actively excluding keywords and broad keyword phrases that do not meet your ROI goals. As a result, negative keywords prevent your ads from being served to unqualified audiences.

For example, you might find that it’s profitable to bid on the broad match keywords “widgets.” Over time you discover that many variations are profitable, but that some search queries like “Blue Widgets” and “Red Widgets” result in a lot of clicks and high cost, but no profit because your business does not carry blue or red widgets.

In this case, “blue” and “red” would be excellent choices to add as negative keywords in your account. By doing so, your ads will no longer display for these queries, and you’ll no longer be charged for unprofitable clicks, resulting in higher ROI.

2. Increase Your Click Through Rate

Click through rate (CTR) is the ratio of clicks you get out of how many times your ad is displayed. Reducing the amount of extraneous impressions your ads receive will results in higher Click Through Rates. This plays out when you see certain search queries producing huge impression volume while not inducing many clicks. It could be a mismatch of intention, it could be that your ad copy is doing a great job of qualifying clicks to your site.

Regardless, the only thing worse than a keyword that doesn’t get clicks is a keyword that gets clicks but doesn’t convert. You can save yourself some grief and avoid either fate altogether by adding the appropriate negative keywords.

3. Direct Traffic to the Best Possible Ad

The negative keywords you select act as a traffic director – allowing some traffic through to one ad, while blocking ad impressions for another. This benefit is one that’s a bit more advanced, but a tactic that can really help you turn the dial and increase your keyword to ad to landing page relevance dramatically.

Since multiple keywords across your account can compete on a given user search query, plus the fact that Google will display the ad + keyword combination in your account that has the highest ad rank, this can result in an unintentional ad being triggered at the wrong time.

Don’t worry, though, you can take steps to avoid this.

For example, if I have one Google Ads campaign targeting Illinois with the broad match keyword “Chicago widget” and another campaign with the broad matched keyword “widget,” it’s possible for this second keyword and ad combination to be triggered by a searchers query of “Chicago widget” in Google or Bing.

The best way to put an end to this is to make “Chicago” a negative keyword in my second campaign, so that only my keyword containing the word “Chicago” will trigger my Chicago specific ads.

Campaign 1: Chicago Widgets

Keyword: Chicago Widget Ad: 

PPC campaign using negative keywords  

Campaign 2: Widgets

Keyword: Widgets Ad:

PPC ad campaign using negative keywords

Depending on which keyword and ad combo receive the higher ad rank in the ad auction, my less-specific ad can actually end up displaying instead of my Chicago specific ad. This can be avoided by adding negative keywords to my campaigns or ad groups in a strategic manner so as to block Chicago based queries from triggering my general Widgets ads.

4. Keep Your Ad Groups and Campaigns Honest

And finally, another advanced technique – negative keywords can be used to keep your campaigns and ad groups honest. As we saw in the last example, there are common cases where there could be multiple keywords across your campaigns and ad groups that match up with a user’s search query. AdWords keywords lists are an advertiser’s best attempt to organize keywords so that the most relevant ad is eligible to display for certain user queries.

These lists, researched as they may be, don’t always match up with how real people are searching. By adding the appropriate negative keywords in layers across your campaigns or ad groups, you can ensure the right ad displays for the right queries. You’ll also get the added benefit of really understanding which keywords are driving which results, which will save you time and help you make better decisions.

A lot of these keyword-ad mismatches can also be avoided by relying less on standard broad match keywords, but there will still be keyword overlap and layers of specificity in any industry. Cultivating a negative keyword strategy can help make your account structure more WYSIWYG by aligning the intentions of your ad groups, keywords and ads with user search queries.

The more deliberate you are, the more control you’ll have over the messages a searcher will see.

Wrapping up

Negative keywords can help you simultaneously find the right customer segment with the right message while also saving you money and worthless impressions. Some of the examples we’ve highlighted are simple, but the execution of your negative keyword strategy can become complex very quickly.

As always, monitor your campaign ROI and make decisions based on what you’re actually getting back from your account. If a certain variation of a keyword does very poorly, while other variations fly high, you might consider making the poorly performing variation a negative keyword. But whatever you choose to do, we hope you will find positive value in negative keywords.

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