Digital Marketing

Afraid To Ask: Negative keywords and how to optimize them

If you hear “negative keywords” and think it’s a phrase to describe insults someone might use to push your buttons, well, when used in digital marketing at least, you’re a little off the mark. But that’s ok. That’s why we’re here — to delve into this not oft talked about PPC strategy and how using it successfully can significantly impact a campaign. And save you a lot of money. Like, a LOT of money.

Traditional keywords + match types

The opposite of negative keywords is not called positive keywords, although that would be cool. They’re just keywords or traditional keywords. You already know these as the words and phrases you load up in your campaign to trigger your ads to display for relevant searches. Just to double check we’re on the same page, here’s an example. Let’s say your company sells really nice ballpoint pens. A luxury pen associated with heritage and quality, made from only the finest materials and starting at no less than $100 (refills not included!). On a very basic level, you’d use keywords like the following to make sure your ad popped up whenever someone started searching for a really nice ballpoint pen. Using this tool (which just mines Google Autocomplete for you), we come up with:

AdStage Keywords Example


And then, of course, like most everything in digital marketing, there’s an added layer just to make sure your life (and job) doesn’t start feeling too easy. Match types. We’ve written about these before, specifically, how ignoring them can kill your campaign, but it’s been a while, so here’s a little reminder. By default, your keywords are set to broad match, which unfortunately means more impressions, less relevance. So by narrowing your match type, you’ll get more relevant impressions, but decreased volume. So it’s all about finding the happy medium and optimizing, optimizing, optimizing. Google provides this handy little chart as an easy explanation of match types and how they differ.

AdStage adwords match types

Google recommends using a broad-to-narrow strategy meaning start by casting your net wide as a way to collect the most data. Monitor keyword performance and make notes when your ad shows up for irrelevant words or phrases. From there, adjust (optimize!) your keywords, match type, and try adding negative keywords.

And with that, we transition oh so nicely to our main subject...

Negative keywords and the benefits of using them

So plain English, what is a negative keyword? It’s a word or phrase that prevents your ad from showing up. To make sure we’ve nailed the definition, here’s another way to explain it—anyone using the negative keyword in their search will not see your ad.

Back to our really nice ballpoint pens example. At a minimum of a hundred bucks a pop, someone looking for “cheap” pens is not going to want to see your high-class writing implement. And buying a whole pack of them? Probably not, so add “bulk” to the list of negative keywords. Oh, and guess what? These award-winning pens aren’t “plastic” either, so tack that on, too. (Keep reading to learn how to create and build your negative keywords list.)

And just like regular ol’ keywords, match types come into play with the negatives, too, though using them with negatives is a little bit trickier since you don’t want to accidentally exclude a keyword that a searcher might reasonably include with relevant keywords. The key here is to focus on the highest volume of irrelevant queries.

  • Negative Broad — Again to our example, you know your pens aren’t cheap and someone looking for discount BICs is not suddenly going to change their mind when your $275 writes-upside-down pen flashes on the screen. For that reason, you can confidently add “cheap” as a broad match negative keyword.
  • Negative Phrase — Phrases take it one step further. The refills for your pens aren’t available in the bargain bin, either. Combine cheap + refills to make sure no one is disappointed when they’re searching for some modest ink to replenish their preferred pen.
  • Negative Exact — Use this one only when a report surfaces multiple instances of an irrelevant search query affecting your ads. The likelihood of a negative exact drastically alternating your ad results is pretty low, so don’t spend time here unless the data tells you so.

We already mentioned how using negative keywords can save you loads of money, which is always the end goal in PPC marketing, isn’t it? But upstream, negative keywords also makes your numbers look reallllllly good.

  • Improve CTR — Because you’re showing the right message at the right time.
  • Improve conversion rate — Because you’re showing the right message at the right time.
  • Improve your Quality Score — Because you’re showing the right message at the right time.

Ok, I think you get it.

Creating & expanding your negative keywords list

Now let’s talk about putting this magic, money-saving list together. Good news—there are tons of resources and programs that pretty much do the work for you.

Google Keyword Tool — This is in the dashboard where you’re already spending a lot of your time. Within the Adwords interface, use the Keyword Research Tool (look in the Tools section) to enter a few keywords you are targeting or would like to target. Then, look through the Keyword column for searches you would not want your ad to show up for. Click the ⬇ in the Match Type column for each keyword you want to add as a negative. Select Negative, and voila, automatically added.

Lists of Universal Negative Keywords — Some generous people have already done the research for you. Check out these round-ups of commonly used negative keywords and steal anything that applies to your campaign. — This is a great way to expand on the negative keywords you’ve already identified to be important to your specific business. Again, to our luxury ballpoint pens example. Searching “cheap,” we see we should also add:

  • Inexpensive
  • Economical
  • Low-cost
  • Low-priced
  • Bargain
  • Budget
  • Half-price

And so on.

When should you start your negative keyword research? Immediately, if you don’t have any type of list yet, and certainly before launching any PPC campaign. As mentioned above, close monitoring of a campaign once it’s launched will yield tons of valuable information that you can use to optimize, but there’s important work to be done beforehand to set yourself up for success.

Adding negative keywords to your campaign

In the three most popular platforms that employ the use of negative keywords, the process is relatively the same.

  1. Log in to your ads management dashboard
  2. Select the campaign you’d like to manage
  3. Locate and click on the Keywords tab
  4. Locate and click on the Negative Keywords tab
  5. Add Negative Keywords and select a Match Type
  6. Save

Here are helpful screenshot instructions for Google, Bing, and Amazon.

Optimizing negative keywords

Optimization always begins with a clear understanding of what’s working (and what’s not…). So fire up your trusty old reports. Within the first few days of a campaign launching, look for irrelevant search terms that are triggering your ads and add the terms to your campaign as well as your master list of negative keywords. In other words, nix anything that’s getting high impressions and low clicks.

Optimize your list on an ongoing basis regardless of if you have any campaigns running. Set aside a few minutes per week (or field it to the intern…) to run reports, employ a handful of keyword tools, and take a look at any trends that might impact your digital campaigns.

So there you have it! As they say, there’s no such thing as a dumb question, especially when it can save you a lot of bucks.


AdStage Team