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The Beginner’s Guide to Using Negative Keywords

Negative keywords are one of those search marketing features where there’s more to it than meets the eye. When used correctly, they can help you save budget for the best quality searches.

Let’s say you’re a housewares retailer setting up your first AdWords campaign, and you’d like to show up on Google searches for wine or water glasses. Although a novice move, I’ve seen plenty of businesses make the common mistake of advertising for broad search queries. Here’s what often happens:

  • Advertiser bids on “glasses”
  • Searcher comes along and types in “glasses,” looking for a new pair of reading glasses
  • Your ad featuring wine glasses shows up alongside Warby Parker’s
  • Searcher accidentally clicks your ad, driving up your bill, without any intention of purchasing housewares

This is a broad example, but a dangerous one. As we’ll discover later in this post, from movie names to books to viral YouTube videos you haven’t heard of, lots of search terms that represent a product you’re selling can be more ambiguous than you think.

For starters, bolster your campaign quality with this handy list of 75 negative keywords every AdWords campaign should include. It’ll get your ads off the hook for things like “free” and “torrent,” which are sure to accompany or precede whatever keywords you’re bidding on in at least a handful of searches.

What Are Negative Keywords & How Do They Appear In AdWords?

Just as you type in keywords to bid on, you can also tell Google the negative keywords for which you do not want your ad to be shown. Let’s review the shorthand:

  • [brackets] represent a keyword in exact match
  • “quotations” represent a keyword in phrase match
  • +pluses +represent a keyword in modified broad match
  • no notation at all indicates standard broad match
  • -minus -symbol before a keyword indicates a negative keyword

What’s The Difference Between Campaign-Level & Adgroup-Level Negatives?

Keep in mind, there are two kinds of negative keywords. You can add them at the campaign level: meaning, don’t ever show any of my ads for these keywords. And you can add them at the adgroup level: meaning, don’t show my ads for negative keywords in this particular adgroup.

The former is used when you know you don’t want your ads to show up for a given search; for example, if you sell tennis shoes, but there are no red shoes in your inventory and never will be, so you want to negative “red tennis shoes.”

Adgroup-level negative keywords, on the other hand, can be used to protect certain adgroups and ensure control over which chunks of the account are serving for given terms. As we’ll discuss later in this post, you might want to save your best “red tennis shoe” ads for an adgroup dedicated to that product, and thus negative “red tennis shoes” (or the word “red”) in your broad match adgroups that include generic terms like +tennis +shoes.

Next, let’s explore two ways negative keywords are often used.

1. The Traditional Use

This is the most obvious use case. For example, you’re looking to capture leads where people are searching for a particular type of US work visa, and you want to ensure that the millions of searchers Googling “Visa terms & conditions” or “Visa card benefits” are not being shown your ad.

Tip: You should use Google’s search query (or keyword detail) report to identify new negative keywords, but take care to specify match type. When you use their simple selection / checkbox tool to indicate negative keywords from within the reporting screen, all negatives are automatically added in exact match.

all online campaigns

To fend off this “spend-more-money-with-Google” feature, simply delete the brackets around the keywords in the screenshot below for broad match, or put them in quotes for phrase match.

negative keyword highlight

2. The Protective Use

In this strategy, you’re using negative keywords not because you don’t want to ever bid on the given terms, but because you want them triggered from a specific campaign.

Let’s say you’re selling men’s shoes. An example might be:

  • You have a single-keyword adgroup for [red puma suedes]
  • You also have an adgroup with broader keywords like +puma +suedes, which could potentially match a highly specific query like [red puma suedes]
  • In your broader adgroup, your ad copy won’t be *as specific* to the term being searched in this case
  • The whole reason you have a single-keyword adgroup is to serve a beautifully relevant ad for that exact search query, so you want to “help Google help you” and make sure that is the adgroup getting this impression

So you plug in [red puma suedes] as a negative keyword in your broader Puma / Suedes adgroup. In fact, you negative out all the keywords in single-keyword adgroups (or in highly-targeted exact match adgroups) from your broader catch-all campaigns.

Tip: If you’re curious about single-keyword adgroups and their benefits, read up on that — built correctly, it can be a killer strategy. It may also behoove you to learn more about writing great ad copy for single-keyword adgroups.

With this “protective” use of negative keywords, you’re making sure Google doesn’t get sloppy and serve anything but the perfect ad for your searcher. This searcher knows exactly what she wants — a red Puma sneaker in suede — and by serving the perfect ad that mentions each of those adjectives, you’ve just beat all the “broad match” advertisers out there for this impression and click.

How to Build a Strong Negative Keyword List

First off, your Google and Bing reps should have lists of negative keywords they use for similar accounts. You’ll need to parse them for relevance and ensure they don’t take important terms out of play in your campaigns — but this represents a good starting point.

Next, as with planning any keyword list, you can always explore Google AdWords Keyword Planner to see related terms and understand what you might want to parse out.

Another great tool for keyword suggestions is http://ubersuggest.org. This tool is nice because it lets you type in a keyword phrase and then groups variations on that keyword into organized segments, like this:

tennis shoes keyword example

As you can see, I’ve highlighted in yellow some potential negative keywords for a business that sells tennis shoes to consider. Without using this tool, the search marketer for our tennis-shoe-selling friends may not have known that “Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites” is a popular book series. Our friends would have bid on overbroad terms and spent lots of money on this highly-searched keyword set, selling very few tennis shoes to those searchers.

Finally, you should always use Google’s search query (or keyword detail) report to identify new negative keywords. It’s by far the most effective way to see what real searches are triggering your ads, and weed out the ones that don’t make sense. Here’s how you get there, starting with the Keywords tab:

search terms all

Using Negative Keywords With Bing Ads

As you know, Bing Ads is the platform for buying search terms across the Yahoo and Bing search engines. Negative keyword best practices are a bit different for this network, so let’s spend a minute on this.

One important difference between Bing and AdWords — which Bing’s help article on negatives subtly glosses over — is that advertisers can only designate phrase and exact match negative keywords for Bing and Yahoo searches.

Tip: If you import your Google ad campaigns into Bing, like many advertisers do, be aware that your broad match negative keywords will be converted to phrase match negatives by Bing.

Bing doesn’t support keyword-level negative keywords. However, you can set up campaign and adgroup level negatives, just like in AdWords. You can use Bing’s step-by-step guide for detailed instructions on setting up negative keywords. Shared negative keyword lists are also available for convenience.

Conclusion

Bidding on the best keywords in your space is only half the battle. Much relies upon having a sophisticated set of negative keywords that’s continuously expanding and being refined based on real data. Google often does a tremendous job of sifting through millions of ads to serve the right one to a given searcher at the right time — but there is plenty of incentive for mistakes and “stretching relevance.”

The best way to ensure this doesn’t happen to you, and doesn’t spend your hard-earned coin, is to build negative keywords meticulously.

About the Author: Igor Belogolovsky is Co-founder of Clever Zebo, a team of conversion rate optimization experts based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

  1. Igor Belogolovsky thanks for sharing a knowledge and create article. I never thought or knew that there are negative keywords as well. But like you said building useful keywords is half the battle.

    I am going to bookmark this article and start working on my Negative Keyword campaign :)

  2. Glad you found it helpful.

  3. Hi Igor, great post. thank you for sharing.

    You call it a beginner’s guide — but sadly, there are a lot of “pros” that either forget or just otherwise neglect adding negatives. It can get tedious, so I’m glad that you reminded us all how important it is.

    We actually published a “Big Daddy” list of negative keywords & I think readers may find it useful (includes all major US city/states & can be downloaded to CSV for easy implementation).

    Have a look if you get a chance — would love to get your take :: https://www.webmechanix.com/negative-keyword-list

    Thanks again for the post man, keep up the good work.

    -Chris M.

  4. Because search retargeting ads are served on display inventory rather than search engine inventory, pricing is not dependent on keyword competition, making it an extraordinarily profitable solution for marketers whose choice keywords are highly competitive.

  5. Dinesh Thakur Feb 12, 2016 at 5:13 am

    Hi Igor,

    Negative keywords are really a great option to filter untargeted traffic. I find lots of beginner have not been familiar with negative keywords and their match types.

    Using broad match was the easiest way but without having negative keywords hard earned bucks cannot bring revenue.

    Though you titled it as beginners guide but I find it as elaborate recreation of nurturing with negative keywords.

    But before using negative keywords I think we all have to know about match type.

    Regards,
    Dinesh

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