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Using AdWords Negative Keywords Effectivly

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This is a follow-up from my post on the most effective types of optimisation for your paid search account,  if you haven’t read it yet, you can do so here.

My primary focus when managing paid search is delivering great value to my clients.  To do so, you need to make sure that every incremental dollar that you spend is used in the most effective way possible, sadly there are too many people using a set and forget attitude towards negative keywords, focusing on playing with bids and ad copy without getting the basics right first.

The two types of negative keywords

There are two different sub categories of negative keyword you need to be familiar with: strategic and hygienic.  The hygienic negative keywords are easy to setup and can be done so at the creation of your campaigns, the strategic keywords on the other hard are a key piece of ongoing account maintenance and are often forgotten.

Hygienic negative keywords

Hygienic negative keywords are relatively straight forward, they allow for easy segmentation of different keyword types and allow us to have great certainty around the types of keywords that will appear in each adgroup, and consequently along with each ad – preventing nasty surprises.

Hygienic keywords can be broken into two key types:

  • Match
  • Keyword Type

Match Type Hygiene

In a nutshell, match type hygiene is about making sure you’re buying traffic in the most effective and reliable way possible, this means using exact match where possible and only falling back to phrase and broad for the more peripheral terms.  The key here is to avoid buying significant proportions of traffic through the broader match type as it’s likely that your ad copy will be more generic, thus driving lower CTR, lower QS, less clicks and less conversions.

I’m not going to write about match type hygiene extensively as I posted recently about the issues and an AdWords script to help manage the issue here.

Keyword Type Hygiene

Keyword type hygiene relates to the major segmentation of your account, across both product suites and your brand/non-brand keywords.

The first thing I always do when creating a new Paid Search account (ie starting from scratch or working on a transferred account) is build out some pretty comprehensive negative keyword lists.


Ideally you should start by creating a ‘brand’ keyword list – this includes all your brand terms and brand variations, you want to apply this to all your non-brand campaigns.  The point here is that if your non-brand term was to match a user query that included a brand term, you would not be putting your best foot forward.   Here’s a quick example of a missed opportunity by not correctly using brand negatives (this could also just be poor account structure):

ME Bank should have pushed much harder on this term
ME Bank should have pushed much harder on this term

In this example, it appears that Me Bank matched the query based on the ‘Savings Account’ portion and not the brand qualification, subsequently missing the opportunity to display brand focused creative and increase click through rates.  there is a great opportunity for ME Bank to improve their Brand/Non-brand negative strategy here to ensure the right Campaigns/AdGroups are matching the correct user queries.  By not doing so, they are almost certainly hurting their CTR/Brand Quality Score and overall account efficiency.

Westpac’s Paid Search Team (MediaCom AU) are really getting this one right:

Westpac making great use of available search features

Not only does their creative talk directly to the users query but they have the right mix of ad extensions firing to maximise consumer/customer engagement.


Next it’s time to build out your competitor negative query list, this should be applied to everything but your competitor campaigns.  It’s pretty well accepted that the conversion rate for a competitor brand query is going to convert at a substantially lower rate that a brand or generic product query, the exception here is if you’re a challenger brand or you campaign KPI is awareness.  So, its critical that you wall off those competitor queries to a portion of the account where you can control the costs in a granular manor and they don’t detract from the other, higher acquisition portions of your account.  By knowing very specifically which campaigns will and will not generate matches against your competitors terms you can efficiently control your share of voice and establish ‘raids’ on your competitors brands at key times.

Product Groupings

It seems like a really nice idea that users searching for a product would be interested in your fairly similar, but different product.  For example, within the wealth accumulation market, people are typically looking for one of a group of products high interest savings account – to maintain liquidity while receiving a better rate of interest, a Term Deposit, for fixed income or an investment option.  Once someone has completed their product level research and starts looking to choose a provider, in this case a bank or credit union, the chances of them changing their mind about the product is fairly limited.  To maintain optimum account performance, brands should limit the frequency in which they try and cross promote products.  Performing a search for ‘Term Deposits’ yielded this result:


ANZ failed to display their term deposit product for the 'Term Deposit' term
ANZ failed to display their Term Deposit product for the ‘Term Deposit’ term

In this instance, ANZ is showing a result for their Online Saver product, an interest bearing account with some cross over in features with a Term Deposit, however not to the degree that a searcher will readily switch products.  In a case where the financial institution actually carries both a savings account and term deposit within their product suite it seems counter intuitive for ANZ to show this piece of creative for this search query.  The lack of relevance will likely be affecting CTR & QS and consequently CPC and CPA.

In a perfect world, one would create a product based negative keyword lists for each of their major products, and apply that to all the campaigns where there is a low relevancy between campaign terms and and the negative list target.  As an example for the Term Deposit negative keyword list, you could include the following:

  • “Term Deposit”
  • “Term Deposits”
  • “Time Deposit”
  • “Fixed Interest Account”

By applying a comprehensive list of negative terms to the low relevancy campaigns you can ensure that your ad copy will be more relevant, your landing pages will cater better to the user and your CPI (conversions per impression) will improve drastically.

Hygienic negative keyword setups are actually really easy and just require a little common sense.  With a bit of forethought much of the process can be automated and is not particularly costly on your time, but can add massive value to a campaign by improving efficiency and relevancy between query, keyword, ad copy and the landing page.  If you’re not sure you’ve got the right hygiene keyword strategy in place, make it your number one priority to get it fixed.

Strategic Negative Keywords

Strategic negative keywords are those that are irrelevant to your product and service or those that are unlikely to convert and consequently breed inefficiency within your campaigns.  The idea is, if someone is unlikely to become a customer/client or take an appropriate action someone in the future based upon their search query, then you should be negative matching it.  We can break our strategic keywords matching out into a couple of different groups:

  • Waste management
  • Budget management
  • Efficiency management

Strategic Waste Keywords

This is the easiest set of strategic keywords to target, you can do it with relative ease as long as you understand the product you’re promoting.  Similar to hygienic product based negative keywords, we’re trying to weed out the search queries from people who are unlikely to turn into a prospective clients.  While under the hygienic banner we want to acquire those customers through a different product stream, by identifying the strategic waste keywords we can discard those search queries entirely, reducing impressions and clicks from search queries that were never going to turn into customers.  The easiest and most obvious example of this implementation is avoiding the tyre kickers.  People searching for something for ‘free’ are often of limited value to AdWords advertisers, if you sell a product or service, someone looking for that service for free aren’t likely to become your customer.  There are examples where this type of traffic can be useful, but that’s another post.

If I wanted to pay for a premium service, I'd use a different query
If I wanted to pay for a premium service, I’d use a different query

In this case I’ve searched for ‘free cv writing service’ the obvious advertisers for this query are online tool suites, perhaps with a freemium pricing model.  I’d also expect to see social services/government bodies advertising on this query.  Unfortunately for the resume centre their offering a premium/paid service which costs between $69 & $120.  If they had led with their Free CV Review product (sitelink) they would likely see more success.

By simply adding the term ‘Free’ to the negative keyword list for this AdGroup/Campaign or the account as a whole, would likely save them selves some unnecessary impressions/click and cash.

Strategic Budget Negative Keywords

No one has infinite budget to spend on the paid search campaigns, as search marketers it’s our responsibility to spend each one of our clients incremental dollars in the most efficient way possible.  Negative matching for budget efficiency is all about making sure that the keywords that you’re generating impressions for are the ones most likely to generate value for the client.  This means, if you have a term that may generate conversions, however its almost certainly going to be a more expensive conversion than a different set of keywords than you should negative match that keyword.   This is a little contentious, and many people will suggest instead of removing the term you should instead reduce bids, across the term.  There is two reasons the negative option is a good one:

  1. Broad keywords capturing a wide net of terms may capture both good traffic and less qualified, by negative matching the poorer performing sub-set your improving the efficiency of that entire bucket of keywords
  2. The ongoing management required around performance monitoring that keyword, including progressive phrase and exact build-outs is time consuming and potentially not a great use of resources

Strategic Efficiency Negative Keywords

Efficiency and budget motivated negative keywords share a lot in common, the focus of both is reduced costs around the poorer performing keywords, however the efficiency based approach will deliver more conversions to the advertiser.

Instead of outright negative matching the keywords that are likely to deliver a lower advertiser ROI, we ‘move’ them to their own part of the account – they have their own allocated budget and a more conservative CPC – we can monitor their progress and performance more clearly and they will be less likely to ‘infect’ other portions of our account.

Taking our Free CV Service above, lets now imagine creating adding the term Free as a negative broad match term across or existing Campaigns, and duplicate all our campaigns for the purpose of targeting this group of terms.  I advocate duplicating campaigns instead of duplicating AdGroups as it allows for better control over budget going forwards.  We’re now going to add our negative matched term as a broad match modified term to all our keywords.

So, you’d have an account structure that looks a little like:

Using a lower bid to capture the less attractive traffic

Many people would suggest that it’s enough to have the CV Writing Service and the CV Writing Service +Free in the same AdGroup, however you lose control of the differentiation in creative, including the two in independent AdGroups in the same campaign fails to allow us to allocate budget independently.


Negative keywords are probably one of the easiest strategies to implement within your AdWords account but often one of the most overlooked, spending a couple of hours a month on getting your negative keywords right can add significant value to your bottom line.

The most powerful aspect of negative keywords

Now that you’ve reduced wastage within your AdWords account, you have likely freed up some of your, daily/weekly/monthly budget.  This allows us to reallocate funds to those we KNOW convert and deliver value back to our client, we can increase our average position, capture more traffic and more conversion within the same budget.

A couple of examples of the value add from good negative keyword management:

Marin Software, in their 2012 white paper on Negative Keyword Strategies published the following data:

Reduced Clicks and Increased CR
Reduced Clicks and Increased CR

By reducing the number of un-targeted impressions received, the advertiser was able to reduce the total clicks which in turn would have a direct reduction in costs.  By doing so the average click through rate on the keyword improved as did the conversion rate from those clicks which maintaining the same number of conversions.  Consequently showing an improvement on net revenue.

Mediative published a similar study revealing even better results through the use of negative keywords:

Improved cost efficiency through negative terms
Improved cost efficiency through negative terms

By removing the unnecessary impressions they were able to reduce the irrelevant clicks and boost relevant clicks which in turn drove more conversions.  Not surprisingly with more relevant traffic the CPC increased but not so much it outweighed the benefits of the elevated conversion rate.  Mediative was able to improve the Conversion per Impression by 238%, a massive increase in media efficiency.

Let me know if you have any interesting examples of negative keywords improving (or reducing) your client’s bottom line.

Published inAdWordsAdWords OptimisationPaid Search

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