Negative Keywords: Addition by Subtraction in Paid Search | Renegade Search

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Negative Keywords: Addition by Subtraction in Paid Search

By Nathan Pabich on 7-08-13 in Pay Per Click (PPC), Search Engines

positive negative keywords, photo source: ShutterstockMany of the default settings in Google AdWords and Bing Ads are created in a way that works against a novice Pay-Per-Click (PPC) advertiser. One example of this is the use of the default “broad match” match type. Google defines broad match as a keyword match type that “include(s) misspellings, synonyms, related searches, and other relevant variations”. The problem with this match type is that what Google defines as “related searches” and “other relevant variations” are simply not as related or relevant as many advertisers would hope.

In fact, over the years I’ve seen so much wasted ad budget on completely irrelevant and unrelated terms that this is one of our first stops in an AdWords or Bing Ads account audit.

Now, broad match isn’t completely useless. The best thing about broad match is that it is wide open and collects a lot of keyword variations – in fact, many keyword variations that you simply won’t discover or think of otherwise. Google claims that 20% of the daily searches on Google have never been conducted previously, so you can see how it would be hard to stay on top of the myriad ways people search.

So, what do we do to strike balance between reach of audience and relevance to our audience? Queue negative keywords.

Negative keywords work by blocking your ads when they are part of a user’s query. For example, if I sell SEO services, and I bid on the term “Chicago SEO” with Google’s “broad match” match type, then my keyword could show up in search results for a user’s query such as “free SEO in Chicago, Illinois”. The problem is that Digital Third Coast doesn’t typically offer free SEO, though that other part of the keyword “SEO in Chicago, Illinois” is 100% related to what we do. In this case, the next step is clear – we should add the negative keyword “free” to our ongoing and ever-growing list of negative keywords.

What happens, though, if I change the industry I work in? Perhaps I have a website like Zappos.com that thrives on the free shipping proposition. In this case, I can’t just add “free” as a negative keyword because suddenly I block out all the queries such as “Puma Shoes Free Shipping” or a nice fashion brand like “Free People summer dresses”.  As it turns out, there are very few universal negative keywords out there. Context remains as important with negative keywords as it does with the positive variety.

Making a Positive Impression with Negative Keywords

So far we’ve looked at blocking certain keywords to save money by avoiding unprofitable clicks, but negative keywords are also good at blocking impressions. By blocking keywords with high impressions  and few clicks, you can see your Click Through Rate (CTR) rise, which should positively affect your quality score and in turn, lower your overall advertising costs.

Choose Your Keywords Carefully

negative keywords paid search

Note the variety in Google ad results based on a search for 'physical therapy'.

Some industries are lucky and have a certain singularity to the names of their services, solutions and products. Other industries are not as lucky.  Even if we go back to using our SEO example and I start bidding on the keyword “Search Engine Optimization”, I can run into trouble. For example, a keyword as broad as this does a bad job of defining my audience. For example, I would really like my ad to display in search engine results when someone searches for “Search Engine Optimization Consultants”, however it would be to my detriment to gain impressions on ads triggered by fellow SEO consultants searching for “Search Engine Optimization Tools”. In this case, the audience will be pretty savvy, and it’s unlikely I’ll see many clicks on my ads promoting our SEO Professional services when the searcher is looking for tools to do their job better. My ad becomes irrelevant to the audience based on context and there is no way I will sell this searcher on my services.

It gets even wilder when your industry has keywords which are homographs for other popularly searched terms.  Perhaps your store sells suits online. Do you want your ads triggered when a news story comes out about the latest corporate law suit?  Or maybe I’m doing a search for physical therapy (I recently did this), and had I clicked on these poorly targeted ads (see right), I would have cost those advertisers several dollars for each click (~$5 for a top spot) and may not have found what I needed. How many such clicks happen each day? If you don’t consider other meanings or uses of your keywords, the results will not a positive experience for the advertiser or the for the searcher.

Even worse, we haven’t even ventured into territory where it gets really dirty. I had once seen a company bid on a term for a retirement home that got picked up by Google’s broad match for the terms “old wine” and “old cheese”. They may have gotten the “old” part right, but there is simply no way that the company’s intention was served well based on these clicks. There are some other strong examples of keyword confusion from Brad Geddes at Certified Knowledge.

I hope it’s become clear that if you don’t use negative keywords, the best case scenario is that you’re inflating your impression count and in the worst case, you’re using your ad budget on clicks that will never convert. By doing a bit more research, understanding the context of search and adding the appropriate negative keywords to your ad campaigns, you can bring your PPC advertising to the next level, save money and have more relevant ads that will showcase your offerings better and to an interested market. So just do it, and share your insights with your PPC manager or in-house advertiser and make sure to exercise quality control that will bring you results by negation.


Nathan Pabich is the Director of Paid Search at Digital Third Coast, a search engine marketing company based in Chicago. You can find Nathan on Google+. Connect with Digital Third Coast on Google+.

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