Negative Keywords in Google AdWords: the Ultimate Guide

The goal of this post is to be the most detailed, distilled and regularly updated guide on negative keywords in Google AdWords.

Negative Keyword Fundamentals

What are negative keywords?

A negative keyword is an option to exclude ads from showing on searches with that term. Basically, it is a way to tell Google not to show your ad when you don’t want it.

How do negative keywords work?

Here is how negative keywords work:

  1. You decide that you don’t want your ads to show for a particular keyword;
  2. You add it as a negative keyword to AdWords account;
  3. When a user includes the negative keyword in his search query, the negative keyword blocks your ad from showing to this user.

You can think of negative keywords as filters that prevent your ads from being displayed for unwanted search queries.

You need negative keywords because a keyword and a search query is not the same thing. Keywords that you are bidding on do not always equal to search terms that real people use. Sometimes Google matches your keywords to search queries that are not relevant to your business. And by adding a negative keyword, you tell Google not to show your ad for such queries.

An exception: Your ad might still show when someone searches for a phrase that’s longer than 10 words, and your negative keyword follows that 10th word.

It is a rare case, but it becomes more common as more people start using Google Voice Search – these type of queries are typically longer.

Negative keywords examples

For example, if you are a design studio selling WordPress theme templates, you don’t want someone who puts “WordPress templates torrent” or “WordPress premium themes torrent” to click on your ad and waste your money. If you add the negative keyword “torrent,” then your ads will not show up for these search queries.

You can see other examples of negative keywords in the spreadsheet below:

Product:
B2B project management SaaS
Time Tracking app
Email Marketing Startup
Keyword:
project management software
time tracking software
mailchimp
Negative keyword:
personal
gps
logo
Blocked search term:
free personal project management software
real time gps tracking software
mailchimp logo

Different use cases of negative keywords

Negative keywords are a cornerstone AdWords optimization tactic which can help you improve AdWords in two different ways:

  1. To block ads (from showing for irrelevant and non-converting search terms). This is the primary use case for negative keywords which this article focuses on.
  2. To better control ad serving (to make sure that a search term triggers ads from a campaign or ad group that you need, not from the one which Google have automatically selected). This advanced AdWords optimization tactic is usually used to avoid ad group cross pollution and set up Alpha/Beta campaign structure. I am working on a dedicated article on this topic. Sign up for my newsletter to get notified when I publish it.

How do negative keywords improve AdWords statistics?

You can expect these positive changes to happen after adding negative keywords:

  • Less (uninterested) Impressions. By adding negative keywords, you stop showing ads to a wrong audience, and your impressions go down.
  • Higher CTR. Because you are now showing ads to a more qualified audience, the ratio of users who see your ad and than end up clicking on it will be higher.
  • Same Quality Score. Despite the fact, that many major PPC blogs claim the opposite, please note that:
Negative keywords do not affect your Google AdWords Quality Score.

Here is a statement from Google’s Senior PM on Ads Quality: “It’s still true that negatives won’t impact your Quality Score at any level. They are a great tool for boosting ROI but are not a useful means to improving Quality Score for a keyword, creative or account.”

  • Higher Conversion Rate. You should expect your conversion rate to go up. Again, you are now showing ads to a more interested audience, who are more likely to convert into leads and customers.
  • Lower Cost per Conversion. Now you should expect to acquire users at a cheaper cost because irrelevant non-converting clicks won’t affect your Cost per Conversion anymore.
  • Reduced total Cost. By avoiding useless clicks, you save money, and your costs go down. A bigger part of your AdWords budget in now spend on keywords that convert well, and it can result in having more conversions for the same budget.

What are key benefits of adding negative keywords?

Speaking in more broad terms, when you add negative keywords to your campaign, you should expect to:

  • Save money on wasted clicks;
  • Get cheaper conversions;
  • Get better quality of traffic and targeting;
  • Gain more control over your advertising campaigns.

How to find negative keywords

There are hundreds of negative words that are irrelevant to your product and business. This statement is true for every AdWords account. Your goal is to find as many negative keywords as possible and make adding new keyword ideas to your AdWords account a habit.

Proactive vs. reactive negative keyword research

There are two approaches to negative keyword research:

  1. Proactive negative keyword research – you find negative keywords trying to avoid irrelevant clicks before they happen;
  2. Reactive negative keyword research – you analyze Search Terms Report to find negative keywords based on irrelevant clicks that had already happened.

No matter how thorough you’ve been during the proactive stage, Search Terms Report analysis is going to be an essential part of your AdWords optimization plan. But it is obviously smart to start with proactive research to simplify your life in the future and what’s more important to avoid wasting your budget after the launch of your campaign.

Intent-based vs. metric-based negative keywords

You can find new negative keywords using two different approaches:

  1. Based on user intent (keyword is irrelevant because intent is wrong);
  2. Based on AdWords metrics, such as conversion rate or cost per conversion (intent is correct, but the keyword is not converting). Obviously, you need an account history to make decisions like that, so this method is only available as a part of reactive negative keyword research.

Keep in mind that you should always be careful with adding negative keywords based on metrics – you might end up negating a good keyword which is just going to the wrong landing page.

The process of negative keywords research

Usually proactive negative keyword research starts during initial AdWords account setup (with no active campaigns and no data available) and consists of these two steps:

1. Apply a massive list of negative keywords from common negative keywords lists and templates.

Common negative keywords list is a collection of negative keywords sorted by theme that you can apply to many different AdWords accounts. It allows adding hundreds of negative keywords to your campaigns in minutes. All you have to do is choose keyword ideas that are irrelevant to your business and copy/paste them into your AdWords account.

Most SEM professionals have their own standard lists. For instance, you can get my regularly updated “Common Negative Keyword List for Software Products” for free.

Common Negative Keywords List for Software Products

2. Find negative keywords during initial keyword research.

In this sense, a negative keyword list comes as a byproduct of original keyword research for your account. While researching for regular keywords to target, you will notice a lot of negatives and create a separate list of them. Major tools used at this stage: brainstorming and AdWords Keyword Planner.

And after your AdWords campaign runs for a while you can find negative keywords based on the gathered data:

3. Find new negative keywords analyzing Search Terms Report.

STR analysis is a core process of improving AdWords campaign which you should do on a regular basis. It consists of the review of search terms that resulted in clicks with the aim of finding new keywords and negative keywords. You analyze both the intent and the conversion metrics. N-Gram analysis is a variation of this practice.

After you find new negative keyword ideas, you should always try to expand their list using “Google autocomplete suggestions,” “Google related searches,” synonyms, plurals, and other noticed trends.

How to add negative keywords

Understanding negative keywords match types

First of all, it is important to understand that (similar to regular keywords) you can add negative keywords in three match types:

  • Broad match;
  • Phrase match;
  • Exact match.

If you understand how match types of regular keywords work, you should have no problem choosing their negative keywords version:

  • If you want to exclude a word mentioned in any place of the search query, you add it in broad match. I recommend using broad match by default.
  • If you want to exclude multiple words mentioned in the same search query, but not the query itself, you usually add it in phrase match. For instance, if your product is a personal productivity software, you can add “software development” as a phrase match negative keyword to exclude search terms like “software development productivity metrics” but show ads on “personal productivity software” query.
  • If you need to exclude a full search query, you add it as an exact match negative keyword. A negative exact match is usually used to eliminate close variations of brand terms and to control ad serving (see “Different use cases of negative keywords” section above).

One-word vs. multi-word negative keywords

A common mistake: adding negative keywords consisting of multiple words by default.

Instead, you should aim to distinguish the most important word from a long tail keyword and add only this one word as a negative keyword in broad match.

For example, if your product and keyword is an “online crm” and you are not interested in queries like “online crm for gmail”, don’t add the whole query as a negative keyword. Because if you add “online crm for gmail” and someone searches for “gmail online crm” – Google will still show your ad. If “gmail” is the word that makes these queries irrelevant to your business, you should add it in broad match. This will help to eliminate every search query containing “gmail.”

Always add plurals and misspellings

The rule: Negative keywords do not match to plurals or misspellings.

It means that if you add “photo” as a negative keyword, and the user searches for “photos” or “photoo”, your ad will still show up. Thus to maximize the impact of negative keywords, you should always add both plural and singular versions of them, as well as most common misspellings.

There is one pitfall in utilizing negative keywords strategy: mistakes can be costly. So you should never add negative keywords indiscriminately.

For example, a popular negative keyword recommendation is the word “free.” While “free” is irrelevant for many businesses, if your SaaS product offers a free plan and you are good at converting free trials to paid users, it can be a good idea to bid on keywords like “free [your niche] software.”

If you are in doubt when adding a particular negative keyword, it is a good idea to put it into a separate “Uncertain” list in Shared Library, mark it with a local comment in AdWords Editor or simply make a new reminder in the project management app to check it later.

Another best practice is to review negative keywords as a part of yearly or quarterly AdWords account audit.

There are three levels within your AdWords account where you can add negative keywords:

  1. Account level. You can apply negative keyword lists from the Shared Library to multiple campaigns.
  2. Campaign level. Negative keywords will affect every ad group within one particular campaign but not other campaigns.
  3. Ad group level. Negative keywords will only affect one specific ad group. Other ad groups within the same campaign won’t be affected.
A common mistake: adding keywords that are irrelevant to multiple campaigns to only one campaign or ad group.

By default, I recommend adding negative keywords using the account level option. Usually, when you find a new negative keyword, it will be irrelevant to more than one of your campaigns. And Shared Library list is the best way to manage such negative keywords.

Other benefits of adding negative keywords to the account level:

  • whenever you change or add negative keywords to a list, your change will automatically be reflected for each campaign where the list has been applied;
  • allows to easily apply lists of negative keywords to new campaigns;
  • simplifies management of large negative keywords lists.

Methods of uploading negative keywords to AdWords account

There are two common methods of adding negative keywords to AdWords account:

  1. Using web interface. You can use it to add negative keywords at all three levels (account, campaign and ad group).
  2. Using AdWords Editor.  The most convenient way to add multiple negative keywords at the campaign and ad group level. Unfortunately, you can’t use it to manage negative keywords in Shared Library lists.

You should aim to properly divide your negative keyword lists by topic or type of campaign that you apply them to. Don’t just create a single list and put all of your negative keywords in it. Also please note that:

The rule: you can have up to 5,000 negative keywords per list and up to 20 negative keyword lists in your account.

Is there anything else you wanted to learn specifically related to negative keywords? Let me know in the comments! This post is constantly evolving, and I want to make it as useful as possible.

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