Advanced Negative Strategies For Improved Paid Search Performance: Part I

Negative keywords are a necessity in any well constructed high volume paid search campaign. In a perfect world, large advertisers would run all keywords on exact match to ensure that the keyword bids truly reflect the quality of each keyword’s expected conversion rate.

Unfortunately, limiting campaigns to only exact match keywords sacrifices too much volume, so advertisers are forced to use phrase and broad match keywords  in coordination with the thoughtful use of negative keywords.

Aggressive negative strategies reduce the volatility of broad and phrase match keywords because they eliminate traffic from less relevant queries making performance more consistent. The more refined the traffic, the better we can predict the revenue each keyword will deliver which in turn makes bidding decisions easier.

The resulting improvement in visitor quality typically increases the value of each click because using exact and negative match terms helps refine traffic to the visitors that are most likely to convert.

Below the first set of tips for using negatives to significantly improve paid search performance on large scale campaigns.

Product Negatives

One quick and easy step to a successful negative keyword implementation is defining a list of terms that are not a good fit for your product offering.

Look back at your catalog or offering and brainstorm related keywords that consumers might be search that won’t match your website offers. These keywords may be useful if the conversion event or your catalog ever expands in scope, but right now, these are raw queries that simply cannot be monetized.

For example, a leading online pet supply retailer that sells supplies for only house pets might consider negative matching terms such as horse and pig, as these search terms are not representative of the type of pet supplies that they provide. Until the retailer expands to offer farm animal supplies, these terms should be used as negatives to refine the pet supply retailer’s paid search traffic.

Most keywords in these product categories are fine as negatives set to negative broad match, but don’t forget to add the plural form of these keywords too!

Completely Irrelevant Negatives

The second step for negatives is to aggressively block irrelevant keywords: keywords that are not a close match for you business, typically the result of Google’s expanded broad match. For example, possible queries and negatives could be “dog collar necklaces” and “puppy videos.”

You can get a quick list of negatives by using Google’s Keyword Expansion Tool for your high volume keywords. In AdWords, click on “only show ideas closely related to my search terms” for a list of keywords that match your terms that you should review. Checking this box often shows many more irrelevant keywords than relevant terms. When the box is not checked, the terms tend to be too broad and less likely to result in death by a thousand irrelevant clicks!

Below is an example of Google’s Keyword Expansion suggestions for the phrase “birdcage.”


For a large scale advertiser offering supplies for pets, search terms like “decorative”, “veil” and “Victorian”  are totally unrelated to their offering. It is important to add these keywords as negatives across campaigns to again refine traffic and ensure you aren’t paying for non-converting clicks.

Take Advantage Of Mismatched Traffic

You will never be able to maintain a complete list of all the negatives necessary to refine traffic when using broad and phrase match keywords, but it might make sense to try and monetize visitors who are not perfect matches for your offering. Consider ways in which you can take advantage of this otherwise, low-quality traffic, once they arrive at your site.

For example, a lead generator might want to present a visitor with AdSense ads if that visitor becomes unqualified as they complete a form. Clicks on these ads could help you reclaim a fraction of the cost spent driving these visitors to your site. Another way to limit the damage from queries outside the scope your offering, is to partner with another provider who might find the visitor more valuable.

Using the lead generation example again, if it is clear that a visitor isn’t going to convert, consider serving an advertisement or link directly to a partner that might be more relevant. Hopefully, the revenue you receive by sending traffic to that partner covers the cost of the paid search click that originally drove this visitor to your site.

Create Match Type Silos

As mentioned above, in an ideal world all keywords would be trafficked on exact match so that you have the best possible understanding of the consumer’s intention. Since we are forced to run phrase and broad match keywords in order to maintain volume, creating match type “silos” allows you to keep match types from competing with each other, and prevents exact match queries from triggering a ‘broad’ keyword ad.

A simple way to do this is to create three groups for each set of keywords, broken apart by match type. Then, add all of the keywords in the broad group as negative phrase match, and add all the keywords in the phrase group as negative exact match keywords.

Below is an example of what this would look like for a single keyword, “green sneakers”:

This method is easy to deploy and it allows you to quickly adjust bids to account for variance in performance by match type. Then, depending on performance and conversion goals, lower performing match types can shut off to focus on the best converting traffic.

Quick Check List

Hopefully, these tips have encouraged you to take a step back and evaluate the negative strategies that you have employed across your campaigns. Here is a quick recap of this month’s tips:

  • Add negatives across campaigns for products or services that don’t match your offering
  • Use Google’s keyword tool to identify completely irrelevant negatives and add across campaigns
  • Consider using ads or affiliates to take advantage of miss-matched traffic that ends up on your site
  • Structure AdGroups by match type, using exact match terms as negatives in the broad and phrase groups

Next month, in Part 2 of my Advanced Negatives series, I will review some nuances of each engines negatives rules, provide more suggestions for negative expansion, and additional strategies for shaping traffic with your campaign structure.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEM | Paid Search Column


About The Author: entered the Search Engine Marketing field in August 2007 when he took a job on the Pay Per Click team at QuinStreet focusing on the home services, B2B, and medial & health verticals. David has been with Marin Software since March of 2009 and holds the role of St. Online Marketing Manager. David is from Rochester, New York and holds a degree in Mathematics & Economics from Lafayette College.

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  • Todd Chambers

    I like the idea of Structuring AdGroups by match type but with larger accounts having such a granular approach would cost me more in time than it’s worth.

  • O.P.

    AdGroups by match type is a really performing structure for sure.
    But Todd is right too.. It can be really time consuming & it makes your campaign a lot busier

  • Al U

    Todd, O.P.,
    Account sprawl is a really common problem here as well; I usually wind up doing a strategic purge for keyword ROI. Only once everything is cleared out are we into expansion mode. Most accounts I look at are like a giant fur-ball due to a lot of great intentions & ideas!

    The –key– is negative keywords though, which is why I liked this article David – thanks.
    A large set of negatives is the leverage point re: getting things running at high profitability, the saved money is re-invested where it’s profitable, and everything starts to snowball towards better returns from there.

    I don’t want to drop links here unless there’s a request; I have connections to services that can make intensive negative keyword intelligence & campaign optimization a pretty simple straightforward task, and not expensive – I love ‘em & use them daily.

    If anyone makes a request here, I’ll send you the relevant links.

    Thanks again David.


  • alanmitchell

    Like your match type silos idea, I’ve often thought about using negative keywords at an ad group level to better control which search queries trigger which keyword or match type.

    But if you have 1,000 ad groups, each containing a single keyword, and want to add each keyword as a negative keyword to all other ad groups, won’t this mean having 999 negative keywords x 1,000 ad groups = 999,000 negative keywords?

  • Via Madison

    This is a refreshing idea. I would definitely try exploring Google ‘s expansion tool to get my negative keywords. Whew! Way to go!!!



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