Daydreaming About Paid Search: How About Airtight Ad Groups?

My best daydreams come on summer afternoons when the sky is full of big fluffy clouds in a deep blue sky, and there is a refreshing summer breeze to keep me cool. Next week, I plan to enjoy plenty of that when we take our family vacation at Twin Lake Villa, an idyllic, and very old-fashioned New Hampshire resort with almost no internet access.

In the meantime, however, I am resigned to daydreaming about PPC campaigns here at the office.

In today’s fantasy, I see a perfect set of campaigns that have 100% airtight ad groups. I’m talking about ad groups that are so perfectly constructed that there’s not a search query I don’t like in my search query reports, my analytics show me that all of our search traffic is coming in through the right ad groups, and click through rates and quality scores are the best they’ve ever been. Wouldn’t that be nice!

While I may never see that dream coming true, that doesn’t stop me from trying, and in this month’s column I will share with you three of my favorite techniques for forcing search queries to trigger ads from the right ad groups and inch ever closer to a perfect campaign.

The challenge of creating airtight ad groups

The difficulty in creating perfectly airtight ad groups is that multiple keywords often qualify for the same keyword auction for a specific user search query. Relying on exact match would certainly make your ad groups airtight, but would end up suffocating all your traffic.

Whenever two or more keywords qualify for the same keyword auction, the AdWords Ad Rank algorithms are forced to decide which ad to show, and when that happens you lose control. In spite of the fact that you may have carefully built out many ad groups to house your extensive tail keyword lists and written ad copy perfectly tailored to the user intent implied by those long tail keywords, unless you take specific steps to prevent it, AdWords ends up choosing the ad it likes best based on highest bid and quality score factors.

If you want to maintain control over which ad gets presented, you have to either take steps to make sure only the right keyword enters the auction, or, if more than one keyword qualifies, to use bid tactics to force the match you prefer. The primary tools you have to accomplish this are negative keywords, match type selection, bidding tactics and a willingness to sketch up a few Boolean logic tables.

Using negative keywords

As I wrote in Rich Stokes’ new book, “Ultimate Guide to Pay Per Click Advertising” you can use negative keywords both to keep search queries from matching any keywords in your campaigns, but also to force the match into the right ad group.

There have been many articles written about using negative keywords to keep your ads from showing for searches unrelated to your keywords, and I think most people get that reducing ad impressions improves your CTR and saves you money by reducing unproductive clicks. However there is a second, less commonly used application of negative keywords to force broad and phrase matches into specific ad groups. Here’s how this works.

Lets say you have 3 ad groups, each with one broad match keyword, like this:

Ad group Keyword
stone stone siding
rock rock siding
faux stone faux stone siding

On the user query, fake stone siding, any of these 3 keywords might get triggered. By adding in negatives, you can force the logic so that only one match can be made:

Ad group Keyword Negative keywords
stone stone siding -fake, -faux, -rock
rock rock siding -fake, -faux, -stone
faux stone faux stone siding -rock

Now, instead of three possible matches, Google now only has one choice and its the one we forced. This technique requires some work, but it definitely gives you control over which keyword/ad combination qualifies for the auction so you can tailor your bids, ad copy, and landing pages to your best advantage. This has been especially useful for protecting longer tail terms.

We’ve found this tactic to very effective in controlling both broad and phrase match ad groups, but for broad match ad groups, we are now relying more on Google’s broad match modifier (BMM) to control traffic flow. Fellow Search Engine Land columnist, Brad Geddes wrote a very practical blog post about how the broad match modifier works over at BG Theory.

Here is a quick tip for those of you just getting started using the new BMM. You can control which keyword variations qualify for modified broad match by adding undesirable matches as negative keywords. For example, if Google considers faux and fake to be close matches, but you prefer not to allow that match, you can add -fake as a negative keyword in that ad group to prevent that specific variation from entering the auction.

Using keyword match types

Another way to control which of your keyword variations will qualify for an auction is to silo your keywords by match types. This technique was demonstrated at the most recent SMX Advanced by Benny Blum of eSearchVision and is quite a clever way to make sure you are not are overpaying for your exact match types, such as your brand terms. Here’s how it works:

  • Ad Group 1: [Exact Match Keyword]
  • Ad Group 2: Broad Match Keyword, -[Exact Match], -{Phrase Match}
  • Ad Group 3: {Phrase Match} -[Exact Match], -Broad Match Keyword

By doing this, Benny shows how you can effectively eliminate intra-ad group competition by forcing traffic to ad groups that have your preferred keyword/ad combinations.

Using bidding tactics to force match types

A few years ago, Craig Danuloff presented a nice technique for control the flow of paid search traffic into your preferred ad groups through bidding tactics. His blog post, “Match Type Keyword Trap” recommends a technique Craig refers to as ‘forcing the stack’ to segment traffic of differing economic value into the most appropriate ad groups. This technique calls for bidding the same head term keyword in the three different ad groups like this:

  • Ad Group 1: Exact Match (Highest Bid)
  • Ad Group 2: Phrase Match (Lower Bid)
  • Ad Group 3: Broad Mach (Lowest Bid)

Although this technique does not give you absolute control over traffic flow because it is still dependent upon quality score vagaries, it can be a very effective technique to employ especially for new campaigns and keyword sets.

The match type I’d really like to see: positive match

I like Google’s new broad match modifier, but what I was really hoping for was a new and distinct fourth keyword type, which I have dubbed “positive match.” A positive match would be the perfect opposite of a negative match. Instead of preventing a match from occurring, a positive match would allow a match if, and only if, a search query contains the positive match keyword. It would work with phrase matches as well as broad match and it could be applied at the ad group or campaign level. Positive match would be very literal and allow no stemming or close variations. I contend that a positive match would be a more elegant solution and offer more control over matches than the broad match modifier. It would require one keyword to implement as opposed to adding plus signs to every broad match term in your ad group.

I’d love to see this match type added into AdWords, but then again, I’m just a big daydreamer.

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: is President and founder of Find Me Faster a search engine marketing firm based in Nashua, NH. He is a member of SEMNE (Search Engine Marketing New England), and SEMPO, the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization as a member and contributing courseware developer for the SEMPO Institute. Matt writes occasionally on internet, search engines and technology topics for IMedia, The NH Business Review and other publications.

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  • George Michie

    Great post, Matt. The negative approach is challenging for large scale, high product count/ keyword count campaigns. The bidding approach is most scalable, and combined with negatives works okay. I’d be happier if Google really did give preference to an exact hit of user search = keyword phrase regardless of match type settings. They claim to, but search logs prove otherwise.

  • Matt Van Wagner

    Thank you, George.

    I agree totally that the creating a complete negative image of your paid searh campaign is hard to scale. We’ve used it most effectively for B2B industrial and B2C clients with very limited product lines. Plenty of clients in that category.

    Thanks for sharing your daydream on exact match….

  • Craig Danuloff

    Great post Matt. I should point out that after that Match Type Keyword Trap post was written, I found that Google officially says they will always match queries to the ‘most specific keyword’ in your account, so over-bidding on exact match shouldn’t be necessary – but as we all know sometimes it is. I’ve updated the post you reference to be more current and accurate.

    I’ll also mention that because the process you describe is so crucial, we just added a new feature to ClickEquations that specifically enables it to be done with super-efficiency. It’s called Keywords Zoom and it shows you the keyword plus all attracted queries and makes adding negatives a two-click operation. Details and video are on our blog at

  • ChadSummerhill

    Love this post Matt! I wrote a very similar post back in March about my experience with what I called “Forced Match Type Targeting”

    I’m with George on this one, Google needs to let us spend our money they way we intend when match types are concerned and quit trumping our exact match keywords with broad and phrase.

    I’m still struggling with this issue. Google tells you to build tightly themed adgroups only to serve ads from wherever they want regardless of our intentions.

    I might have better CTR/QS with a semi-related broad or phrase match, but what about my landing pages and conversion rates!

  • Matt Van Wagner

    Thank you for your comments, Chad.

    Balancing the need for more traffic versus perfectly relevant traffic is a dynamic that we all decide how to manage,

    While we may never have totally clean ad groups, using logical ad grouping and forcing matchtypes as you described in your blog, can help us manage them reasonably enough.

    Your point of managing to conversions and profit rather than to QS & CTR is spot on. This is the real value that we, as campaign managers, bring to the paid search advertising process.

  • Benny Blum


    Just following up on the adgroup match type structure…there is no need to include a broad match negative in the phrase match adgroup.

    The nature of my proposed adgroup structure is such that only phrase matches will make it to the phrase match adgroup – as only exact matches go to exact and phrase matches are blocked from the broad match adgroup due to negatives.

    Regarding scalability, this structure is one example of a myriad of options for structure (this is the “perfect world” and hence it’s very effective). If I’m working with a particularly large account I reserve this structure for top keywords. For lower volume terms, I simply isolate exact match and impose exact match negatives on the non-exact adgroup(s). The process can be daunting if you’re overhauling an existing campaign but the benefits are rich. I’ve heard from several advertisers who either attended SMX Advanced or read this post and all feedback has been very positive.



  • Matt Van Wagner

    Thanks Benny, for clarifying.

    Scaling is an issue, but it pays off in better addroup focus. absolutely. And it’s a one time investment. Once you have it, there’s not a lot of reason to rip it apart.

    I’d also suggest that you consider using broad match modifier instead of phrase match, with the (+) applied to all terms within your keyword. This allows you to capture more search query variations with fewer keywords than phrase match, because you don’t have to deal with word order, words between your terms, and so on. I think this would have the same tight focus as phrase match, but would open you to more traffic.

    If the broad match modifier is opening to to many variations (stems or plurals) you can use negative match to take out that specific variation.

    Let me know how that works for you if you give it a try.

  • smccarthy

    I dream of the perfect valuation model for clickstreams longer than one. Surprised that the “Search Funnel” report is the best that Google can come up with for this.


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