How To Develop Cross PPC Platform Strategies Using Negative Keywords

Managing PPC campaigns became a little easier last year when the Yahoo platform was retired and replaced with Microsoft’s adCenter. Now, instead of three sets of rules for keyword match-types, text ad rules, and so on, we now just have just two, with adCenter and AdWords, which, thankfully, share a lot of common characteristics.

Of course, AdWords and adCenter are not 100% identical and it is good to understand what the differences are so you can decide how best to address them. Over the next few months, I will take a more detailed look at the important differences between these two networks, such as keyword match types, negative keywords, ad copy, geo-targeting options, quality scoring, and bid tactics, and make suggestions on simple adjustments you can make to help cross-platform portability for both minor and major changes.

This month, we’ll start with negative keywords.

How Negatives Used to Work

Historically, the handling of negative keywords has been one of the most annoying areas of incompatibility between PPC networks. The three ad platforms had three radically different approaches to negative keywords, and changes to one network were not easily implemented on the other two without some thought for each change.

Google has always had the most comprehensive and comprehensible approach to negative keywords. You can enter unlimited amounts of keywords, apply them at campaign or ad group levels, and use match-type controls to refine your negative keyword logic. Yahoo Search Marketing (RIP) always had a miserly approach to negative keywords, originally limiting it to 50 negative keywords at the ad group level and then 50 at the account level . YSM worked so hard to be different than Google, that they couldn’t even bring themselves to call these things negative keywords, they called them “excluded words” instead.

Microsoft can take credit for implementing the most mysterious and most aggravating negative keywords application in the history of paid search when adCenter was first introduced. Get this. You had one kilobyte (1024 characters) of negative keyword characters that you could apply at the keyword, ad group or campaign levels.  That 1024 characters you were allotted, by the way, included the commas that separated the negative keywords in your list. Yikes! And, as if that were not awkward enough, adCenter also unveiled the concept of cascading negatives, whereby negative keywords at the lowest level of the keyword, ad, campaign hierarchy overrode all higher-level negatives .

For those of you really new to paid search campaign management, consider yourselves very fortunate to have missed all that fun.

How Negatives Work Now

There are three primary differences (summarized below) between Google and Microsoft’s application of negative keywords: where they are applied in your account, what match-types are applied, and how they are applied hierarchically.


Where Negatives Apply

Both Google and Microsoft allow negative keywords to be implemented  at the campaign and ad group levels and you can add literally thousands of them. There may be some upper limit maximum to how many negatives you can apply, but you are not likely to reach it.

Within adCenter, you also have the option of applying negative keywords to specific keywords. Should you decide to apply negatives at the keyword level, though, you are once again subject to the legacy limitation of 1024 characters (including commas) to develop your keyword level negative list, and that keyword will not longer be protected by ad group or campaign level negatives.

My question is why even bother with the keyword-level negatives? It adds a layer of complexity that doesn’t seem worth it. I’d recommend sticking with ad group negatives instead. If I were a betting man, I’d bet that Microsoft will discontinue keyword level negatives at some point in the not too distant future.

Negative Match Types

Google allows three match-types for negative keywords: broad, phrase and exact. However, be aware that the Adwords negative broad match is stricter than a regular broad match.  Negative broad match does not expand, and it does not negate plural and misspelled variations or synonyms of your keywords.

Microsoft adCenter on the other hand, only has one negative match type: phrase match. Just like on Google, this means you have to explicitly add plurals, misspellings and synonyms you want to exclude. You also need to pay attention to word order, since negative phrase matches on adCenter are word order specific and if you need the word order variants, you need to add them into your adCenter ad groups or campaigns.

For example, on Google, a negative broad match of red roses would prevent ads from showing on either of these search queries:

red roses roses red

However, on adCenter, keyword order for negative match is significant and so to prevent ads from showing on both of these search queries, you would have to add both red roses and roses red as negative keywords.

Negative exact match on Google does not translate to adCenter. For example, if you have the negative exact keyword of -[rose] on Google, and import it into adCenter, it will translate into a phrase match and it will prevent your ads from presenting on every search query that contains the word rose.

Another more subtle difference in match types on Bing versus Google results from adCenter’s keyword normalization, since adCenter ignores common conjunctions and prepositions  (a, about, an, at, by, for, from, how, in, is, of, on, or, the, to, what, with ) in all keywords.

This doesn’t become an issue often, but there are times when you want to exclude prepositional phrases that have become popularized catch phrases or the names of best-selling movies and books, and while you can exclude prepositional phrases within AdWords, you cannot  do the same on adCenter.

Hierarchical Application

Perhaps the most surprising difference between Google AdWords and Microsoft adCenter negative keyword implementations is the way they are applied.

On Google, your campaign and ad group negatives are cumulative and work in combination. For example, if you have 50 unique campaign level negatives and 25 unique ad group level negatives, then that ad group effectively has 75 keywords to prevent ads from showing.

Within adCenter, the application of negative keywords cascades down to the lowest level where negative keywords exist. If you have 50 unique campaign-level negatives and 25 ad group-level negatives, then your ads will have only the 25 ad group negatives protecting them. The 50 at the campaign level are ignored. The same holds true for individual keywords.

If you have 50 campaign-level negatives, 25 ad group negatives, and you add 10 keyword-level negatives for a specific keyword, then that keyword ends up being protected only by those 10 negative keywords – the higher level negatives do not apply!

If you ported your AdWords campaigns into adCenter without realizing this difference in the way negatives are applied hierarchically, your campaigns may be suffering with poorer CTRs than you deserve.

Cross Platform Compatibility

One of the big challenges to managing PPC campaigns across two networks is keeping the campaigns up-to-date, so that changes you make on one are easily, quickly and correctly applied to the other. Here are a few recommendations for changing your negative keyword strategy to support better cross-platform management:

Use only ad group negatives within AdWords and adCenter. That way, you can more easily synchronize your negative keyword lists. Given the virtually unlimited number of negative keywords you can use at the ad group level, why even bother with campaign negatives?

Do not use keyword-level negatives within adCenter. Apply all your negatives at the ad group level.  (By the way, if you used adCenter keyword level negatives prior October, 2010, and have not already done so, move all your keyword level negatives to the ad group level – adding them to your existing list of ad group negatives.)

Third, keep track of your Google ad groups where you are using negative exact match, and treat them exceptionally as you update across networks, since negative exact match does not have an equivalent in adCenter.

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

Related Topics: Channel: SEM | How To: PPC | 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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  • Natalia Klishina

    I definitely felt the frustration over this when I tried to simply import my AdWords campaigns into AdCenter. Half the keywords weren’t even appearing at first because we’d had exact negatives like “what is _____” in AdWords.

  • Matt Van Wagner

    Yes, Natalia – you nailed it. And I am sure it was a tough one to figure out because the normalization is non-obvious.

    What would be a cool tool for Microsoft (or anyone, I guess) to add would be a negative checker. If a negative you’ve added prevents one of the words in your keyword list, it should throw up a warning. Obviously no one intends to both and and negate a keyword in an ad group.

    Thanks for commenting!

  • stevecravens

    Great article Matt! I used to think optimizing PPC campaigns was simply an upfront investment, but rather, it’s an ongoing exercise whereby the slightest bit of carelessness can cost you. I wrote a post just yesterday about the power of punctuation! And how SEM specialist should incorporate hard cost savings as much as time savings into their pitch.

  • Matt Van Wagner

    Hi Steve

    Thank your your kind words. Your post is right on – PPC is not a set it and forget it activity, and to keep your campaigns moving forward you have to keep at it, test changes to match types, ads, targeting, and bids. A typo, or an errant click intentionally made, or made in ignorance of the way things really work can cause real problems. I say that from first hand experience (and I should update my photo to reflect all the gray hair I’ve earned from my own errors over the years!)

    Keep up the good work on your blog (and you too Natalia). Sharing your hard-earned PPC expertise with the world is a real service to the paid search community!

  • Michael Loveridge

    Thanks for the heads up. I’m curious to know how all this works with Keyword Lists, or if it changes anything at all?

  • Erika Ungar

    Excellent post! I haven’t done any PPC in about a year now and need to brush up, but I remember constantly having to re-ask my AdCenter SMS to remind me of the normalisation rules – it’s great to have it all here. I certainly wasn’t aware of the cascading nature of AdCenter negatives – that’s crazy! Will definitely be bookmarking this series for future reference!

  • Matt Van Wagner

    Hi Michael – sorry not to respond sooner, just seeing your comment now.

    Not sure what you are referring, when you say “Keyword Lists” so I can’t comment.
    Can you give me some additional details?


  • Matt Van Wagner

    Thank you for your enthusiastic response and very glad to you’ve found it helpful. I will be getting into more keywords issues in an upcomign column.


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