Yes, your PPC campaign should have negative keywords — here’s why.

Here, you’ll find:

  • What defines a negative keyword
  • How negative keywords differ from standard keywords
  • Tips for building a negative keyword list
  • How to identify negative keywords for your business

Like noodles for spaghetti, sunshine for plants, and gin for martinis, negative keywords are an essential part of pay-per-click (PPC) campaign success. 

The key: understanding how best to deal with them so that everything runs smoothly.

That’s because you could be getting clicks on your ads meant for similar-sounding (but ultimately unrelated) keywords. We’ve seen upwards of 90% in wasted ad spend when clients don’t include any negative keywords in their accounts.

If you feel confident that you’ve selected the right keywords that are hyper-focused on your audience, that’s great! But if you’re not also leveraging negative keywords, you may be missing out on making your PPC campaigns as targeted as they can be.

Want to make sure you know all the benefits of negative keywords for PPC? Then let’s dive in.

What are negative keywords?

Negative keywords allow you to exclude irrelevant or unwanted search terms from triggering your ads, unlike regular keywords that help target specific searches.

Negative keywords act as a filter to ensure that your ads are only seen by a relevant audience and stop you from flushing away your budget on clicks that won’t convert. 

According to Google, the official definition of a negative keyword (also known as a negative match) is a keyword type “that prevents your ad from being triggered by a certain word or phrase.”

This means if someone searches for a phrase including a term you’ve deemed a negative keyword, your ads won’t show up. 

Taking advantage of negative keywords can do wonders for eliminating window shoppers and bad leads. For ecommerce campaigns, it allows you to improve the quality of potential customers.

And in turn, this boosts metrics like conversion rate and return on ad spend (ROAS).

HawkSEM: How Negative Keywords Benefit Your PPC Campaigns

When you’re mining your reports for keywords to exclude, you want to include their variations as well. (Image: Unsplash)

How negative keywords work 

You might still be wondering exactly what kind of keywords you would want to avoid in your campaigns. So let’s take a look at an example. 

Picture this: You’re running a PPC campaign for a luxury hotel with a high-end target audience. 

Now, you might want to bid on the keyword “hotel.” But you aren’t trying to target everyone looking for a hotel, you want to reach a specific audience – those looking for luxury.

In this case, you would want to exclude searches related to budget or cheap accommodation. 

You can add terms like “cheap” or “budget” to your negative keyword list. By doing so, when someone searches for “cheap hotel” or “budget accommodation,” your ads won’t be triggered. 

This helps ensure that your ads are only shown to users who are more likely to be interested in your upscale hotel offerings. 

Negative keywords act like your campaign’s bouncer, keeping out the irrelevant searches and focusing on the audience that aligns with your business goals.

Negative keywords vs. positive keywords

Standard keyword (or positive keyword) targeting helps ensure your paid search ad is tailored to your audience. When you pay for each individual click, you want as many clicks as possible to be from qualified leads. 

Negative keywords work the same way, just in the opposite direction.

When you add negative keywords, ad platforms (such as Google or Microsoft Advertising) know that you don’t want your ad to appear for searches containing those words.

Pro tip: Negative keywords only apply to the first 16 words in a search query. So, when it comes to especially long queries, negative keywords after the 16th word won’t trigger the filter, and your ad may still appear.

How to build your negative keyword list

It’s a good idea to conduct your negative keyword research the same way you conduct your standard keyword research, specifically before and during a campaign launch.

There are some terms — like “address,” “free,” and “login” — that you’ll probably want to select right off the bat. These words don’t have buying intent. “Address” shows informational intent,  “login” has navigational intent, and “free” means the searcher is not looking to pay. 

You want to focus your ads specifically on people who might convert, so need to use negative keywords to eliminate terms that have a low conversion possibility. 

Google suggests using your search term reports to look for terms that only seem relevant. This is a great place to explore, and if there are any that clearly stand out as negative keywords, add those to your list.

However, before using search term reports, start by thinking about the types of businesses, products, or services that your brand could be mistaken for. For example, Apple, the technology company, could be mistaken for Apple the fruit or Delta the airline for Delta the river. 

Brainstorm with your team any possibilities relating to your company product or name and then start to think about the search terms that might be used to describe them.

Different types of negative keywords

Standard keywords have various types, and so do negative keywords. 

For Google Ads campaigns (formerly Google AdWords), negative keywords can be one of the following keyword match types. This also holds true for Amazon and Microsoft Advertising.

The types of negative keywords include:

  • Broad match keywords: Keywords that don’t have surrounding punctuation (there’s no negative broad match modifier match type)
  • Exact match keywords: If the search contains the exact negative keyword you’ve specified, the ad won’t appear
  • Phrase match keywords: Your ad won’t come up if the exact keyword terms, in that order, are searched

These may be terms you’re familiar with as you have categorized your standard keywords into these types. But they don’t always function in all the same ways for negative and standard keywords.

For example, as of the past few years, we’ve seen that “exact match” doesn’t always mean exactly for standard keywords. It does, however, when it comes to negative ones. 

Google explains that the main difference between these two types is that you need to include variations of these keywords if you want to exclude them. 

These variants can include:

  • Synonyms
  • Singular or plural versions
  • Misspellings
  • Any other close variations

When you mine reports for keywords to exclude, it’s wise to exclude their variations as well.

It’s also a good idea to monitor your keywords. You should regularly go into your ads account, head to “search terms” in your Keywords tab, and mark any keywords you see that stand out as being irrelevant. 

Pro tip: When you enter your keywords into Google Ads, you can add them at both the ad group and campaign level. For negative keywords, you generally want to apply them to the campaign level, not just the ad group level, so other keywords can exclude that term.

HawkSEM: How Negative Keywords Benefit Your PPC Campaigns

Regularly go into your ads account, head to “search terms” in your Keywords tab, and mark any keywords you see that stand out as being irrelevant. (Image: Unsplash)

Adjust your negative keyword list as needed

Just like your standard keyword list, your negative list should never stagnate. You should consistently recheck and optimize it to make sure your PPC ads are as targeted as possible. 

This is not a task that is ever ‘completed’ it is always ongoing, considering that 15% of all daily searches are brand new,” says HawkSEM CEO Sam Yadegar. “How often you go over your list will depend on various factors, including your campaigns and bandwidth.” 

Regularly adding new negative keywords will ensure relevant ads always show and wasted ad spend is at a minimum.

You would need to find the right balance so you are not over negating and blocking potential quarries that can convert, but at the same time you want to remain diligent and fend off any potential irrelevant searches,” Yadegar says.

No matter what “consistent” means for you and your team, make a recurring reminder to go into your ads account and head to “search terms” in your Keywords tab to mark any keywords you see that stand out as irrelevant.

In 2021, Google made it easier to manage negative keyword lists. Google Ads users can now add a new column to view, filter, and edit negative keyword lists applied to campaigns.

Pro tip: When it comes to symbols, Google allows for ampersands (&), accent marks (á), and asterisks (*) in your negative keywords. As such, keywords with and without these symbols will be considered two different negative keywords — think of Beyonce as a different keyword than Beyoncé or “black & white” vs. “black and white.”

The benefits of negative keywords

You’ve seen how negative keywords could impact your search campaigns for the better. But let’s take a look at some of the measurable results you can see from implementing a negative keyword strategy. 

Yadegar shares his favorite strategy with us: “the first step is to start with a large inventory of the most common negative keywords, from there implementing a good cadence in reviewing the search terms report on a daily basis to start, this can help identify both positive and negative keywords.”

He adds that you should also be mindful of adding different match types to your negative keywords.

Here are some of the main benefits of using negative keywords:

  1. Improved relevance: Fine-tune your targeting and ensure that your ads are displayed to a highly relevant audience. This helps you avoid wasting ad spend on clicks from users who are searching for unrelated or irrelevant terms. 
  2. Cost savings: Optimize your budget by preventing your ads from appearing in searches that are unlikely to result in conversions. Exclude irrelevant queries and reduce the number of clicks that are not aligned with your business goals.
  3. Increased click-through rate (CTR): Improved relevancy can lead to higher click-through rates as users are more likely to find your ads directly related to their search intent. A higher CTR not only drives more traffic to your website but can also positively impact your Quality Score, potentially reducing your cost per click.
  4. Conversion rate increase: Attract a more targeted audience that aligns with your specific offerings.  As a result, your conversion rates may improve as you capture the attention of users who are more likely to take the desired action, such as making a purchase or filling out a lead form.
  5. Refined messaging: The use of negative keywords allows you to gain insights into the search terms and queries that are not relevant to your business. This information can help you refine your targeting and messaging strategies, ensuring that you are reaching the right audience with the right message. By understanding what doesn’t work, you can optimize your campaigns, test different approaches, and make data-driven decisions to continually improve your ad performance.

How do you identify your negative keywords?

So now you know all the great ways that negative keywords can improve your PPC campaigns. But how can you start identifying them?

If you regularly review and update your list of negative keywords, you will be able to refine your targeting and increase the quality of your leads. This will be a huge win for your digital marketing team, helping you bring down your ad spend (by not bidding on irrelevant keywords) and increase your ROI (by increasing conversion rates).

Here are 6 strategies to help you identify negative keywords effectively:

  1. Conduct thorough keyword research: Start by conducting thorough keyword research to understand the search terms and phrases that are triggering your ads. Keyword tools like the keyword planner are very useful for this. Look for any irrelevant or unrelated keywords that may be generating clicks but not leading to conversions.
  2. Monitor search term reports: Regularly review your search term reports provided by PPC platforms like Google Ads. These reports show the actual search terms that users entered before clicking on your ads. Identify any search terms that are not aligned with your business offerings or target audience.
  3. Analyze conversion data: Dive deep into your conversion data to identify keywords that are not driving meaningful results. If certain keywords consistently lead to low-quality leads or have a high bounce rate, consider adding them as negative keywords.
  4. Consider your unique business context: Think about your specific industry, products, or services and brainstorm potential associations or terms that could be mistakenly associated with your business. For example, if you sell salsa, the sauce, you might want to add “salsa lessons” or “salsa classes” as negative keywords to avoid people clicking on your ad who are looking for a different product.
  5. Competitor analysis: Keep an eye on your competitors and their advertising strategies. Look for keywords or terms they might be bidding on that are irrelevant to your business. By excluding these keywords, you can differentiate your ads and avoid competing in unrelated searches.
  6. Leverage customer feedback and insights: Engage with your customers, conduct surveys, and gather feedback to understand their search intent and the keywords they associate with your business. This can help you identify any potential negative keywords that might be misleading or unrelated.
negative keywords

Start by conducting thorough keyword research to understand the search terms and phrases that are triggering your ads. (Image: Adobe)

Free list of the most popular negative keywords to use

If you’re still a bit lost on where to start on your negative keyword research, we’ll give you a heads tart. We’ve developed this list of the most popular negative keywords through our research and mining our accounts’ search terms reports. 

“From our firsthand experience, here are the core negative keywords we use for most of our clients. Negative keywords are never final and require ongoing maintenance,” explains Yadegar.

When building out a list like this, it’s vital to find terms that are relevant to the topic but not to what you’re advertising. For instance, if you build decks, you probably want to add “YouTube” and “DIY” as negatives because you don’t want to reach people who want to learn how to do it themselves.

Discount shoppers and bargain hunters:

  • bargain
  • bargains
  • bulk
  • charity
  • cheap
  • cheapest
  • clearance
  • close out
  • close outs
  • code
  • coupon
  • coupons
  • counterfeit
  • deals
  • discount
  • fake
  • inexpensive

Ecommerce competitors:

  • alibaba
  • amazon
  • bed bath beyond
  • bonanza
  • costco
  • craigslist
  • cvs
  • ebay
  • etsy
  • dell
  • dicks
  • dillards
  • hayneedle
  • home depot
  • ikea
  • kijiji

Job seekers:

  • career
  • careers
  • CV
  • contractors
  • employment
  • freelancers
  • freelance
  • hiring
  • independent contractors
  • intern
  • interns
  • internship
  • internships
  • job
  • jobs
  • positions
  • recruiter
  • recruiting
  • resume
  • resumes
  • salaries
  • salary

Support searches:

  • chargeback
  • complaint
  • customer
  • email
  • emails
  • fraud
  • guarantee
  • guarantees
  • help
  • manual
  • manuals
  • negative
  • phone
  • recall
  • recalls

Repair terms:

  • apart
  • broke
  • broken
  • burn
  • burned
  • burnt
  • care
  • caring
  • condition
  • crack
  • cracked
  • cracking
  • cut
  • deform
  • deformed
  • discolor

Legal searches:

  • act
  • act of
  • compliance
  • law
  • laws
  • legal
  • legislation
  • regulation
  • regulations
  • tax
  • taxes

Pro tip: To really see the impact that negative keywords are having on your PPC campaigns, you can use a tool like HawkSEM’s ConversionIQ. Our proprietary tool gives you actionable data on your PPC campaigns and can help you connect the dots between which keywords actually lead to new business and which to avoid.

The takeaway

As you can see, there are many potential benefits to adding negative keywords to your PPC campaigns. And setting up a negative keyword list is not very complicated, especially when you already have a standard keyword list. But the impact it can have on your conversion is extraordinary, making it well worth the small investment of time. 

While you don’t want to overdo it on the keyword exclusions, with a bit of brainstorming and some campaign tweaks, you can be sure that your PPC campaign won’t attract the wrong crowd.

This article has been updated and was originally published in January 2021.

Shire Lyon

Shire Lyon

Shire is a passionate writer and marketer with over eight years of experience as a writer and digital marketer. She's well-versed in SEO, PPC, and social media, helping businesses both big and small grow and scale. On her downtime, she enjoys hiking, cooking, gardening, reading, and sailing.