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Written by Caroline Cox on Jan 19 , 2021

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
  • Best practices for these keyword types

Like noodles for spaghetti, sunshine for plants, and gin for martinis, keywords are an essential part of pay-per-click (PPC) campaign success. The trick lies in understanding how best to deal with them so that everything runs smoothly.

Maybe your paid search campaign brings in a ton of leads, but the conversion rate is low, meaning you’re spending precious ad dollars on unqualified clicks. Even with an otherwise stellar PPC strategy, ignoring negative keywords could waste a huge chunk of your budget. 

That’s because you could be getting clicks 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 account.

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?

Taking advantage of negative keywords can do wonders for eliminating window shoppers and bad leads. According to Google, 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.”

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

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 via Unsplash)

Negative keywords vs. standard keywords

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.

If your company makes salsa, for instance, then you may want “salsa” to be one of your keywords. But if someone searches online for “salsa dancing” or “salsa lessons,” they’re probably not looking for your product. By adding these as negative keywords, you can filter out people searching with these terms and save money on bad leads.

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. Google suggests using your search term reports to look for terms that only seem relevant. Are there 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 (like the salsa example above). Then, brainstorm the search terms that might be used to describe them.

Want to take your PPC to the next level this year? We can help.

The different types of negative keywords

As with standard keywords, there are various types of negative keywords. For PPC campaigns, negative keywords can be:

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

But that doesn’t mean they function in all the same ways. As of the past few years, we’ve seen that “exact match” doesn’t always mean exact 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 variations 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.

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 via Unsplash)

Adjust your negative keyword list as needed

Just like your standard keyword list, your negative list shouldn’t remain stagnant. You should consistently recheck and optimize it to make sure your PPC ads are as targeted as possible.

How often you go over your list will depend on various factors, including your campaigns and bandwidth. 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 January 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 Beyonce as a different keyword than Beyoncé or “black & white” vs. “black and white.”

The takeaway

As you can see, there are many potential benefits to adding negative keywords to your PPC campaigns. Not only does this help weed out those who aren’t in the market for your product or service, but it saves you money because you only pay for clicks that will (hopefully) become customers.

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 2020.

Caroline Cox

Caroline Cox

Caroline is HawkSEM's content marketing manager. She uses her more than 10 years of professional writing and editing experience to create SEO-friendly articles, educational thought leadership pieces, and savvy social media content to help market leaders create successful digital marketing strategies. She's a fan of seltzer water, print magazines, and huskies.

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