Why It Pays to Be Negative In AdWords

I’ve been doing a lot of AdWords Optimization Reviews for clients recently to give them specific advice and coaching on how to improve their campaigns.

One of the clients asked me a really great question after looking over the report I sent him. The question was this…

Out of all the suggestions I made, what are the low hanging fruit? Which changes in his campaign would give him the biggest bang for his buck?

The answer to this question varies from campaign to campaign, but there’s usually one change that’s fairly easy to make and can have a big impact on performance.

It can give your clickthrough rates (and, hopefully Quality Scores along with it) a big bump. And it can save you big bucks you’re currently wasting on clicks that have little to no chance of leading to a sale.

What is this simple thing?

Adding negative keywords to your campaign.

A negative keyword is a way for you to tell Google what search terms you DON’T want your ads showing up for.

For example, let’s say you’re a dentist but you don’t work with kids. If you add “pediatric”, “children”, “kids”, etc. as negative keywords to your campaign, then your ads will not show up when people type search terms into Google like:

  • “pediatric dentist”
  • “dentist for kids”
  • “best dentist for children in st louis”

By eliminating traffic for irrelevant search terms, you’ll increase your CTRs and cut your costs.

(NOTE: This only applies if you’re using broad and/or phrase match keywords in your campaign. If you’re only using exact match keywords, you don’t have to worry about negative keywords.)

There are some nuances on HOW to use negative keywords that I’d like to share with you.

Strategically Using Match Types

Your negative keywords (as with your “regular keywords”) can have different match types.

We’ll look at negative EXACT match keywords first…

Let’s say you sell fishing poles and supplies. Good keywords for your campaign may include “fishing poles”, “fishing lures”, and “fishing tackle”.

However just the keyword “fishing” is way too broad for your purposes. Someone typing in that term could be looking for fishing tips, fishing charters, fishing videos to watch or a whole host of other possibilities. So you probably don’t want your ads showing up when someone types in plain old “fishing”.

So by adding “fishing” as a negative EXACT match keyword to your campaign, you’ll prevent your ads from appearing for the search term “fishing”. However, they’ll still show up for terms like “fishing rods”, “fishing lures” and “fishing tackle”.

Contrast that with a negative BROAD match keyword. Adding “fishing” as a negative BROAD match keyword to your campaign would prevent your ads from being displayed for any search query containing the word “fishing” in it. And, for our example, we don’t want that to happen.

Negative BROAD match keywords are best used for generic terms people may type in their search queries like “free”, “cheap”, “jobs”, etc. If “free” is a negative BROAD match keyword in your campaign, then your ads will NOT appear for search queries like “free fishing tackle”, “get a fishing pole for free” or “where can I find free fishing rods”.

Since your business is probably not giving these things away for free, you don’t want your ads appearing for terms like this. So, for words that you don’t want ads to be displayed for whenever they show up in a search query (no matter what other words they’re paired with), add them as negative BROAD match.

Campaign vs. Ad Group Negative Keywords

There are two places you can add a negative keyword in an AdWords account. You can add them at a Campaign level or at an Ad Group level.

If you add a keyword at the Campaign level, that negative keyword will apply to the entire campaign and all the ad groups in it. As with negative BROAD match keywords, good candidates for Campaign level negative keywords usually include terms like “free”, “cheap” and “jobs.”

However, making good use of Ad Group level keywords can also be very helpful. Keeping with our fishing example, let’s say we have 3 ad groups…one for fishing rods, one for fishing lures and one for fishing tackle boxes.

In the fishing lures ad group, we’ve got ads that specifically reference fishing lures. We certainly don’t want people searching for tackle boxes, rods, line, clothing or other fishing related items seeing those ads.

So in this case, we’d use Ad Group level negative keywords. We’d add negative keywords like “rods”, “poles”, “tackle boxes”, “clothing”, etc. to the fishing lures ad group to make sure people typing in search queries with those words in them don’t see our fishing lures ads.

Where to Find Good Candidates for Negative Keywords

So where can you find the negative keywords that you should add to your campaign?

Two main places:

  • Google AdWords Keyword Tool – Especially for a new campaign, this is the best place to go. Start by typing in keywords related to your business, product and/or service. As you’re looking at the list of keywords Google provides, pay attention for variations that aren’t relevant to your business. Note them down and add them to AdWords as negative keywords.
  • Search Query Report – This is the best place to find negative keywords after your campaign’s been running for a while. This report shows you the actual search terms people typed into Google before clicking on your ads. Mine this data once or month or so and look for search queries that your ads showed up for that aren’t relevant to your business. Then add those search queries as negative keywords.


Either not using (or misusing) negative keywords is one of the more common mistakes people make in AdWords. And it’s one of the easiest to fix.

So go negative to make a very positive difference in your campaign!

Lee Pelletier - February 7, 2013

Adam, you put me onto negative keywords big time. Thank you.

Another tool I use to find common phrases that people type that don’t apply to me is Google’s suggest tool. Yeah, when you just start typing and Google suggests a bunch of potential search terms? That’s what I mean. If it shows up there, it means people are probably selecting those search terms. If some of those terms are not applicable to me, that’s a negative keyword idea. We sell and service flooring, so I would type “carpet” and see the search suggestions.

But wait, there’s more. If I type “carpet a”, I get a different set of suggestions. “carpet b” gets me more suggestions. Everything that starts with “carpet” and has a second word starting with the letter “b”.

Ubersuggest.org does all of this automatically for the entire alphabet, and is a tremendous time-saver.

But there’s more, and Ubersuggest does not do this. If you type in your search term in the Google box (don’t press enter), and then go to the beginning of the search term and type a letter (i.e.”a carpet”) then you get a list of suggestions that have a word starting with the letter “a” followed by “carpet”. These can be different than the suggestions you get with “carpet a”.

Going through our most popular keywords (by impression count) has allowed us to make our campaign into a finely tuned machine.

Lee Pelletier - February 7, 2013

Negative keyword idea #2:

Brands you don’t carry. If someone types a keyword along with a brand-name you don’t have, they probably really want that brand. If I don’t have that brand, I put that brand in as a negative keyword. This reduces the number of impressions for people who don’t click my ad because I don’t mention that brand. It also eliminates those who click on the ad, and then “bounce” because they realize we don’t have that brand. That has improved our on-site traffic behavior and reduced bounces.

It’s also a public service. It helps us. It helps the client. It helps Google.

Exception to this rule: When a brand-name has become synonymous with a particular product category (Kleenex for tissue, for instance).

Hope this helps someone out.

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