Managing negative keywords is essential to optimizing any search campaign, and it isn’t always as simple as you’d think. Certainly several strategies can be argued and each account is unique, but understanding the fundamentals will pave the way for any strategy. Let’s touch on some of the basics to help get you started.

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There are a few steps you can take to begin building out your list of negative keywords. First, you should understand that there are essentially two basic categories of negatives you’ll want to consider: irrelevant keywords that can be applied at the account-level and should be blocked out from all campaigns, and negative keywords applied at a more granular level for the purpose of query mapping.

Irrelevant Keywords

The first category is pretty simple – you’ll want to block out any queries that are irrelevant or demonstrate any intent that will clearly not be satisfied on your site. These can typically be applied at the account level within the Shared Library in AdWords.

A Closer Look:

Let’s imagine you’re an online marketplace selling calendars. It’s reasonable to assume your potential customers will be searching for terms like “calendar” and “monthly calendar”, so you’ll bid on those keywords, but there are plenty of potential search queries that might also trigger your ads:

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Consider a user searching for ‘free calendars’ – their intent is clearly not to purchase, so you’ll want to block searches containing ‘free’. Similarly, if you’re producing physical calendars, you’re probably not interested in users seeking an intangible version of your product such as a downloadable or printable calendar. Terms like ‘download’ and ‘printable’ certainly aren’t conversion-friendly and should be blocked as well. Another user might be curious about their Zodiac sign and search for the Chinese Lunar Calendar; that’s another instance of irrelevance that could be eating up your ad spend if it isn’t filtered out.

Negative Keywords for Query Mapping

The second common category of negatives is used to route traffic to the appropriate campaign or ad group within your account. By blocking traffic to certain campaigns, you effectively funnel those queries to better-targeted campaigns. These query mapping negatives can be applied at the campaign level or ad group level within the Keywords tab in AdWords. You may also choose to create a list of negatives in the Shared Library and assign it to a single campaign or multiple campaigns. This level of control over query mapping is one of the most strategically important elements of our account setup.

A Closer Look:

A classic example to illustrate the idea would be a clothing company selling a line of tee shirts. They offer men’s, women’s, and wholesale tees – each represented in a separate ad group with targeted ad copy and landing pages. As depicted below, we can add phrase match negative keywords at the ad-group level in order to block users searching for men’s shirts from seeing an ad for women’s tees or wholesale tees. We’re effectively mapping queries to the correct landing page where they are most likely to convert. Note these exclusions aren’t always straightforward – for the ‘Wholesale’ ad group, we didn’t include any negatives because we want to make sure that any combination of queries including the term ‘wholesale’ will send these corporate/large-quantity customers to the appropriate landing page.

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Mirrored Negatives in Alpha Beta:

Mirrored negatives can also be applied at the campaign-level for query mapping. A great example of this application is with the Alpha Beta campaign structure, which is a proprietary 3Q strategy and a best practice marketers use to gain a high level of control over user experience by segmenting campaigns into Alpha and Beta campaigns (learn more on Alpha-Beta campaign structure).

In Alpha Beta, our most relevant keywords reside in Alpha campaigns within single-keyword (exact match) ad groups where we have greater control over user experience. Beta campaigns host a pool of broad or broad match modified keywords with the purpose of identifying new performers to promote to Alpha campaigns over time.

In order to make sure our Alphas are effective, we create exact match negatives to block those specific queries from getting impressions from our Beta campaigns (mirror negatives). That way, we know our most valuable queries are being properly mapped to our highly targeted conversion-friendly ads.

How to Build a Negative Keyword List

There are a couple ways to initially develop your list of irrelevant negative keywords, but it’s important to note that your list should be continuously updated as the account matures.

Google’s Keyword Planner tool is a pretty good place to start. Sifting through the suggested keywords and sorting by search volume will help you identify potential irrelevant queries.

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Another great way to identify negative keywords is to run a search terms report in AdWords. The report can be run from the Keywords tab or Dimensions tab (see below). Also referred to as the SQR (Search Query Report), this data will not only show you each query that pinged your ad, but also the performance metrics that will help you identify both negative keywords and new positive/effective keywords that you may not have originally considered.

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Maintaining Negatives

Continuous maintenance of your negatives is an important recurring task to keep in place. Depending on your level of spend, this sort of maintenance can be considered weekly or even monthly, but it really shouldn’t be left over time.

Scrub for Negative Keywords – Every so often, you should pull a search term performance report from AdWords to identify costly queries that aren’t converting. You’ll want to include major performance metrics – and for the purpose of efficiency, limit your review to only terms that did not convert and cost

Alpha Negative Keyword List QA (for Alpha-Beta only) – If you’re using the Alpha Beta campaign structure, you’ll want to make sure your Alpha campaigns are always exactly mirrored in the Negative Keyword list you created to block those queries from Beta campaigns. Whenever updates are made to the Alpha campaign, they must be mirrored in the negative campaign. This can be easily overlooked, so it’s always good practice to QA occasionally.

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Good luck! Drop me a comment if you have any questions.

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Evan Routzong
As a new addition to the 3Q Accelerate SEM team, Evan looks to forge lasting relationships, develop new strategies, and to make significant contributions to the growth and success of the company. Outside of work, Evan continuously seeks personal growth through experience, and has a passion for the arts, travel, and cultural exploration.