If you’re running an SEM account, you probably know already that negative keywords—keywords for which you won’t allow Google to show your ads—are a pretty handy tool you should be using. However, it’s easy to get caught up in managing the keywords you are bidding on, and sometimes negative keywords can fall to the wayside while you focus on bid optimizations, new campaign builds, ad copy testing, etc.

What’s the harm? Well, poor or inefficient management of negative keywords can drastically hurt your ability to scale your SEM program. Below are some of the biggest problems (and their solutions!) that come with a poorly managed negative keyword strategy.

Problem: Keyword conflicts

Maybe you’ve seen it before: the little red notification that means something isn’t quite right in your AdWords account. If you primarily manage your negative keywords manually (adding them individually to certain campaigns), then maybe you’ve seen the dreaded “Keyword Conflicts” notification.

Keyword conflicts happen when you add a negative keyword that prevents certain keywords from serving entirely. For instance, if you’re bidding on [curtains for bedroom] but add +curtains as a negative to that campaign, you block your own ad from showing for that query.

Perhaps you noticed “curtains” was an irrelevant or low-performing token in another ad group. Perhaps your manual keyword management just led to a quick error. Either way, you are missing out on traffic for one of your relevant terms.

Solution: Shared negative lists

The easiest way to control your keywords in an efficient way is through shared negative lists. Using shared negative lists helps you easily separate which negatives should be added in exact match (usually relevant-but-low-performing queries or highly contextual irrelevant queries), which should be added in broad (tokens that will never be relevant, maybe “free,” “DIY,” or “create your own”), and where each should be applied. Remember, you want to spend your energy optimizing and growing your existing ads, not blocking them from serving or manually adding each negative keyword to every campaign.

Note that shared lists can only be used at the campaign level—but under the Alpha-Beta Structure’s Single Keyword Ad Groups, you shouldn’t have as much need for ad group-level negatives because each ad group is only one keyword.

Problem: Low ROAS (especially on Shopping)

Recently, I audited an account that was spending over tens of thousands of dollars per month on its Shopping campaigns. Performance looked pretty strong and they were seeing some excellent ROAS. However, I split the Shopping queries by brand vs. non-brand, and realized that the supposedly good performance was entirely carried by branded search. Non-brand queries were coming in at less than 0.3 ROAS while receiving 70% of the spend for the campaign. There were no negative keywords in this campaign to improve efficiency.

Solution: Consistent query scrubs

No matter how big or small your account is, efficiency is the name of the game. If you’re not making enough on each dollar you spend, consistent negative keyword updates can be your savior. The problem is that some advertisers set up negative keywords when they first build a campaign…but never again add to those lists. New search queries are being matched up to your keywords all the time, so unfortunately the work is never done. This is especially true with Shopping campaigns, for which there are no keywords, only whatever Google matches up with your product feed. Depending on your volume, if you let too many weeks or even days go by without scrubbing your SQRs for negatives, your ROAS could be taking the hit.

Problem: Poor query mapping

Maybe those problems seem to basic to you. You have shared negative lists in place and you update them regularly. However, when was the last time you checked your keyword-to-query mapping?

If multiple keywords map to a given query in the auction, you’re going to be splitting your data across multiple campaigns, muddying your results and making it harder to identify top (and bottom) performers. As you continually build out new campaigns, it can be easy to add some overlapping keywords over time without realizing, especially due to match types. Maybe your broads are pulling in some of your exacts across different ad groups or campaigns.

Solution: Exact match negative lists applied to strategic campaigns

This is where the beauty of the Alpha-Beta Structure comes in again: by separating campaigns by match type, not only do you get to control budget easily but you can apply exact match negative lists of your Alpha keywords to your Beta campaigns. This creates a perfectly clean environment for your data, so you can always keep track of performance accurately.

If you’ve had a lot of new campaign builds, pivot your SQRs to check for queries mapping up to multiple ad groups (concatenating with campaigns in case you have any repeated ad group names). Strategically applying negative lists by campaign match type could iron out your data and set you up for further successful expansion.

Leave a Comment

Madeline Fitzgerald
Madeline joined 3Q Digital as Strategy Development Manager in September 2016. She is a Southern California native who graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in English—then rushed right back to the sun and beaches. Outside of marketing, Madeline loves reading, enchiladas, and Oxford commas.