Negative Keywords 101

  |  January 10, 2011   |  Comments

What are negative keywords, how do they work, and what are the benefits of using them?

If you are running a pay-per-click campaign, you may have heard about negative keywords. The use of a negative keyword list is very useful in filtering out unwanted traffic. In this column, I will help define negative keywords, how they work, and the benefits to using them.

You might want to use negative keywords if:

  • You have zero conversions
  • You have expensive conversions
  • You have a limited budget
  • You experience bad brand association
  • You seek quality improvements
  • You would like to lower your PPC costs

What are Negative Keywords?

Negative keywords are a list of keyword or keyword phrases that help prevent your ad from being displayed to an unwanted audience for your PPC campaign. By doing so, you can keep your ad from showing up in unrelated searches that drive little to no quality traffic. This also helps you keep PPC costs down.

Let's say you sell high-end road bikes in Denver, CO. To keep your ads from showing up for people looking for "cheap" or "free" road bikes, you would add those keywords to your negative keyword list. So you simply identify the modifiers or adjectives that would cause your ads to trigger for undesirable traffic.

Here are some other examples:

  • You sell high-end leather furniture
    • Negative keywords - repair, cleaning, discount, bargain, clearance
  • You are a regional bank/financial services company
    • Negative keywords - advice, employment, school, bailout
  • You sell designer handbags
    • Negative keywords - cheap, imitation, wallet, luggage, any brand you don't sell
  • You own a car dealership
    • Negative keywords - auction, classifieds, racing, pixar, any brand you don't sell

Broad, Phrase, and Exact Match

Before we move on, let's take a closer look at how broad, phrase, and exact match work. Let's start with the word "tennis racquet." If you use broad match with your campaign, then any keyword that has any of those variations will trigger your ad like these below.

When you use phrase match, any keyword phrase that uses words before and after "tennis racquet" will trigger your ads. If you switch to exact match, then your ads will only be served up if a searcher types in "tennis racquet."

It's important to see this difference so you can better understand how negative keywords will help you. If you use exact match, then you really don't need to use negative keywords. You only need them for broad match and phrase match.

Broad Match "Phrase Match" [Exact Match]
tennis graphite tennis racquet tennis racquet
racquet tennis racquet  
buy tennis racquet buy tennis racquet  
tennis racquet photos    
tennis balls    

Benefits of Using Negative Keywords

There are many benefits to employing a negative keyword list. You can probably guess many of them by now. Let's look at the effect of negative keywords on Quality Score, conversions, and leads, and the visitor experience.

Quality Score

  • Quality Score - increase
  • Ad position - increase
  • Max cost per click (CPC) - decrease


  • Conversion rate - increase
  • Qualified leads - increase
  • Cost per conversion - decrease
  • Profit - increase

Visitor Experience

  • Relevancy - increase
  • Bounce rate - decrease
  • Brand association - increase
  • Conversion rate - increase

Negative Keyword Tools

There are many tools available to help you identify negative keywords. Some keyword tools have a negative keyword tool built in, so check for that and try it out. They also should have the ability to check for synonyms. You can also just use a thesaurus. If you are using the Google Keyword Tool, paste your website URL into the "website content" box and check the results. It will show you keywords that come up and if any are undesirable, then add them to your negative keyword list. You may also want to change your copy on your site to reflect only your targeted keywords. This will help you with your SEO as well.

You can also use your website analytics tool. Check to see what keywords were used to find your site. Also, look at your monthly keyword report for keywords to add to your negative keyword list.

Your PPC campaign reports will hold some valuable information. Look specifically at the "search query performance report." This will show you keywords that triggered your ads so you can identify where to make adjustments.

There are also some lists out on the Internet that you may want to refer to. These can be used to help build your own list of keywords:

If you are running a PPC campaign and not using a negative keyword list, I highly recommend you do. It will benefit you in many ways.


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Ron Jones

Ron was president/CEO of Symetri Internet Marketing, which provides strategic SEM consulting and training. Ron was actively involved in the SEM community and spoke and trained at conferences and seminars. Ron also served on the Board of Directors for SEMPO and was one of the authors for the SEMPO Institute Fundamentals and Advanced courses.

Ron also published a book called Keyword Intelligence: Keyword Research for Search Social and Beyond. This book outlines various methods and tips for conducting keyword research but more importantly outlines many ways to use keyword research for social media, site design, content development and marketing, and even traditional marketing and branding.

Ron passed away on June 30, 2012.

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