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Are You Addicted to Negative Keywords?

  |  June 15, 2012   |  Comments

If you're emphasizing negative keywords for the wrong reasons you may need to admit you have a problem and start taking steps toward recovery.

I know you can't go cold turkey. But is it time to cut down on your use of negative keywords?

It might be. Telltale signs include Pop-Tarts crumbs scattered around your desk at 3 a.m., bags under your eyes, shrinking overall account volume, and a propensity to bore people at parties with material like "I still can't believe they matched 'Michael Bublé tickets cheap' to 'Costco price for Scrubbing Bubbles'!"

Worse, our industry may be feeding your addiction! I'm here to help.

As books and conference programs have become more "advanced," we're prone to neglecting solid strategies in favor of mastering specialized pieces of the puzzle. Today, instead of talking about what keywords are best, and what to bid on them, we can spend endless hours talking about various approaches to excluding search queries. How did that happen?

This stuff is complicated enough even when you dial back some of the ambition. Even if we make it our new mandate to dumb things down slightly, there's no chance that the path to success is going to be easy.

Negative keywords are important, of course. They provide us more scope for elaborate tricks in our attempts to target creatively. But increasingly they're being emphasized for the wrong reasons.

2 Good Reasons to Employ Keyword Exclusions

  1. Broader match types offer convenience and reach, but mean more inappropriate matches. If you take the universe of user queries that show ads against the broad- and phrase-matched keywords in your account, and filter out 30 percent or so of those that won't convert to a desired outcome, your ROI on that group of keywords goes up accordingly. By tapping broader match types and then sculpting them further with negatives, you enjoy significantly better returns. It's no less important than testing landing pages to achieve 30 percent better conversion rates.
  2. "Forcing" ad groups to behave as intended. This might be called ad group "quarantining." With broader match types comes the propensity of ad groups to "steal" impressions away from "correct" ad groups. It goes something like this: you sell Johnson outboard motors and have a broad-matched phrase for "buy Johnson outboard online" among many keywords (including tighter match types) in your ad group. Unfortunately, the broad-matching technology itself doesn't give you enough precision to keep all your ad groups distinct, so despite you wanting the users typing "where do I find zippyfast outboard motors online" to see the ad from the zippyfast ad group, the presence of the words buy, outboard, and online in the Johnson-related phrase could be enough to broad-match it to the zippyfast-related query. This now leads to worse performance in any quality scores, CTRs, ROI, etc., to say nothing of analytical confusion. The solution is to include negative keywords for all the other brand names in your Johnson group, and to do the same thing for all of your other branded ad groups. Argh! A lot of work. But depending on how you build your account, if you want to control ad delivery and ad group performance, there's little choice.

3 Bad Reasons to Overuse Negative Keywords

  1. Looking busy or following "best practices." If you're new to the industry, there's nothing more exhilarating than leapfrogging the last generation of "less advanced" marketers. Skipping steps in achieving high ROI and client satisfaction and going straight to the "advanced class" of tediously negativing keywords might seem like impressive work. But who's paying?
  2. Jumping to conclusions about what is or isn't an appropriate match. As I suggested in a previous column, make sure it isn't just a fear of being "wrong" that drives you to seal your account against perceived threats. Real data will often surprise you. Intent that is "not quite right" may still convert decently.
  3. Acceptance of the broad-match default, and overzealousness about "thorough" ad group build-out in long-tail ad groups. Tail keywords in tail groups will act like ticking time bombs that attract unwanted clicks if you throw them in quickly and broad match them. Bid broad matches down and beware of them generally.

Group or Campaign Level?

Negative keywords can be applied at the campaign or ad group level. We should do more to avoid too much campaign-level negative matching in general. While doing it at the campaign level is less work than custom negativing at the ad group level, campaign-level exclusions can unduly shrink the total keyword inventory available to us. By keeping more of the control at the ad group level, if we build certain groups quite restrictively, nothing stops us from building other groups with separate ideas later on, with less restrictive targeting. That approach won't work if you've hamstrung the campaign with an excess of campaign-wide negatives.

What's Being Excluded?

We often have specific intent and objectives in mind when we enter certain matches into our lists. But the lists can become so long it's not uncommon that we run across negatives that seem likely to block searches we actually want to show up for. We're then left to wonder if it was an error, or whether that happened for a reason: was it sound logic, a data-driven move, or an ad group quarantine strategy? (Hat tip, Matt Van Wagner, for this question.) That puzzlement can dog you even if it was you that built the ad group! The problem is compounded if multiple account managers have been in and out of there over time.

While one ambitious solution might be to create a tool or a protocol to keep one apprised of the "reason for exclusion," a short-term fix is to reduce one's reliance on negative keywords overall.

Building Ad Groups on Solid Foundations

If you're seeking manageability and real-world financial outcomes rather than podium-primping perfectionism, why not reduce the number of situations that force you into advanced negative keyword strategies in the first place? One way to trigger fewer bad matches is to mandate an uncomfortably tight initial ad group build-out ritual, especially for the long-tail stuff. Stop building ad groups that are broken from the get-go.

Relying on simpler ad groups based on the most powerful match types and fewer dumps of broad-matched long-tail keywords may be a good start. Another key would be to understand sensible initial bid levels as they relate to broader match types (even with longer phrases), so the Wild West of semantic matching isn't triggered while your back is turned.

When it comes to the inevitable need for some exclusions, there's a way to rein in that potentially endless workload: pare down the reasons to use them to one main reason. Don't use them until something happens that forces you to do so: namely, real-world "bad intent" queries cropping up in your search query reports in sufficient volume to matter.

The utmost in simplicity in negative keyword strategy would be to wait until your search query report shows a significant number of inappropriate queries - say, 10 to 20 on individual keywords or over 100 on several like phrases mentally grouped together - judging by performance criteria such as AdWords conversions. Want the simplest possible way to do it? Pick your date range in the AdWords interface, sort by clicks, and view the entire account's keywords at the account level, choosing the Keyword Details > SEARCH TERMS > All report.

This isn't a bad way to do it, but it can lead to a long, gentle drain, as thousands of under-the-radar queries numbering fewer than 10 or even five don't convert. There's also the problem of ad group integrity. Many advertisers will want to box out queries that should be showing against ads in another group. (But much more intergroup leakage takes place when ad groups and bid levels are shabbily structured in the first place.)

If the "slow drain" problem is predictable based on your current approach to building ad groups, it's best to stop building ad groups that way in the first place - unless they're significant enough in dollar terms to warrant close attention. The simplest strategy is: (a) only negativing when proven bad matches are documented in the search query report works best when married with (b) the initial strategy of building tight ad groups that won't result in as many slow drains.

Are You Just Plain Negative-Happy?

Speaking of all the seemingly-wrong search intent affecting your campaign performance, you may find that the aggregate financial performance of a set of your bad matches is bad in your suspicious mind only. We see a lot of non-converting matches for online retailers emanating from localized queries that seem to indicate a strong desire for a brick-and-mortar experience. In the aggregate, at the right bid level, it often turns out that broad match is doing exactly what it's supposed to do - showing ads against moderately relevant queries using predictive technology. If you're hitting your desired metrics, relax a bit. There's often no way to understand why Bill from Austin bought from you but Henrietta from Columbus chose not to. Combining these with all similar "semi-relevant" queries puts an appropriate price on those clicks on the whole, giving you profit on the whole. And you likely have no good way of "cherry-picking" by knowing enough in advance to somehow negative out Henrietta, even if attribution were perfect.

You'll wear yourself out and make serious errors if you keep chasing the chimerical notion of 100 percent precision in targeting.

Don't get me wrong: I'm a fan of using negative keywords to improve the relevance of your ads to the average user, and to improve campaign ROI. The majority of advertisers have trouble using them correctly, though, which is unsurprising given the complexity of their operation, the complexity of user behavior and account structure, and the resources at hand.

Too many others seem to use them as a fix for poor strategy and bad ad group execution.

Down the road, it may become difficult to "de-negative" an "over-negatived" account when you don't know where to start, which can lead to anxiety around subpar volume. This can lead to overbidding on your remaining keyword inventory or experimenting with unfamiliar channels that have a significantly lower ROI than even the marginal parts of your search marketing campaigns.

That's how it starts. A couple of exact match negative keywords at your desk one morning. Before you know it, after the cocktail reception at SES, it's 50 broad-matched negatives at the campaign level. Soon you've hit rock bottom, wondering where your next click is coming from. You find yourself paying sub-dime CPMs for clicks from unfamiliar toolbars, and hanging out in the pop-under ghetto.

If this is a problem for you, I hope this column has been a step toward breaking the cycle of addiction to negative keywords. But the first step is admitting you have a problem.

Ahem. Over to you.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Goodman

Goodman is founder and President of Toronto-based Page Zero Media, a full-service marketing agency founded in 2000. Page Zero focuses on paid search campaigns as well as a variety of custom digital marketing programs. Clients include Direct Energy, Canon, MIT, BLR, and a host of others. He is also co-founder of Traffick.com, an award-winning industry commentary site; author of Winning Results with Google AdWords (McGraw-Hill, 2nd ed., 2008); and frequently quoted in the business press. In recent years he has acted as program chair for the SES Toronto conference and all told, has spoken or moderated at countless SES events since 2002. His spare time eccentricities include rollerblading without kneepads and naming his Japanese maples. Also in his spare time, he co-founded HomeStars, a consumer review site with aspirations to become "the TripAdvisor for home improvement." He lives in Toronto with his wife Carolyn.

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