Anthony Mcloughlin

Earlier this year Econsultancy reported that 58% of companies were expecting to increase their PPC budgets, 34% were going to keep the same budget and only 9% expecting to decrease their budget. This shift in budget means an increase in PPC competition, and of course more money for Google! However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to increase your bids and PPC budget, it just means that you have to be pro-active with your AdWords optimisation. One way to do this effectively is to utilise negative keywords.

No matter how big or small your AdWords account is, negative keywords are crucial to their success. Without them, you’re guaranteed to waste money on clicks that may never convert which will, ultimately, negatively affect your bottom line.

How do negative keywords work?

Before I get in to the clumsy mistakes that many businesses make, it’s necessary to explain how negative keywords work. Feel free to skip this section if you already know (or think you already know).

In a nutshell, negative keywords will exclude your ad from appearing in the SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages) if your negative keyword is part of the user’s search query. Or to put it another way, negative keywords act as filters that will prevent your ads appearing for irrelevant search queries; minimising the cost incurred from unwanted clicks.


Let’s say your company sells birthday cakes. It’s plausible that your potential customers might search for birthday cakes or order birthday cakes online, so you create an ad group and bid on the keyword birthday cakes in both [exact match] and “phrase match”. Because you have “birthday cakes” in phrase match, your ads can show for when someone searches for your exact keyword with additional words before and/or after it, such as recipes for birthday cakes. To prevent your ads from showing to people looking for birthday cake recipes you would add recipes as a negative keyword.

When deployed correctly negative keywords can bring the following invaluable benefits:

  • Prevent ads appearing for irrelevant searches reducing wasted impressions
  • Reduced wasted clicks and wasted spend
  • Ads appear to people who are more likely to click them
  • Increased Click Through Rate (CTR)
  • Increased relevancy
  • Help increase Quality Score (QS)
  • Increased ROI

So as you can see, negative keywords are an essential part to any AdWords account. Unfortunately though, many businesses fail to implement negative keywords correctly in one way or another. This post reveals the six most common ways in which negative keywords are misused AND offers solutions on how to fix them, so you don’t make the same mistakes!

Recommended reading: How to add negative keywords in AdWords – Video by Google Ads | Using keyword matching options

1. Failing to utilise negative keyword lists

negative keyword shopping list

Every AdWords account should have at least one negative keyword list, although many don’t in my experience. Negative keyword lists are added at account level, one of three levels you can add negative keywords:

  • Account level: This is where negative keyword lists are saved in the shared library and can be applied across multiple campaigns.
  • Campaign level: Negative keywords added at campaign level will affect all ad groups within that campaign but not other campaigns.
  • Ad group level: Negative keywords added at ad group level will only affect the particular ad group the list has been added to. Other ad groups within the same campaign won’t be affected.

A negative keyword list tends to contain 100’s of negative keywords that can be applied to many different AdWords campaigns. Having such a list from day 1 can save you valuable time and help get all of your campaigns off to a flying start.


Create an extensive generic negative keyword list that can be used time and time again! Don’t worry, I cover several methods on how to find negative keywords and build your own list in the next common mistake. Once you’ve utilised these methods and built a substantial list, add the list to all relevant campaigns in your AdWords account. This will almost immediately bring about the benefits highlighted earlier in the post.

2. Zero negative keywords (or very few)

no negative keywords on pad

You’ll be surprised at how many accounts I’ve seen without a single negative keyword in sight. Couple this with broad match keywords and their money’s run out before the daylight breaks!


For AdWords campaigns to be a success it’s important you get off to a good start and one way to help do this is to add negative keywords from the start. Granted, it’s not possible to identify every single negative keyword from the outset, but there are several methods you can use to gather as many as possible to put you in good stead:

Starter lists

There are 100’s of the same negative keywords that can be applied to any AdWords campaign. This can be achieved with a negative keyword list which I talked about in the first common mistake. Check out the lists below to get a head start on building your own lists.

The Daddy of All Negative Keyword Lists for AdWords & AdCenter PPC

75 Negative Keywords That Every AdWords Campaign Should Include

200+ Negative Keywords to Consider for B2B PPC

PPC Hero’s Super-Duper List of General Negative Keywords (Word doc download)

CAUTION: Avoid just uploading these negative keywords to your campaigns without any thought. Always review the lists and leave out the keywords that are actually relevant to what you are advertising for.


tutorials is a negative keyword in all of the lists above, but if you were advertising for music production tutorials you wouldn’t want tutorials as a negative keyword as this would prevent your ad from appearing.

Google Keyword Planner

Just as good for finding negative keywords as it is for finding new keywords. When you load the keyword planner select the option, “Search for new keyword and ad group ideas”. Type in your keyword phrase and click “Get ideas”. The keyword planner will return a list of related keyword ideas and also a list of those same related keyword ideas organised as ad group ideas. keyword planner identifying negatives

Using the keyword phrase birthday cakes as an example you can see that I’ve highlighted some keywords in red and some in orange. Let me explain why.

No matter what kind of birthday cake you sell, the keywords highlighted in red are clearly never going to result in a conversion and therefore should be added to your account level negative keyword list (add the list to every campaign in your account). That way you avoid having to manually add the same negative keywords across multiple campaigns or ad groups – the negative keyword list will do all the hard work for you!

The keywords highlighted in orange should be given extra thought as they could potentially be great ideas for highly targeted ad groups of their own, rather than keywords for your negative keyword list.

Wordstream’s Free Negative Keyword Tool

Wordstream have a nifty negative keyword discovery tool that lets you perform 30 free searches per day. Their database contains over a trillon keywords which are obtained through a number of search industry partnerships including internet service providers, browser toolbars and search engines. Enter your keyword phrase into the search box and hit the “Find negative keywords” button.

wordstream negative keyword tool

The tool’s sophisticated algorithm will then compute the most popular negative keyword suggestions related to the keyword phrase you searched for.

wordstream negative keyword tool results

When you compare the returned results to the Keyword Planner you can see that many of the results are different. Click “no” next to the keywords you want as a negative and then to download, enter your email address and company name in the required fields and hot the “Email negative keyword list” button.


Übersuggest is Google suggest (AKA Google autocomplete) on steroids. Enter your target keyword phrase making sure the correct country is selected from the drop down, hit “Suggest” and let Übersuggest do the rest.

new ubbersuggest birthday cake search


Übersuggest will extract suggestions from Google suggest for your keyword phrase, plus suggestions for your keyword phrase appended with each letter from the alphabet. Whatsmore, many of the returned keyword suggestions when clicked will expand even further.

ubbersuggest new birthday cakes for girls search


Take advantage of the “Download all” button so you can then easily identify and record negative keywords an an excel spreadsheet . Keep this spreadsheet open as you will need it for the next method of discovering negative keywords.


Tinysuggest is similar to Übersuggest in that it extracts suggestions from Google suggest but you get additional results because they store all historical queries. Enter your target keyword phrase making sure the correct language is selected from the drop down, hit “Get suggestions” and let Tinysuggest do the rest.

tinysuggest birthday cake example

Click “Download results” and then copy and paste the suggestions into your Ubbersuggest spreadsheet. Remove any duplicates (instructions on how to do this here) and you’ll be left with an extensive list of potential negative keywords.

Search terms report

The search terms report shows you the exact search terms that people searched for to trigger your ads. By definition, a “trigger” in this instance are search terms that either received clicks in the past 30 days or were searched for by a significant number of people. The search terms report only becomes useful after a week or so (depending on the search volumes of your keywords), but it will soon become your best friend. You should check your search term report regularly to identify irrelevant keywords and add them as negative keywords at the appropriate level (account, campaign or ad group).

seach term report is great for finding synonyms and words related to your keyword. Search using a singular keyword and add all the irrelevant keywords (even the absurd ones!) to your negative keyword list.

thesaurus cake example

Google search

Performing Google searches using your target keywords is a quick and easy way to unearth irrelevant keywords. Look at the PPC ads and the organic listings and note down any irrelevant keywords.

Google Search birthday cakes for girls

Competitors’ websites

You should already have a good understanding of who your competitors are, but if you don’t, then enter your target keywords into Google search (like in the example above) and  you’ll soon find out. Have a look through their websites, paying close attention to the same/similar products/services you sell and note down any irrelevant keywords.

Recommended reading: A Beginner’s Guide to Google Suggest For Marketers and SEO

3. Misunderstanding how negative broad match keywords work

no comprende

Many PPC advertisers assume that negative keyword match types behave in the same way as regular keywords, the reality is that they do for exact and phrase match but not for broad match. When using regular broad match keywords, your ads may appear for searches that include misspellings, synonyms, related searches, and other relevant variations. When using negative broad match keywords your ads will show for all of the aforementioned.


Let#s imagine that from the search terms report you identify a few clicks for the search phrase birthday cake recipe idea and decide to add recipe idea as a negative keyword in broad match. A few days later you check the search terms report again and see clicks for birthday cake recipes, recipe ideas for birthday cakes, birthday cake ideas, and birthday cake ingredients.


The first thing you should do is look to reduce the length of your negative keyword phrase. In the example above, recipe idea can be reduced to recipe and idea because you’re not interested in people searching for either of those keywords. Next list out all the plural and singular variations. Finally, key the negative keyword into and note down all the synonyms and related words you don’t want to appear for.

One more point to note about negative broad match keywords is that you can’t use negative broad match modifier keywords.

Recommended reading: Using keyword matching options

4. Forgetting to negate a paused exact match keyword


Utilising different match types for the same keyword in the same ad group is common practice. Such tactic ensures that your ads appear for longer tail phrases as well as the shorter exact match phrases. As data accumulates, sometimes you may find that the shorter exact match keywords don’t convert as well as the phrase match or broad match modified counterparts.


You have an group for boys birthday cakes and bid on that keyword phrase in [exact match], “phrase match”, and +broad +match +modified. After a while you identify that [boys birthday cakes] cost per conversion outweighs that of the cakes themselves, unlike the “phrase match”, and +broad +match +modified variations which are producing a healthy ROI. You decide to pause [boys birthday cakes] and leave the other match types running. Your “phrase match” keyword starts to drop in performance because it’s still triggering your ads when people search for boys birthday cakes.


In the example above you would simply add [boys birthday cakes] as an exact match negative. This will prevent the phrase match keyword triggering ads for the exact match query leaving the more profitable, longer tail searches to trigger your ads.

5. Having a positive keyword also as negative keyword

computer says no

As dumb as it sounds this does happen and I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve done it myself in my AdWords infancy. This can easily happen if you fail to carefully review your negative keywords and, as a result,  add them at the wrong level.


You create a campaign for 1st birthday cakes and create separate ad groups for 1st birthday cakes, girls 1st birthday cakes and boys 1st birthday cakes. You then add the the keywords girls and boys as negatives at campaign level. When people search for girls 1st birthday cakes or boys 1st birthday cakes, none of your ads show because the campaign negative keywords girls and boys prevents them from doing so.


In the example above, you would add girls as a negative in the 1st birthday cakes and boys birthday cakes ad groups. You would also add boys as a negative in the 1st birthday cakes and girls birthday cakes ad groups.

Always review negative keywords before adding them to your account, especially negative keywords lists and make sure they are added at the correct level. You can also use the ad preview and diagnostic tool for peace of mind as this will flag up any keyword conflicts.

5. Setting and forgetting

dollars wasted down the toilet

It’s common for many businesses to nominate a member of staff (usually in the marketing department) to learn and manage their AdWords account. Failing to realise the time and effort required to setup and maintain an Adwords account, the nominated staff member will typically set the account up and leave it to run for weeks, sometimes months without checking in. The number of wasted clicks on irrelevant search queries can be exponential – effectively throwing money down the toilet! The most successful advertisers regularly check their account and regularly add negative keywords.


Regularly seek out and add negative keywords. The best place to find new negative keywords once your campaigns are up and running (and profitable keywords for that matter!) is in the search terms report as covered in mistake 2.

To save time, you can schedule a search terms report at account, campaign or ad group level to be emailed to you daily, weekly or monthly. I prefer to receive one email with all the campaigns and ad groups in one spreadsheet, rather than separate emails and separate spreadsheets for different campaigns or ad groups.

Once you have the spreadsheet open you can turn the data into a table and then filter by campaign and ad group. Here’s how to schedule a search terms report.

On the campaigns overview screen navigate to your search terms report (as shown in mistake 2 under search terms report) and click the download button.

search term report schedule

Choose who you want the report to be sent to and the frequency. Accounts receiving a large number of clicks should schedule a weekly report whereas smaller accounts will usually be okay with a monthly report. Check the “Save this report” tick box and name appropriately.

As well as looking for obvious irrelevant keywords, also look out for search terms that have a low CTR, a low conversion rate and high cost per conversion. These are all signs that something isn’t quite right, so should be investigated before simply adding as a negative keyword. A low conversion rate for example, could indicate there’s a problem with the landing page rather than the keyword being unsuitable. Take the average ad position into consideration too; an average ad position of 7.5 is obviously going to result in a low CTR.

6. Having over 50 Negative keywords in a display campaign

pick n mix

Hat tip to Matt Van Wagner for this one. If you have over 50 negative keywords in a display campaign then Google will randomly select which negatives are active. A bit like choosing your pick n mix blindfolded!


Don’t add your regular keyword lists to display campaigns. Be extra cautious and prioritise the keywords you choose by search volume and common sense!

Key takeaways

  • Create and save a generic negative keyword list(s) that can be used time and time again
  • Always review your lists before uploading
  • Take the time to mine for negative keywords before going live – it will pay dividends immediately
  • Apply negative keywords to the correct level (account, campaign or ad group)
  • Always look to reduce the length of your negative keyword phrases – this will save time and money
  • Regularly check your search terms report and regularly add negative keywords
  • Prioritise your top 50 negative keywords by search volume (and common sense) for the display network

I hope this post has helped you understand the importance of negative keywords and, more importantly, I hope it prevents you from making the same mistakes in your AdWords accounts. If you know of any other negative keyword mistakes then please do share in the comments below!

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Anthony Mcloughlin

Posted By Anthony Mcloughlin

Anthony is a key member of the digital team at Tone, helping dig deep into stats to further understand user behaviours. Follow him on Twitter @anthony_mac85 and on Google+