Using PPC Negative Keywords

negative word cloud

Use PPC negative keywords to help make sure you only appear alongside relevant searches that will get more conversions. This easy to understand example comes with tips to make sure your adverts only appear for searches that will deliver you the best possible results.

Using Negative Keywords to Exclude Irrelevant PPC Search Terms

When you start a Pay Per Click (PPC) advertising campaign, it’s important that you also set negative keywords to exclude irrelevant PPC search terms. Negative keywords stop your ads being displayed for searches you don’t want your advert to appear with.

The ultimate reason for using negative keywords is to keep your PPC Return on Investment (ROI) as high as possible. The last thing you want are your PPC ads shown to anyone who does not want your product or service.

If the person making the search is not looking for what you’re offering, you risk them clicking an ad for something they’re not interested in which will waste your budget.

Wrong PPC Keyword

Looking for a test drive for the current Subaru Impreza WRX STI, we put a search into Google for “Subaru STI test drive Birmingham”. The below image is an example of the original search. The screenshot was captured several weeks after the original search, which demonstrates that our discovery was not a one-off and that sometimes, PPC campaigns aren’t closely monitored.

Subaru STI PPC results

The results on the Google search engine results page (SERP) were exactly what we were looking for. The PPC results, however, were another story. Adverts for local clinics offering sexual transmitted infection testing also appeared. Let’s take a look at why this happened.

Context Is Key For PPC Success

It’s amazing just how good Google’s algorithms are at understanding context and user intent. Rank Brain was developed to provide results based on searcher intent and PPC adverts are given a quality score based on their relevance to the search terms. Let’s take a look at how a search for a car could bring back a result for a sexual health clinic.

Whenever you create an advert, you need to make sure it has a high quality score if you want it to appear in a prominent position. Google will sometimes relegate ads to the bottom of the page and display nothing above the search results. In other cases, there won’t be any ads on the first page but they might appear on the second. This can be because the quality score and/ or bid wasn’t high enough.

Thanks to Rank Brain, Google could understand the search for an STI test drive was for a car because all of the results (only the first page was checked) were for the car manufactured by Subaru. This leads us to believe that ads for clinics would have a low quality score for a search about cars.

The context of our search for an STI test drive lead Google to bring back results for cars. Because the sexual health clinics do not mention Subaru, the WRX or Subaru Tecnica International, the most logical reason for their PPC ads appearing is less than optimal targeting combined with a large budget.

Subaru Tecnica International logo

Correct PPC Keyword Context

A big factor in how high your ad appears is the amount of money you’re willing to bid with. All things being equal, a higher bid could see your PPC ads ranking higher than the competition. But if you’re bidding at say £2 per click and your competitor is bidding 50P per click with a higher quality score, you may not be able to beat them to the top spot.

In this case of a search for “Subaru STI test drive Birmingham”, with a lack of context and a quality score we can assume was not optimal, the only other reason for an ad appearing so high (3rd out of 6 for the highest ranking ad), is that the amount they were willing to bid was a lot higher than others bidding on that keyword. If conversions are very valuable because you’re advertising a product with a high ticket value and profit margin, you might be willing to bid higher.

The best course of action is always to make sure your PPC ads appear in the right context for relevant keywords. Like the controversy over extremist YouTube advertising, your ad could still appear in contexts you don’t want them to. For that reason, you need to monitor your campaigns and make sure you’re adding negative keywords when appropriate.

Marketing Actions

When you plan a PPC campaign, you need to make sure your ads appear only for relevant search terms. When your ads appear in a context that is not relevant, the effectiveness of your campaign will be reduced.

Is the example used this week a little harsh on the agencies/ organisations involved? Unless the individual(s) responsible for creating the ads had any knowledge of cars, their ad would always appear when searching for an STI (car), right?

The industry’s ‘standard spend plus x%’ model that a lot of PPC agencies use to charge for their PPC campaign services could be ultimately responsible. This model does still have a place, but it really depends on the agreed aims of the campaign.

Exclude Negative Keywords

The good news is, there are ways for you to make sure your advert doesn’t appear in searches when you know it shouldn’t. You can achieve this by excluding negative keywords from your campaigns. The good news is, it’s also possible to see the search terms that trigger your adverts so you’ve not just taking a shot in the dark.

If you’re working on a campaign alone, with an agency or plan to hand over to one, it’s vital that you sit down and try to think of as many negative keywords as possible before you start spending your PPC budget

How to Exclude Negative Keywords

If you’re selling the fictitious brand ACME Trainers, a brand of trainers that comes in red, blue and yellow but you don’t stock the yellow version, add a negative keyword.

-[ACME Trainers Yellow]

Excludes the exact phrase ‘ACME Trainers Yellow’.


Excludes the word ‘yellow’ as part of a broad match, meaning that if Yellow was used with a combination of other words, the ad wouldn’t be displayed.

You could use the exact match to exclude a phrase you are positive you don’t want to appear with. If someone searches “ACME Trainers Yellow”, your ad would not appear. But if they searched for “ACME Trainers Blue”, “ACME Trainers” or even “Buy ACME Trainers in yellow”, your ad could appear. As its name suggests, this option works only with an exact phrase.

Negative keywords on broad match can be used to exclude searches like:

“buy ACME Trainers in yellow” or

“ACME Trainers yellow”

Your ads will continue to appear for:

“ACME Trainers” and

“ACME Trainers Blue”

blue trainers yellow trainers

Because you don’t have yellow trainers, if a search includes the word ‘yellow’ in their search, you don’t want your ad to appear. If you don’t stock them in yellow, do you want to serve an ad someone might click on and cost you money when they can’t buy that colour?

The key to everything is knowing your strategy from the beginning and planning accordingly. Going intentionally broad in the beginning could be a great strategy. You would get a good idea of how much search traffic (and therefore demand) there is for yellow trainers.

Check Your AdWords Reports

Starting off, you may not be able to exclude every negative keyword because people will use search terms you could never imagine would be associated with your brand. Going forward, once your campaign(s) have gone live, you have the opportunity to see the keywords that trigger your ads and react accordingly.

Use the AdWords Search Query Report to see the queries that triggered your PPC ads. If your ads are appearing with keywords you don’t want them to, you need to make changes. That’s the best thing about digital marketing; It’s much easier to get instant feedback on how well your campaigns are working. If you were in charge of a health clinic, you or your agency might not realise that STI refers to cars, but thanks to the Search Query Report, you’ll be able to spot that and add ‘-Subaru’ and ‘-WRX’ to your list of negative keywords.

  • Never set it and forget it
  • Check your Search Query Report regularly
  • Add negative keywords

When you set up a PPC campaign, the ultimate goal is to get your advert seen by the right people so they click on it and complete the action you want them to. Be as accurate as possible, have the best ad text and the most relevant landing page once the ad has been clicked. Adding negative keywords you don’t want your ad to appear with is one of the most important ways to filter your audience.

What’s your favourite technique for making sure your PPC ads reach the right audience?