Digital Reach
By Digital Reach | SEM | April 26, 2017

Conservative and Aggressive Negative Keywords: Scale at Your Own Peril

Hello again advertisers! Today I want to discuss two different methodologies I employ when it comes to applying negative keywords to SEM campaigns.

As you well know, negative keywords are an indispensable tool in the kit for any SEM advertiser – and using them correctly are mission-critical to the lifetime value of your campaigns. Not only do they ensure the most relevant content gets routed to your target audience, they also impact the bottom line economics of your average CPCs. Workflow for adding managing negative keywords is covered at length here.

Once you’re familiar with the mechanism of how negative keywords operate and where they can live within your account, you can begin trimming away fat from your campaigns, effectively reinvesting underperforming spend into better performing spend.

Don’t be the one who blames the user!

But for too many advertisers, that’s where it ends. Negative keywords, they’ll tell you, are an ad hoc solution for an insolvable problem. The user is who’s really to blame, they’ll tell you, for being dumb enough to click on an ad that clearly had nothing to do with their original search query. Why do ongoing work when the problem just reappears in the form of new junk traffic? This blame game can and does continue all the way up and down entire organizations without yielding any insights – and worse yet: it’s entirely preventable. Here’s how:

Determine a Negative Keyword Strategy

Any actively advertising account should have a negative keyword strategy at all times. No, this does not refer to a feature within AdWords or a report you can pull to reveal action items. This refers to actual strategy: a decision you have to make and remake about your inbound search queries, all while your judgment remains consistent, complete, and unbiased by other data. Fortunately, I am about to make this decision much easier for you, since I’m whittling it down to a choice between two similar yet opposing methods: conservative versus aggressive keyword negation.


Conservative Keyword NegationThe advertiser should seek to negate all and only terms that have a zero percent chance of converting.
Aggressive Keyword NegationThe advertiser should seek to negate terms that may convert, but at lower rates than higher converting keywords.

Conservative Keyword Negation

You should notice that under any scenario, the advertiser should still be attempting some degree of conservative negation. There will always be new junk traffic to exclude, trends to detect, and more market-efficiency to be gleaned through these simple acts of negating erroneous keywords.

Assuming you’ve also followed our advice concerning broad-modified keywords, the negative keywords you’ll be applying will likely tend to be in the correct ballpark of your subject matter, but still may not indicate the propensity for a conversion. Phrase-match negatives become exceedingly useful here!

Additionally, you should make sure you’re applying negative keywords in places where they can do the most work for you. Inside Shared Library – for both AdWords and Bing – the advertiser can quickly implement entire lists of negative keywords and apply to all campaigns in the account, which is where conservative negation really shines. (I will be exploring account level negative keyword lists in depth soon!)

Aggressive Keyword Negation

But what about aggressive keyword negation? Are there any scenarios where this strategy is more sensible than conservative negation? The answer is yes, but be careful.

Often times aggressive keyword negation is required in campaigns where the advertiser may be presenting discrete conversion opportunities to what he or she considers separate audiences, but that distinction is not immediately respected by the market at large.

For example, a law firm might practice civil and criminal law, but might also have eligible keywords for queries such as “hire undefeated lawyer”. Even though the firm has even chances of finding customers from either business pillar, it may well be that civil law customers are 5x as valuable to the firm as criminal law customers. It would then be strategic for the firm to negate keywords related to criminal law clicks that convert at higher than average cost than civil law conversions. Under aggressive negation, the law firm is effectively leveraging its high-cost conversions to fuel growth in its low-cost conversions – bold, but it makes perfect sense!

Source: Indian Real Estate for Dummies

This aggressive negation strategy is particularly effective when the advertiser is trying to stretch a budget. All laws of economics aside, businesses seldom have infinite capital to commit to advertising, even if the ROI on the advertising initiative is proven.

For many businesses, SEM campaigns are so mission critical to overall cash flow that they can spare no expense along the route to reaching for the most valuable potential conversions in the marketplace. This typically occurs early in the lifecycle of businesses which offer an inelastic good or service, but cannot afford to operate without a big ticket windfall every so often: real estate, legal services, creative designers, contractors, and yes, even advertising agencies fall under this category.

Perils of Aggressive Keyword Negation

Unfortunately, aggressive keyword negation becomes more and more perilous the longer and longer it is exercised. Even as it extends the buying power of a limited budget, eventually there will come time to scale up – and the newer larger budget will be vastly less efficient at serving the marketplace. It’s a recipe for one of the few occasions when an advertiser could increase budget and see fewer results! Moreover, removing negative keywords after the fact is exponentially more difficult than it is to remove standard keywords. Why? Because Google does not, to the knowledge of anyone in the programmatic media industry, compile data on the equivalent “negative performance” of negative keywords.

Hope For a More Negative Future?

I often find myself wishing on my lucky stars that Google might someday reveal to advertisers statistics on “negative impressions” or how many eligible impressions might we have accrued on keywords if we had not negated certain phrases. I have attempted to request this feature from Google, but the reply – as always – is “that’s just not how it works.” 

While Google’s database is not structured in such a way as to make this figure easily accessible, it is nevertheless calculable. And when approached with the correct grains of salt, a reasonably inclined advertiser would be able to factor negative impressions into the decision to pursue aggressive negation or not.

So that’s conservative and aggressive keyword negation! The next time you go about perusing your SQR’s for potential negatives, please remember to ask yourself which philosophy is in your campaign’s best interest.

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