Most people engaging in digital marketing will already be aware of the importance that keywords play in their search engine optimisation. The idea is that we tailor our content to target short-tail and long-tail keywords since these appear in search queries when people are looking for something online. When people use the words or phrases we’ve specified in our Adwords campaign our ad is triggered and then returned along with their search results. But that is only half of the picture when it comes to keywords. Less well known, but equally powerful, is the concept of negative keywords. Read on to discover what they are and how you can use them in your campaign.

What are negative keywords?

The easiest way to understand negative keywords is to consider an example. Imagine you are marketing products for a business makes hats, specifically cowboy hats and outback hats. To ensure the durability of your products, your hats are only made from high quality felt or leather.

Unfortunately, the keyword “hats” is very generic. The last thing you want is to waste your advertising budget paying for wasted clicks; i.e. people that are happy to buy a cheap $10 hat to wear to the beach or a costume party.

This is where negative keywords come in. As well as getting more specific about the types of hat description words that our ideal target market will search for, we can also weed out people who likely aren’t part of our target market by identifying keywords and phrases which are not beneficial to our campaign. Those latter words are described as negative keywords as they remove ambiguity and help define our target audience even more clearly.

In the context of the example, the following terms would be negative keywords as they all relate to types of hats that your business does not sell:

  • woollen hats
  • baseball caps and baseball hats
  • sun hats
  • winter hats
  • straw hats
  • cotton hats

Understanding the complexities of words and phrases

When choosing negative keywords you’ll need to carefully consider the words and phrases to include. If you get too restrictive your efforts might have the opposite effect and you could end up excluding potential customers. As part of your planning you’ll also need to consider all of the variations associated with negative keywords:

  • synonyms—hat, cap, Stetson, beret, and so on.
  • misspellings—different ways of spelling such as woollen (UK) and woolen (US), not to mention simple typing errors like typing “coton” instead of “cotton”.
  • singular and plural forms—hat and hats, cap and caps,…

Negative keywords are further broken down into three categories:

  1. Negative BroadMatches
    These are the most generic and are the default. Your ad won’t be displayed if all of your negative keywords are present, in anyorder. Additional words can be included.
  2. Negative Phrase Matches
    Here your ad will not be triggered if all of your negative keywords are present in the sameorder. As with the first category, additional words can be present.

Strategic use of metrics

Negative keywords can be used in both display ad campaigns and search ad campaigns, but Google stresses that there is greater accuracy with the latter. Because of the complexity of search algorithms it is important to keep in mind that your ad could still be triggered, particularly if some or most of the specified keywords are included. In real terms, this means that it is unlikely that you’ll be able to come up with a perfect list of negative keywords in one sitting.

Instead, you’ll need to use the tools provided by Google Adwords and Google Search Console to closely monitor what people are searching for and how they’re finding their way to your content. You’ll need to revisit your negative keyword lists repeatedly as you refine them to achieve greater accuracy and ultimately a better return on your advertising investment.

If you’d like to learn more about negative keywords the best place to start is with Google’s own online documentation: “Add negative keywords to campaigns”.