Adding Negatives: How to Filter Out Bad Paid Search Clicks & Prospects

The broader you target your paid search buys, the more important your aim. Good aim results incremental top line growth at an acceptable margin. Bad aim means wasted spend.

Aim in paid search is all about excluding people who aren’t likely to buy. It looks like this:


At every stage of the process, our goal is to exclude out the people who are never going to convert, thus saving money.

Simply adding negative keywords isn’t enough. You need to understand the full breadth of ways to exclude bad prospects.

Level of Targeting

Negatives are a filtering tool that limits your potential impressions. There are no account level negatives. At the highest level, you can exclude people from either campaigns or ad groups.

  • Campaign – campaign negatives are an umbrella that prevents any ad group from displaying an ad when that negative is included. The most frequent application of these negatives is for commonly avoided terms like “free” or “cheap” if you’re a luxury company, or adult terms.

Negatives aren’t just about exclusion; they can also be used for prioritization. In some cases, multiple ads can be eligible to run against a given search query. This is especially true for brand terms. “j crew sweaters” is a great example. Should AdWords display ads in the branded campaign, sweaters campaign, or a special brand + sweaters campaign?

If you want to force Google to show your branded campaign, you can add your brand terms as a negative in the campaigns you don’t want to run against certain queries. This is an advanced technique detailed here.

  • Ad Group – Within a specific campaign, some ad groups may take precedence over others for a given query or require a more granular level of exclusion. Like campaign negative, this can be a good place to force some ads to show for specific queries.

Keywords or Lists?

The most common way to add negatives is through keywords combined with a match type.

A more efficient way to add negatives across your account is keyword lists, which are a relatively new feature of AdWords:


Keyword lists allow you to create groups of commonly used campaign negatives. Go to the Shared library section of the campaigns tab.

Once you build a list, you can apply them more efficiently than adding individual keywords over and over again:


This is a great way to exclude frequently avoided terms (cheap/free, jobs, adult terms, etc.). Several blogs and tools provide readymade keyword lists that you can copy or buy, making it easier to apply quickly.

If you’ve never built a keyword list before, Google will also suggest lists from existing keywords that you commonly use. Click on “List Suggestions” under Campaigns > Shared Library > Campaign negative keywords.

The results are often a good start, but you’ll almost always need to tighten the list before you apply it. Here’s an example:


Match Type

The most commonly underused tool in negatives is match type. Just as regular keywords can be used to widely or narrowly include potential search queries, negatives can be fine tuned with match types.

By default, Google adds negatives as broad match, but you can use any type:

  • Broad
  • Broad Match Modifier
  • Phrase Match
  • Exact Match

The difference with negative match types is that you don’t have bidding as a regulator. It’s binary: either the search queries are included or they aren’t.

The more confident you are that anything similar your keyword should be excluded, say “jobs” in a brand campaign, the less restrictive your match type choice. But, if you’re Apple, you would probably want to negative [careers] instead of jobs, so you can still capture Steve Jobs brand queries.

When in doubt, use exact or phrase match.

Negatives for Other Ad Types

Ad formats are proliferating in AdWords and each type of ad requires the same degree of filtering to opt-out of potentially useless clicks.

Product Listing Ads, which work by connecting your product feed from your Merchant Center account, also have negative keywords. This is especially important to handle product + modifier queries, such as size, color or material. PLAs hand a lot of matching control over to Google, so you need to be especially vigilant about building out negatives before and after campaigns launch.

Display campaigns also have two types negatives

  • Excluded placements: Specific sites/URLs you don’t want your ads to show on. Add these in Networks > Exclusions > Exclude placements. For example, you might want to prevent your display campaigns from appearing on apps or mobile sites.
  • Excluded audiences: Groups of people you have cookied with an AdWords tag, such as for retargeting/remarketing, whom you suppress from a larger population. A common example is to suppress people who have actually converted from retargeting campaigns.

Finding New Negatives

Finding negatives is easy to do running a search query report (aka search term report). There are also some less than obvious ways to discover additional negatives:

  1. List Suggestion – Google’s list feature saves a lot of time, but it’s also a way to avoid the human error that comes from having to remember to apply certain negatives over and over again. Google will actually suggest possible lists to you based on the negatives you’re already using. Go to Campaigns > Shared Library > Campaign Negative Keywords > List Suggestions. It’s a quick way to build out some custom lists and apply them across campaigns.
  2. Keyword Research Tool – Rather than just accept the list of negatives or search queries you have, run them through your favorite keyword research tool to come up with synonyms and related terms. This is especially helpful if you’re planning on using more restrictive match types with your negatives.
  3. Find or Buy Premade Lists – You can find some pre-made negative lists online. Engine Ready put together this comprehensive negative keyword list and KoMarketing Associates created one specific to B2B.

If you’ve got some budget and a more specific niche, services like Zenya and tools like Wordstream can help you expand negatives more quickly.

  1. Keyword Suggestions – Google’s Keyword Suggestion tool, Opportunities > Ideas > Keywords) are often so off the mark that they, ironically, make good candidates for negatives.
  2. Organic Keywords – Filter your organic keyword report for any words that have a sufficient number of clicks, but haven’t converted

Excluding People Without Negatives

Even if you’ve built out an extensive negative list, you can filter prospects with the advertising and landing page experience.

Text ads are the best way to qualify people before they click. Is your product for small businesses? Consider adding the price in to attract (or remove) price conscious buyers:


Is your business geographically specific? Let people know, so locals can opt in and browsers will filter out:


The Value of Negatives

The work of adding negatives never ends. You need to constantly be building lists to use for new campaigns and weeding through search queries as you optimize over time.

The good news is that it’s an often underused tactic in paid search. If you can master it, that means more efficient campaigns that allow you to compete more aggressively.

What are your unusual negative tools and tactics?

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