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Bad Keywords? It's Not Them. It's You.

May 11, 2009
Keyword Marketing

no bad keywords, just bad SEMsI read a blog recently about "bad keywords." The blogger concluded that some keywords are just no good for search. His advice to readers was to purge your poorly performing PPC campaign of all these nasty keywords and banish them forever because they'll never work, never convert, never love you back no matter what you do. They're the equivalent of keyword delinquents, rotten to the core.

The idea that some keywords (or words for that matter) are intrinsically bad is ridiculous. And frankly, the post sounded like a cop out, one big "not my fault." The blogger blamed the keywords for everything wrong in his life and never once acknowledged that it could be his technique that's flawed.

The fact of the matter is, a keyword is only "bad" in a relative sense.

Now I'm not saying that all keyword are angels. Sure, some won't work. But that doesn't make them bad. Heck, even "adult-themed" keywords aren't "bad." Sure, they may not be right for a website that sells Bibles, but for porn peddlers they're conversion gold.

That said, there are a host of reasons why keywords don't perform well. So before we go condemning keywords and casting them into the fires of Hell, let's take a look at some of the potential reasons why your keywords may be misbehaving.

Poor Grouping

Problem:You've got all your keywords, dozens of them, bunched together in the same ad group. It's one big happy keyword family. Trouble is, your Quality Score stinks. What to do?

Solution: Having all your keywords in one bloated ad group is a mistake. To achieve a high performance PPC machine, you need to segment your keywords into separate, but tightly-themed keyword groups. This creates more relevant ad groups which favors a higher Quality Score.

No Diversity

Problem: You've segmented your keywords into nice, narrow groups, yet CTR and conversions are still terrible. You’re baffled because you've got the same great ad and landing page for each ad group, with some killer copy. Are all searchers total morons?

Solution: You can't possibly appeal to every searcher with only one ad and one landing pages. First, craft relevant and specific content around your narrow keyword groups. Then, mix it up and create and test multiple versions of your ads and landing pages to determine which are keepers and which are clunkers.

Defective Selection

Problem: Your keywords are grouped, the ads and landing pages are varied and relevant, people are clicking and coming to your site, but still no conversions. What gives?

Solution: Chances are you've chosen the wrong keywords from the get-go. Doing a bad job at keyword research and keyword selection can poison all your future efforts. Poor keyword selection is akin to building a beautiful house on a decayed foundation. Eventually the whole thing comes crumbling down. It's not fun, but it's time to go back to the drawing board and choose better, more relevant keywords.

Square Peg, Round Hole

Problem: Maybe the problem is YOU. Rather than digging around to find out why your PPC campaign is in the toilet, you're bellyaching about the how some keywords are inherently bad apples. Seems you're great at excuses, bad at taking responsibility.

Solution: Time for a new gig. To be a successful search marketer, you must to be able to analyze and dissect your efforts, as I did in the preceding examples. This means recognizing that you've screwed up, and doing what it takes to right your wrongs. Without this innate ability to look at yourself with a critical eye, you'll never grow, never mature, never reach a higher skill level needed to become a great SEM.

So forget the railroading, the scapegoating, the accusations that some keywords are simply born to be bad. It’s all a sideshow. The truth is there are no "bad" keywords, only bad search marketers.


While I agree with your basic PPC campaign setup ideas, I think you are overdoing the criticism of 'bad keywords'. Even in well organized campaigns with targeted ad groups, there are just some keywords that do not produce the results you are looking for. At that point its just a good business decision to abandon that keyword, concentrate on the better performers and look for new ones.

Another important factor to consider is your bid. A good keyword with a very low bid simply won't get the position (and therefore, traffic) it deserves. Similarly, a keyword whose bid is pushed well above the optimal level will lose money like crazy, making it look bad when in fact it's simply in the wrong position. As well, a PPC marketer needs to use search query reports to guide selection of negative-match terms. Sometimes a word only seems to perform poorly because it is getting matched to questionable search queries. Adding negative terms to the adgroup will help filter out some of this bad traffic. And, geographic factors are important too. If a product only has regional appeal, then its ads should only been shown in that region. I realize that this blog post wasn't meant to be an exhaustive list, and the items I've mentioned aren't exhaustive either. The original post is right: there are many, many reasons why a keyword could look "bad" and if it does look bad, 9 times out of 10 there's something else the marketer can do to make it work.

I do agree that there are plenty of people needlessly griping about their keywords when they have done the keywords no justice within their accounts. Poor grouping, poor matching options, no negatives, etc. However, there are some keywords that seem just 'tainted' (AdWords system in particular). Keywords that have performed so poorly for other advertisers that their historical CTR is trashed and the keywords just will not perform without proving their worth in the account through a positive CTR. Unfortunately many advertisers can not afford to raise the bids to the point of the keyword being active while they work on the CTR to improve the keyword quality score. Which renders the keywords useless to many advertisers. In my experience I have found keywords heavily related to affiliate products/services are often somewhat 'trashed'.