The Beginner's Guide to Building a Negative Keyword List

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When Thomas Edison said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work,” he wasn’t talking about negative keywords. While paid search was not among Edison’s various areas of expertise, his words of wisdom most definitely apply to how to run an effective AdWords campaign.

Whether you’re a newcomer to AdWords or have been running PPC campaigns since Google launched the platform in 2000 (with a grand total of 350 customers), you’ve probably given a great deal of thought to which keywords will result in more clicks and higher conversions – not to mention that vacation home in Lake Tahoe you’ve been dreaming about.

However, fewer businesses devote as much time and energy to building a negative keyword list, despite the crucial role that negative keywords play in maximizing the ROI of an AdWords campaign. In fact, our research shows that almost half of advertisers don’t add a single negative keyword to their accounts over the course of a month. Simply put, they’re missing out on chances to maximize the effectiveness of their PPC spend, because negative keyword strategies often wear overalls and look a lot like work.

Stop throwing money away, roll up your sleeves and get ready to seize new opportunities with negative keywords – just like Edison.

Negative Keywords 101

You probably know by now that AdWords works like an auction, and the way you get your ad in front of interested audiences is by bidding on keywords. If your bid is right and your ad is relevant, you stand a chance of showing up in the search results. Booyah!

negative keyword list

But how do you prevent your ad from showing when you know the audience isn’t interested? That’s where a negative keyword list comes in.

Let’s say your company produces calendars. It stands to reason that potential customers might search for “calendar” or “monthly calendar” when searching for a calendar that features kittens, castles or kittens and castles (and you know that someone, somewhere, is looking for a calendar like this). As such, these are keywords you’re likely to bid on as part of your AdWords campaign.

negative keywords

Similarly, if you’re trying to sell hard-copy calendars that your customers can use to spruce up their kitchen or office cubicle, you won’t want keywords like “online calendar” or “printable calendar” to trigger your ads, and you should exclude them from your campaign as negative keywords. Negative keywords tell Google what search queries are not relevant to your business, so you don’t rack up ad impressions for searches that won’t lead to sales.

These two terms are a good place to start, but if you’re content to leave it at that, you could still end up wasting (lots of) money on irrelevant keywords. What about other phrases that aren’t likely to end up in conversions, such as “Mayan calendar”? Unless your product features major national holidays and Mesoamerican doomsday prophecies, this term probably won’t deliver much in the way of ROI – and people could still click on it anyway, thus wasting your precious PPC budget and putting that lakeside cabin one step further beyond your reach.

find negative keywords

How to Find Negative Keywords

One of the best ways to find negative keywords is – you guessed it – by examining actual user query data based on how people search. This can be done through the AdWords Keyword Planner and Search Terms Report.

Finding Negative Keywords with Keyword Planner

The AdWords Keyword Planner is intended to help you find keywords to bid on, not to exclude. (Google doesn’t really mind if you spend a few extra dollars on clicks you don’t need.) But you can also use it to find negative keyword ideas for your list. When you search for a term like “calendars,” you’ll see a list of related keyword searches along with some data on their search volume and competition.

Negative Keyword Planner

If you see terms in the list that you know don’t apply to your business (like “free” and “printable” here), consider adding them to your negative keyword list.

Finding Negative Keywords with the Search Terms Report

The Search Terms Report shows you the actual search queries that people typed into Google to trigger your AdWords ads. Once you have a firm grasp on the types of search queries that triggered your ad, you can begin to put together lists of both positive and negative keywords. This method can yield some solid results.

For example, you can sort results of the Search Terms Report by the highest number of impressions, which provides you with a list of the most popular search queries that trigger your ads. This data can then be further refined to show which terms have higher click-through and conversion rates. Even terms you assumed may work in your favor might not be performing as well as you thought they would. If this is the case, you should consider adding them to your list of negative keywords – even if they might appear to be closely related to your business or product.

Some people are happy enough to make this the first and only stage of their negative keyword strategy, but not you. Like Sylvester Stallone sprinting up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in “Rocky,” only the best is good enough for you. But what else can you do?

Get Creative with Your Negative Keyword List

It pays to be creative when creating lists of negative keywords. This concept strikes fear into the hearts of some people (is it wearing overalls?), but if you’re tempted to skip this step, just picture that cabin in Tahoe. See? Infinitely more motivational than a poster of a mountain range coupled with a generic slogan about overcoming obstacles.

negative keyword list guide

Let’s go back to our calendar example. You might think you’ve saved yourself thousands of dollars in PPC spend by including “Mayan calendar” as a negative keyword – and maybe you have – but there are many more opportunities to eliminate wasted clicks. For instance, a user searching for “calendar girls” may be looking for information about:

  • The 2003 feel-good British movie of the same name starring Dame Helen Mirren.
  • The lesser-known 1993 comedy drama Calendar Girl featuring throwback teen heartthrob Jason Priestly.
  • The 1961 Neil Sedaka song.
  • Something entirely more risqué.

Regardless of their intent, they’re probably not interested in calendars of kittens wearing argyle sweaters posed against dramatic panoramas of Cork – and if you don’t include “calendar girls” as a negative keyword, they could be costing you money.

Do Your Homework: Competitive Research for Negative Keywords

Performing a Google search of your primary keywords is another excellent launch point for unearthing even more negative keywords. Anything that shows up on the first couple of pages is information that Google deems relevant to the search. So if you see stuff that isn’t transactional, add those terms to your list.

how to find negative keyword ideas

Using a Negative Keyword Tool

Our free Negative Keyword tool is another invaluable resource when creating negative keyword lists. Simply enter a keyword associated with your business, and then gasp in delight and/or shock at the results. This tool searches our database of more than 1 trillion keywords to create extensive lists of search terms that may or may not be related to your business, helping you further refine your negative keyword list. The tool returns results in clusters, rather than isolated incidences of negative terms like the Search Terms Report, and you can review and upload these changes directly to your AdWords account, saving you (or your poor intern) time and effort.

Other tools can help you expand your steadily growing list of negative keywords, too. Soovle, for example, gives you a brief overview of common search terms across a range of sites that aren’t likely to be helpful to your PPC campaign, such as YouTube, Netflix and Wikipedia.

How to Add Negative Keywords to Your AdWords Account

By now you should have a robust list of negative keywords, but to start saving money on clicks, you need to actually add them to your account (duh). To learn how, check out this guide by Google

Accept the Truth About Negative Keywords

So, we’ve established that having a negative keyword strategy is officially a Big Deal™, and that you should put time and effort into compiling your list of negative search terms. However, maybe you’re sitting there thinking, “I already know all this, Dan. My negative keyword strategy is airtight.” Some of the entrants who participated in our recent Grade and Get Paid competition certainly thought so. However, for many of the businesses that entered, the experience was an eye-opener, to say the least. (Check out our case study with the big winner here.)

At the outset of the contest, entrants were asked to run our AdWords Performance Grader on their PPC campaigns. After 30 days, they ran it again to see how the results measured up. Overall, advertisers added 29% more text ads, 109% more Ad Groups and 663% more keywords based on the results of the initial assessment – but that’s not the most exciting part. In the 30 days after getting their first report, entrants added 103,410 more negative keywords, averaging around 186 additional negative search terms per account.

Pretty awesome, right? Think of all the money saved! You too could be taking back thousands of dollars a year from Google, so start working on expanding your negative keyword list. 

Find out how you're REALLY doing in AdWords!

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Alex Brooke
Mar 05, 2014

Great post some very good points highlighted here. I would also like to stress the importance of knowing which level you are adding the negative keywords at - be it either campaign or group. We have been recently doing an Adwords audit on a new clients account where we have discovered a negative keyword has been added at campaign level rather than ad group level. This has been one of the major problems caused by the previous campaign administrator which has resulted in an under performing campaign. Watch out for conflicting negative keywords!

Dan Shewan
Mar 06, 2014

Thanks Alex, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Also, great point about specifying levels - a very important distinction.

Mar 06, 2014

Enjoyed the post - nice to see a systematic approach to maintaining a negative keyword list. Do you have any insights to using matching options with negative keyword lists?For example, if you are selling bicycle parts, but not actual bicycles, and you find your ads gaining clicks, but no conversions for a query like schwinn fastback bikes, would you ad that as an exact match negative keyword?

Dan Shewan
Mar 06, 2014

Hi Jim,Definitely. If people are clicking on ads for "schwinn fastback bikes" but not converting, this can serve as a great example of how keyword data can help advertisers analyze user intent. If they're clicking the ad, but not converting, this suggests they're probably looking to purchase a Fastback bike, not replacement parts for one they already own. Obviously, if people clicked on ads for "schwinn fastback bike parts" and are not converting, then the problem likely lies elsewhere, as this keyword has high commercial intent.Glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks for taking the time to comment!

Elisa Gabbert
Mar 06, 2014

Hi Jim, following up on what Dan said, you can learn a little bit more about match types for negative keywords here:'s a lot of confusion on this point, but broad match negatives usually work best. If a specific keyword like that isn't getting conversions, you could add it as an exact match negative, but adding it as a broad match negative would catch longer queries that contain all those words (like "schwinn fastback bikes houston" for example) and as Dan said, if you sell those bikes but the keyword isn't converting, the problem may lie elsewhere, i.e. in your landing page or with your prices.Hope that helps!

Mar 07, 2014

Your example doesn't make sense to me. My example is a company that only sells parts not bikes, so if I added "schwinn fastback bikes" as a broad match negative, wouldn't that preclude my ads from showing up for vital keywords like - schwinn fastback bike parts?

Elisa Gabbert
Mar 07, 2014

Sorry Jim, I misread your question. Yes, you could add that one as an exact match negative. The other approach would be to bid on queries using modified broadmatch so you can specify that the queries must contain words like "parts," "tires," etc.

Mar 06, 2014

I have a friend who is asking me about: If you have a translation service and the top search query is"Translate Language A to Language B" some are looking for paid services and some are looking forGoogle Translate. How do you separate the two groups using the same query?  

Elisa Gabbert
Mar 06, 2014

Great question! Without seeing the account I'd guess that queries like "translation services" would be worth more because the intent is crystal clear. Since the query you mention is ambiguous you wouldn't want to bid as much. You can also try to qualify clicks by making it clear in the ads that it's a paid service. And definitely set "Google" as a negative keyword, then look for other query variations that are obviously looking for Google Translate (maybe stuff like "free online translation")

Mar 06, 2014

Thanks for the quick reply! 

Mar 09, 2015

Terrifiuc work! That is thhe kind of information that should be shared around the internet.
Disgrace on Google for now not positioning this publish upper!
Come on over and talk over with myy web sife . Thankk you =)

Bungling Ben
Aug 18, 2015

Oh, you hate your work?

Apr 23, 2014

Dan, I figured out how to add negative keywords on the campaign level through the shared library. And I will definitely use your tool, thank you. But I have a problem from earlier, before I found you. I was adding negative keywords by viewing my search terms report, clicking on search terms I didn't like, and adding the negative keywords one by one, sometimes modifying phrases or picking specific words. Now there are a couple of search terms that show up as Excluded. I want to un-exclude them. Also, where can I view a list of the negative keywords I added at that point? Any thoughts? All the best,Matt

Jun 08, 2015

Hi, Dan

I am late, but here is one query. Do this negative keywords have effect on AdSense. For example, a webisite running AdSense can have unrelated google ads, can this effect their ranking. Do the ads have any keyword information for which the site is ranking.

Courtland Dastyck
Mar 28, 2016

The link to the youtube video is not working, it is saying it is private. Is there an alternate way to access this?

courtland b dastyck
Apr 01, 2016

The video is no longer working for how to add negative keywords, will this be fixed at some point?

courtland b dastyck
Apr 08, 2016

Do any of the admins look over the comments anymore?

Elisa Gabbert
Apr 10, 2016

We removed the missing video and linked to another guide. Sorry about that.

Jul 05, 2016

Great article! Thanks for the information. As a lawyer, what if I want to target searches that contain "free consultation" but do not want to attract visitors that are looking for free or pro bono work? How does the keyword vs negative keyword set up look like?

Elisa Gabbert
Jul 06, 2016

Hi Russ, you could target "free consultation" with phrase match rather than broad match so you don't match for other keywords containing the word "free"

I'd keep an eye on the search query report to see if there are other "free" phrases you want to add as negatives along with "pro bono"

Sep 29, 2016

is there any tool which is suitable to find the negative keywords ?

Dec 02, 2016

Google must hate when more an more campaings got better and bigger negative keywords lists. Easy billions lost for ever.

Pedro Pereira
Dec 16, 2016

Great article with alot of usefull tips to get creative on negative keywords. We believe that this is really crucial :)

Rahul Maurya
Jun 01, 2017

very nice article. it is very helpful for me. thank you very much for sharing.

Sep 21, 2017

Thank you ,Dan
for this useful write-up.A quick question-any suggestion for a paid tool to do the "dirty job"?

Sep 22, 2017

Nice post. Definitely helped for our campaign!

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