Negative Keywords for Amazon PPC: The Complete Guide (2019 Update)

Have you been running auto campaigns without negative keywords? Phrase match keywords without negatives? Or worse, broad match keywords without negatives?

You may be the laughing stock of the animal kingdom. But don’t worry, Badger’s here to help.

What are Negative Keywords in Amazon Advertising?

Negative Keywords are the words or phrases that prevent your ad from appearing on an Amazon SERP (Search Engine Results Page) when those terms are in a customer’s search query.  In other words, you would use a Negative Keyword to tell Amazon when you don’t want your ad to show.

“But don’t we want our ads to show up everywhere? Isn’t more exposure better?”

Not always. Remember, PPC stands for “pay-per-click,” which means the more clicks our ads get, the more we’ll have to fork out for them. That’s not an issue if we’re raking in tons of cash from those searches, but not every search term is profitable!

It’s possible you’re appearing for hundreds if not thousands of searches that are:

  • Irrelevant
  • Unprofitable
  • Have low click-through-rates (CTR)
  • Have low conversion rates
disappointed reaction to poor results
 My reaction to seeing these in my search term reports. Source.

Negative keywords protect us from those losses by:

  • Making sure we only appear for profitable search terms
  • Improving our keyword relevancy
  • Increasing our CTR
  • Ensuring we appear for high-converting search terms

What’s the Difference Between Keywords and Search Terms?

Before we dive deeper, let’s make sure we’re on the same page with our terminology:

Search terms are what the Amazon customer types into the search bar when looking for a product.

Keywords are the criteria which must be met by the search terms in order for your Sponsored Product Ad to show. If the search terms match the keyword with a certain ad group, the product in that ad group will appear in the search.

Keywords have three ways of matching search terms: exact match, phrase match, and broad match. Learn more about that here.

How are Negative Keywords Different from Other Keywords on Amazon?

Simply put, negative keywords are the opposite of normal keywords (this is why you’ll sometimes hear us refer to normal keywords as “positive keywords”). Positive keywords trigger our ads to show on a search page, while negative keywords keep our finger off the trigger for that page. It allows us to narrow down our target audience based on their search queries.

Let me give you an example:

If you were selling exercise jump ropes, you might choose the keyword “jump rope” to trigger your ad. But when you look at your search term report, you see that 30% of your clicks came from customers who searched for something like “jump rope for kids.”

They clicked your ad, realized it wasn’t what they wanted, and went somewhere else. Amazon still charged you for all those clicks, but you have nothing to show for it.

Here’s a visual example of that problem:

example of spending that doesn't result in sales
See what we’re talking about here? (click to enlarge)

Don’t worry. This can easily be fixed with negative keywords (NKWs).

Why Use Negative Keywords?

In case you didn’t see the importance of negative keywords in the picture above, I’ll spell it out for you: without NKWs you risk wasteful spend and exposing yourself to hundreds, if not thousands, of irrelevant search terms.

But there’s more.

The following consequences of neglecting NKWs are just the tip of the iceberg:

  • Unnecessary, wasteful spend
  • Opportunity cost of wasted spend
  • Lower product ranking
  • Keyword cannibalization

Unnecessary, Wasteful Spend

When running auto campaigns (or manual campaigns with broad/phrase match keywords), we are aiming to increase our visibility at the risk of appearing in searches that may be irrelevant or unprofitable.

This is a risk we’re willing to take until we have enough data to identify which searches are unprofitable for us. At that point, to keep bidding on those terms would be like Charlie Brown falling for the ol’ football prank.

Even though your CPC or Total Spend on a certain search term may seem small, carry this across dozens of campaigns, hundreds of ad groups, and literally thousands of search terms and you’ll see that it all adds up really fast.

Total spend of non-converting search terms in 2 months
Total spend of non-converting search terms in 2 months.

This screenshot is from an account that didn’t optimize their NKWs, resulting in $10,625 of wasted spend over a 60-day period, which was 40% of their total ad spend!

Opportunity Cost of Wasted Ad Spend

If you have a strict daily budget, and you spend 40% of it on irrelevant search terms, the opportunity cost of an actual conversion is much greater! You’ve cut your advertising campaigns short by blowing your budget on searches that are meaningless to your product.

Negative keywords allow you to reallocate wasted spend so that every cent of your advertising budget is targeting conversions.

Lower Product Ranking

Not only do bad search terms earn unqualified leads, but they also lead to a low CTR.

When you and a competitor vie for the same search page, Amazon decides who gets the best positioning based on each product’s history. We made a whole post about how Amazon ranking works, but for now suffice it to say that CTR is critical:

How Amazon ranks ads

Read the full post here.

If you’ve been showing up for hundreds of irrelevant search queries, your CTR has likely plummeted (a negative mark in Amazon’s eyes). That means when it comes time to bid for a search that’s actually relevant, Amazon will deem your low-performing product as less-worthy than your competitor for the top spot because he optimized his CTR with negative keywords.

This also impacts your organic ranking and could push your product from the first page to the second. And nobody likes to be second.

 Truer words have ne’er been spoken, Kanye. Source.

Keyword Cannibalization

Another major consequence of neglecting NKWs is what we call “keyword cannibalization.” That’s what happens when two of your campaigns or ad groups compete against each other for the same keyword. In the end, both ad groups will get less clicks than if you had just one showing for that keyword.

Here’s an example:

You have two products in two separate ad groups. In the first ad group, you’re selling traditional vacuums, so you bid on the phrase-match keyword “vacuum.” In the second ad group, you’re selling those little droid-type vacuums, and you bid on the same phrase-match keyword.

If a customer typed “vacuum robot” into their Amazon search, both of your ad groups would qualify to show up on the page.

Why’s that a problem?

Because you can’t control the order in which your ads will appear. There’s a chance your traditional vacuum will outrank your vacuum robot, pushing it to the bottom of the page. This makes it less likely that that product will be seen, even though it’s more relevant to those search terms!

The problem is exacerbated if that product has a higher profit margin or conversion rate.

This is what your less-relevant ad just did to your breadwinner. Source.

Adding the term “vacuum robot” as a negative keyword to your traditional vacuum’s ad group would prevent this from happening.

Why Not Just Make a 100% “Exact Match” Account?

While that would solve the issue of showing up in unwanted searches, this strategy creates another problem: discoverability.

One of the greatest things about running phrase match, broad match and auto campaigns is that they give us the opportunity to be found by searches we weren’t targeting. This acts as a form of market research by helping us discover new converting search terms we otherwise couldn’t have predicted.

A Staggering Fact About Search Engines

As languages evolve and new inventions are made, search engines have seen a daily acceleration of brand new search queries that have never been searched before.  Hear it from Google’s blog:

“There are trillions of searches on Google every year. In fact, 15 percent of searches we see every day are new.”

It’s impossible to guess what people are searching for, which is why you should always be running both auto and manual campaigns for each product. Auto campaigns let you take advantage of machine-learning algorithms to uncover the hidden gems of new converting search terms.

How to Use Negative Keywords on Amazon

General Principles

The most basic reason for using NKWs is that they save you from spending money on irrelevant or unprofitable search terms.

Later in this article under “How to Choose Negative Keywords,” we discuss some guidelines for identifying the terms which create unnecessary spend. Until then, let’s talk about a couple advanced techniques for using NKWs in Amazon.

Campaign Sculpting (Audience Targeting)

Negative keywords are a great way to trim the fat from your campaigns. They let you refine your target audience and maximize keyword relevance.

negative keywords amazon ppc meme
The same is true for phrase match

A lot of advertisers apply the broad match type too liberally.

For example, using the word “shoes” as a broad match keyword would expose you to everything from hiking boots to high heels, even though your product might’ve been running shoes (read more about keyword match types).

Where broad match keywords are present, negative keyword sculpting is necessary!

Unless you have insanely long-tail keywords in your broad match, chances are your broad matches are wasting ad spend on irrelevant, non-converting clicks. The issue persists with phrase-match keywords. Use NKWs to exclude weak searches from these campaigns.

Automatic Campaigns

If you’ve been following the Badger for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard us talk about the RPSB method (if you don’t know what that is yet, stop reading until you find out). You do the final “B” (“block”) by adding negative keywords to your automatic campaign, which allows for a few things:

  • Bid optimization
  • Better market research
  • Cannibal keyword prevention

Bid Optimization

While the auto campaign feature in Amazon has its benefits, there are a few hang-ups as well. One major bummer is that there is no bid optimization for keywords.

“What?!” Source.

I know, I thought the same thing.

That’s a problem because every keyword performs differently, which means every keyword isn’t worth the same bid. We want to bid more on higher-converting terms, and less on lower-converting terms.

Better Market Research

Because of the limitations that come with auto campaigns (i.e., limited control over keywords and bids) we get the most value from these campaigns by collecting market research. We’re using Amazon’s A9 algorithm to help us discover which search terms lead to actual conversions.

(Again, if you haven’t heard about the RPSB method yet, take a break from reading this until you understand it.)

Once we’ve discovered a search term that converts, we want to stick that term into our product’s manual campaign as an exact match keyword. Now we have the power to control our bids for that specific keyword based on its conversion performance.

After we’ve done that, there’s no reason to let our auto campaigns continue bidding on that search term. Their work is done, and we can give them a better opportunity to discover new keywords by blocking out that term as a negative keyword.

Cannibal Keyword Prevention

Like we said earlier, we don’t want our campaigns to compete against each other in the auction, potentially impairing the performance of both campaigns.

Once we have an exact match keyword in our manual campaign, we can stop our auto campaign from stealing its thunder by blocking the search term with a NKW.

We’re not cannibals.

Not like Shia LaBeouf.

Negative Keyword Match Types in Amazon Advertising

Regular keywords have three different match types: broad, phrase, and exact. Negative keywords only have two: phrase and exact.

Negative Phrase Match

A negative phrase match prevents your ad from appearing in any search queries that contain your set of words in their exact sequence (with allowance for plurals and slight misspellings).

For example, if we had “games for kids” as a negative phrase, the following would be blocked:

  • board games for kids
  • best games for kids
  • games for little kids
  • games for kids under 5
  • board game for kid
  • gamse for kids

However, a search like “kids games” would not be blocked.

Note: Amazon only lets you have up to four words max in a negative phrase match.

Negative Exact Match

With negative exact the search term must match your keyword exactly (with allowance for plurals and slight misspellings).

So if we had “games for kids” as a negative exact, only these searches like these would be blocked:

  • game for kid
  • gamse for kids

However, a search like “board games for kids” would not be blocked.

Note: Amazon only lets you have up to 10 words max in a negative exact match.

How to Choose Negative Keywords

Thanks to the measurability of Amazon Advertising, it’s pretty easy to identify which search terms are causing your campaigns grief. Using this data, we found ways to build a safety net around your campaigns to prevent these terms from wreaking further havoc.

The following metrics are guidelines (not laws) which can be adjusted to fit different niches. Here are three metrics you should use to identify low-performing terms that should be turned into negative keywords:

  • Low CTR non-converters
  • High spend non-converters
  • High click non-converters
negative meme

We have three NKW rules for you. Source.

Low CTR Non-Converters

Search terms that get your ad over 2500 impressions with less than 0.18% CTR and no conversions aren’t worth your time. They’re hurting your product’s rank. Stop them.

High Spend Non-Converters

This might vary based on your budget and your product’s profit margins, but it’s safe to say any search terms creating more than $35 in ad spend with no conversions should be eliminated.

High Click Non-Converters

Given that the average conversion rate for Amazon sellers is 9.8%, anything with over 34 clicks that hasn’t converted yet is already suffering miserably. Kill it.

We’re a little paranoid about letting bad search terms slip through the cracks, so we built a tool that automagically converts search terms with these criteria into negative keywords.

Exceptions to the Rule

Sometimes a seller will target a competitor’s brand name as a positive keyword.

As an example, Pepsi-Cola runs Sponsored Product Ads on the keyword “coke” in attempt to steal customers from their rival. Search queries containing the word “coke” obviously won’t convert as well as those with the word “pepsi,” or even “cola.” But Pepsi still wants the paid traffic in case there’s a chance they can snatch away a wavering imbiber.

When targeting a competitor’s brand, you will need to forgive your keywords’ bad performance because they have a more difficult target. If you have a tool that automates the NKW process for you, be sure to whitelist any competitor’s keywords that you’re bidding on.

How Account Structure Affects Your Negative Keywords

Negative keywords can be added at two different levels: campaign and ad group.

Campaign Level

When you add a NKW at the campaign level, it’s automatically added to all the ad groups in that campaign.

Ad Group Level

Adding a NKW to an ad group will keep you from appearing in all searches that would have otherwise triggered your ad because of the positive keywords in that ad group.

How to Add Negative Keywords in Amazon

Adding negative keywords to a campaign or ad group is easy:

  1. Navigate to the desired campaign/ad group
  2. Click the “Negative Keywords” tab

where to find negative keywords tab

Adding NKWs at the campaign level.

 3. Select which match type you want (negative phrase or negative exact) 4. Add your negative keywords (each keyword on a separate line)

how to add negative keywords

Make sure each keyword goes on a separate line.

 5. Click “Add keywords” 

 6. Click “Save”

And you’re done! You can remove a negative keyword at anytime by navigating back to the NKW page, selecting the NKW, and clicking “Archive.”

Note for beginners: If you’re just a kit (that’s what baby honey badgers are called) and new to the whole keywords thing, for now it’s safest to add your negative keywords as exact match at the ad group level.

Amazon Negative Keywords FAQs

“How much time should I spend on negative keywords?”

Depending on your account size, it could take several hours at first to run through your data and manually add your NKWs. Once you’ve done the initial setup, you should check up on each account at least once a week, combing through the data and seeing if any new search terms appeared that should be turned into NKWs.

“What do I do with search terms that are relevant but unprofitable?”

You have two choices:

  1. Add the search term as a negative exact match to avoid further spend.
  2. Add the search term as a positive exact match keyword and significantly lower the bid for that keyword (don’t forget to block the same keyword out as negative exact for your broad match/auto campaigns).

The second option is the stronger choice because you will still get some visibility for that search term, but at a low ACoS.

Does All This Seem Like a Lot of Work?

We think so too. That’s why we found a way to automate this stuff. There’s nothing the Badger loves more than hunting inimical search terms, eating them whole, and leaving behind a steaming pile of negative keywords.

dancing badger meme
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