How to Use Negative Keywords in Your Onsite Content Strategy

Jen Saunders
Reading Time:6minutes

Ask the average man on the street what negative keywords are, and he might reply with a racial slur or a comment on someone’s weight. Ask anyone on a paid search team for a Google SEO company, and they will praise negative keywords as little textual magic-workers that help draw the right customers, increase the likeliness of client ROIs, and reduce campaign costs. When paid search experts use negative keywords they must be mindful to (a) not include too many and (b) not to discount the ones that may still bring in traffic that could convert.

With the advent of Google RankBrain and its DNA of machine learning and artificial intelligence, Google’s algorithm determines exactly what human beings want answers to, the emotional intent driving search queries, and it strives to provide educational, high-quality content the user will value. This means a good search result will say, “this is what this is, and this is what this isn’t”. Here enters negative keywords into your onsite arena; the players in your content that offer clarity to both Google bots, and online searchers.

content and negative keywords

What are Negative Keywords?

Negative keywords are used to help define your products, services, and geographic target in paid search campaigns. Here is an example:  let’s say you own a fencing school where you teach the sport of sword play. Your website is eCommerce, and you sell everything from lessons, sabers, cables, masks and uniforms. Your are going to be running a campaign focused on drawing traffic to your online store through sword sales, and you want to make sure the right people are clicking on your link. To help ensure this you exclude terms like “fencing construction”, “fencing boards”, and “residential fencing” thus funneling people away from your site who are searching for fences to protect their property. Let’s also get product-specific and say you only sell Epee swords; naturally, you would exclude “Sabre swords” and “Foils”. By doing this you will improve your bounce rate and engagement–just some of the ranking factors Google uses to determine a site’s value.

So How can Negative Keywords be Used in Content Strategy?

Before a textual strategy is put in place, the good SEO content specialists engage in the following:

  • Check Google Analytics for search volume
  • Explore insights
  • Competitor analysis
  • Social engagement behavior
  • Brand identity research
  • Consumer modeling
  • Related Google searches

Once the data has been collected and translated into a piece of narrative marketing that tells your brand’s story, negative keywords can be peppered throughout to offer clarity.  It might look something like this:

Fencing in Los Angeles has made waves in slowly becoming a popular sport. When Malcolm Fitzroy opened his fencing academy for people who love sword play, the sport was foreign to locals in Redondo Beach who thought it was a place to visit with a hammer. But this is not a location where you buy fencing boards to build a gate; Malcolm sells new and antique Epee swords in an impressive inventory of fencing equipment that includes masks, uniforms, and anything else you need to before you can take to the mat and shout “en garde”. The Epee is the longest and heaviest of the three types of fencing swords. If you are looking for the smaller Foil or Sabre you should go to Gerald’s House of Stab in Glendale, as Malcolm does not sell the Foil or Sabre.

When looking at the above example, note these points:

  • Content begins with the primary keyword that needs definition
  • Although it is not prominent in the public eye, the keyword like “popular sport” is used to attract people who may not know they are looking for fencing lessons
  • Playful narrative sets the stage for using the negative keyword
  • Product specific keywords follow to support the general keyword “fencing equipment”, which does have significant traffic for construction-related results.
  • Content gets specific and states what is similar
  • Content defines that which is a bad product fit for search intent while staying optimized for the intended product

This is a rough example, but serves its purpose without including the other elements of the content strategy that would otherwise be added to best serve this client. Internal linking, anchor texts, other keywords, and supporting technical attributes on the back end would fortify the copy’s intention to let Google know how to rank the web page based on specific search. For the sake of this article they will be left out thus providing the carrot for those in need of services from proven content marketing SEO companies that think outside the box.

Building a negative keyword list will help with content development.

 Building a Negative Keyword List, Missed Opportunities

If you are an Anglophile you may be familiar with Kate Chopin’s description of missed opportunities. She wrote that missed opportunities come through the realization in which one longs for the sun on cloudy days, even though people generally don’t give it much thought on days it is shining bright. Though Kate Chopin was not a digital marketer, her words shed light on how SEOs should approach the philosophy of negative keywords. Your vocabulary is likely filled with millions of words; you may not think too much about them when your brain sends a signal to your mouth to produce them in speech. Then when you embark on a quest to build a negative keyword list for your onsite content strategy, you see the power in their meaning, and the brawn in what they don’t mean.

To start, you should turn to a tool that will help get the creative process rolling. TheGoogle AdWords Keyword Planner toolis not intended to exclude keywords (Google is fine with you spending more money) though it can be used to identify the negative keywords required to strengthen your content. For example, I typed the word “pens” into the keyword planner. Take a look at the results:

Negative keywords help content marketing

If I am only selling bulk units of ballpoint pens to schools, hospitals, and other large entities, I would want to exclude options like “promotional pens”, “fountain pen ink”, “personalized pens”, “calligraphy pens”and a few others that have been marked red. With this in mind for creating content Google RankBrain will love, I could write about why it is a better for large organizations to invest in standard ballpoint pens in bulk sales versus expensive personalized pens, or specialty promotional pens that require messy fountain pen ink refills. At first glance you already get a great sense of various negative keyword options to use in defining your product, along with adjoining search volume.

Now let’s broaden your negative keyword list. If we scroll down to view Google’s related keyword suggestions we see options like “buy pens in bulk online” and “cheap pens in bulk”, as well as some others.

content marketing and negative keywords

These related searches can give you analogous negative keywords by flipping them on their head. For example, “expensive pen”, “buy single pen”, “buy pens in bulk at store” or even “buy pens in bulk at Office Depot” can be added to the list. In fact, Google’s related searches already churn some out for you with “bulk pens personalized” and “bulk custom pens”.

Now let’s do some competitive research to see what else rears its head from the seas potential negative keywords. When typing the product in the search engine, the primary competition is revealed:

To help with SEO do a negative keyword search

Now we have some negative keyword ideas that revolve around pens for kids, pens and pencils, discount pens custom personalized, and more.

Google ranking can improve when using negative keywords


Research Using Negative Keywords in Onsite Content 

I applied this content strategy to three different mid-size tier level clients with moderately heavy competitive markets, and monitored their progress for 6 weeks. At the end of the SEO experiment, I recorded the following data:

  • All three sites improved in ranking by more than three positions within the first 24 hours
  • At the end of week two all three sites moved more than 32 positions
  • At the end of week six the bounce rate when from an average across all three sites from 62 percent to 18 percent 
  • The average time spend per visit went from three seconds to 1 minute 33 seconds
  • The paid conversion rate coming from organic traffic went from two percent to 48 percent
  • Two of the three sites went to page one of Google

Negative Keywords are Really Positive

If you have been active in SEO for the past decade, you know how quickly Google algorithm updates can impact the way we write content to drive traffic and create a better user experience.  Yet for now, negative keywords used in your onsite content strategy hold a plethora of SEO benefits.

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Jen Saunders is the Director of SEO for WEBITMD bringing more than 15 years of search marketing experience. She spent 13 years in Europe earning her PhD while looking at lots of old neat stuff. Jen enjoys simple things, like trees, sunrises, and the delicate lull of a 16th century harpsichord. Jen enjoys meditating and studies Buddhism. She is a certified master scuba diver, dolls make her nervous, and she enjoys craft beer. Jen has two cats, Chairman Thaddeus Whiskers and Lord Joffrey Gaius Pitty-Paws. They are her heirs.