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Advice on how to approach the selection of negatives

Section 1.3: Finding a balance in which negatives to add

In some of the examples above, you may have wondered why some choices were made regarding adding negatives, or not.

Let’s analyze some of them, keeping in mind that the goal of the ad group is to sell a product, a dozen red roses, and its keywords are “dozen red roses” and [dozen red roses].

Finding a balance

The dangers of being loose

It’s entirely conceivable that someone searching for “dozen red flowers”, or “bouquet of red roses” is in the market for our product. Just because their search term was off by one term, that doesn’t disqualify them, does it? Roses are flowers, and a dozen makes a bouquet, right?

This is a mistake that most people make, fearing missing out on a sale by being too strict.

A thought experiment

You’re being paid to stand outside of a store that only sells red roses by the dozen. Your job is to ask people walking by what they want, and if it seems like what they want is a dozen red roses then you send them in. You get an awesome bonus if they buy.

You: “What do you want?”

Shopper: “A dozen red roses.”

You: “Go on in”


However, you can only send ten people in a day. That’s your limit. You look around and you see a hundred shoppers milling about, and you know from experience that, statistically speaking, at least ten percent of them want a dozen red roses.

You: “What do you want?”

Shopper: “A dozen red roses.”

You: “Go on in”


You: “What do you want?”

Shopper: “A petunia.”

You: “Get outta here…”

You: “What do you want?”

Shopper: “A dozen red roses.”

You: “Go on in”


You: “What do you want?”

Shopper: “A dozen red flowers.”

You: Hmm. Ok, this person could mean roses, I suppose. A bit odd they weren’t more specific, but roses are flowers…

A thought experiment

Here’s a thought exercise:

You can only choose ten people, and you want to maximize the bonuses you’re getting from sending in shoppers that convert to buyers. You know there’s another shopper out there that will tell you, “A dozen roses.” More than ten of them, for sure. So why risk it when the shopper has demonstrated that they’re statistically less likely to purchase than all the ‘a dozen red roses’ people.

In real life, we have the limit of a budget. We want to send the most qualified shoppers into the store, and to not let the fear of missing out cloud our judgment and basic math. The “red flowers” shopper may very well have purchased, but it you had to bet on the conversion rate of all “dozen red flowers” shoppers versus all the “dozen red roses” shoppers run as a test a million times, who do you think has the higher one?

Spend your budget on the best bets.

Here’s the flip side of that argument.

“What if I’ve found all the “red roses” shoppers today, and there were only 8 of them? This negative just cost me potential sales!”

Fair enough, you’ve started maxing out on all the “red roses” shoppers. First of all, congratulations, you did an awesome job. Second, to continue growing, how about setting up a new ad group that’s looser with the negative keywords? Or directly targets “dozen red flowers”? You’re in an enviable stage of growth now, and with all the profit you’ve made from being so efficient you can now afford to cast a wider net.

The dangers of being too strict

The dangers of overdoing your keywords are easier to explain.

You may have noticed that “bouquet” wasn’t added as a phrase match negative, but rather, the whole search term was added as an exact match. And there was no negative added for “dozen red roses with vase”.

Too strict

The reason “bouquet” wasn’t added as a phrase match is because it can foreseeably by used in searches for a dozen red roses, such as “bouquet of a dozen red roses”, or “red roses bouquet 12”. Adding “bouquet” would be too assumptive that it’s a disqualifying word. One could argue adding “flowers” is too assumptive as well. It’s up to the account manager to make these human assumptions as best they can, and let the machine learning do the rest.

Not adding anything reactively to “dozen red roses with vase” can be viewed as the rejection of an assumption. While the store only sells red roses, and not vases, we choose, in this example, to not assume the shopper won’t buy just because they won’t get the vase.

Perhaps they’ve seen how much vases are upsold for on competitor’s sites and our store’s price without wins them over. Lots of people have a spare vase lurking in the back of their cupboard, or collecting dust on a bookshelf… perhaps they don’t need it. Or perhaps they see that our store doesn’t offer a vase and leave, only to be effectively retargeted the next day after they’ve had a chance to think about it. We lose the potential of these scenarios if we end up being too strict with our negatives.

So we leave the search term “dozen red roses with vase” in a quasi-state being considered an unqualified term, but we’re not going to do anything about it. Sometimes life’s just like that.

An account manager needs to find the right balance between being too loose and too strict with adding negatives, which is difficult when there’s no immediate way to learn the success or failure of doing it. The best advice is to think through the example scenarios and approaches offered and do your best to find that balance.

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