Negative Keyword Tool Gone. Is Google Becoming a Search Marketing Agency?

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Over the last few years, I’ve been impressed with Google’s constant march toward AdWords transparency and filtering. Think about all the free tools they’ve launched designed to help advertisers understand and profit from their AdWords campaigns. Highlights to me include: Google Analytics, Google Conversion Tracker, IP-address filtering, site-targeting and site-exclusion, Website Optimizer, dayparting, and geotargeting. This seems to be a concerted and very smart business strategy: If you have the best traffic, you should flaunt it.

So it came as a bit of surprise this week when my co-worker Hilary informed me that Google’s very-useful negative keyword creation tool (a part of the overall keyword creation tool) had disappeared from the AdWords user interface. To me, this could be a short-term Q4 revenue play, or it could be part of a larger strategy that puts Google at odds with search marketing agencies.

What Did The Negative Keyword Creation Tool Do?

Before delving into my analysis, let me explain what this tool does. Google and all other search engines allow you to not only buy keywords but specifically not buy keywords as well. For example, if I was buying keywords to sell a Prince Tennis Racket, and I bought the keyword “Prince,” I wouldn’t want to show up on searches like “Prince and the New Power Generation” or “Prince Albert in a Can,” but I would want to show up on “Prince Tennis Racket.” Adding negatives like “-Power Generation”, “-Albert”, and “-Can” would allow me to filter my traffic to avoid these non-relevant searches. And as Google’s “matching algorithm” increasing expands the reach of my keywords, it’s important to be just as thorough in excluding keywords as most advertisers are in including keywords.

Indeed, I often tell aspiring search engine marketers that the game is no longer “he who has the most keywords wins” but rather “he would applies the most filtering to his best keywords wins.” In today’s Google search results, you can no longer expect to be the only advertiser when you buy a six or seven word keyword phrase. Instead, Google will just broad match the most-relevant generic keywords to show up alongside you. So you should try to buy those generic keywords, but you should also try to apply as many negative keywords as possible to those generics, to prevent the situation described above – marketing tennis and paying for funk music fans.

Until last week, Google made it very easy to research and add these negative keywords to your campaigns. All you needed to do was go to the keyword tool, type in your generic keywords, and select “suggest possible negative keywords.” The tool would then spew out a few hundred related terms and you could click on each term and instantly add them to a specific Ad Group or to an entire campaign. Since the tool was using Google’s search algorithm to come up with related terms, you could feel confident that you could build a comprehensive list of negative keywords in minutes.

When Tools are Removed, Who Loses?

But now that tool is gone. It disappeared after Google’s most recent system upgrade. Adding negative keywords is still possible, just a lot more painful. Now you have to research your own list of keywords, and then go to your campaign settings and manually upload your list. Experienced search marketers I’m sure will feel that this isn’t really that hard a process, and indeed, it is not. It took me about five minutes to teach my newbie team member the alternative way of adding these keywords.

Then again, a lot of the free tools that Google has released in the last few years, have also been ‘no duh’ tools for experienced online marketers. Google Analytics, for example, was released years after most marketers had already invested in far more sophisticated Web analytics tools. Conversion tracking is nothing more than a very rudimentary pixel tracking method – also around since the last century.

In other words, removing an easy-to-use filtering tool will only end up negatively impacting novice AdWords advertisers, who don’t know the alternative ways to get the same effect. As I noted above, such a move seemingly flies in the face of Google’s concerted attempts to level the playing field between the savvy marketers and everyone else. What could possibly be the rationale behind it?

I thought about this for a while and I really couldn’t come up with a very good answer. Indeed, I have two possible theories and I’d love to hear other opinions.

Theory #1: Google Wants to Make More Money in Q4

If Google signs up a lot of new merchants for the holiday season, and Google downplays tools that filter traffic and encourages merchants to ‘go all out’ on the big generic keywords, this could be a short-term windfall for Google. After all, these less-savvy advertisers wouldn’t actually understand that their purchase of the keyword “nightstands” would also have them showing up on searches like “one nightstands.” The result would be more clicks, and more money for Google.

Of course, the long-term result would be dissatisfied advertisers who got a lot of untargeted clicks. If and when Google’s competitors catch up to Google in terms of quality and tools, Google could pay the price for doing anything that reduces the quality of the advertiser experience on their site. And because this would directly contradict all the other pro-transparency moves Google’s made, I can’t believe that this explains the reason for downplaying negative keywords.

Theory #2: Google Wants To Manage Your Campaigns for You

So that leads me to Theory #2. Google wants advertisers to ‘set it and forget it’ when it comes to their online campaigns. This essentially means telling Google how much you want to pay for a conversion, setting a monthly budget, and letting the Google advertising machine do the rest. Google’s recent launch of their Conversion Optimizer supports this theory – just set a cost per acquisition and let Google figure out the right bid.

You could extend the same logic to decreasing importance of negative keywords. Just tell Google how much you want to pay per conversion, give Google some general keywords that work for you, and let Google do the rest. The assumption would be that over time Google’s system would filter out your bad keywords, simply because they didn’t meet your cost per acquisition metrics.

There are other tools Google has recently launched that support this theory, including the Ad Text creation beta and campaign optimizer (which suggests keywords and campaign improvements). Add Conversion Optimizer, Ad text, and campaign suggestions together, and you could have the foundation of a completely automated Google program – all you need to do is pay the credit card bill. In such a model, negative keywords are way too hands-on.

If theory #2 is true, the chasm between search marketing experts and search marketing novices will increase significantly over time. The experts will continue to use the AdWords API, desktop editor, and any advanced tools that still remain in the user interface. The novices will increasingly rely on Google’s automation to do all the work for them, putting their faith in Google to deliver the highest ROI. I could even see Google creating two user interfaces, one with the bells and whistles experts want, and the other with rudimentary reporting that novices desire.

Theory #2 also puts Google into direct competition with search marketing agencies. If Google really can create an automated system that delivers ROI for advertisers, what’s the value of search agencies? Right now, I ask that hypothetically, because I know that Google isn’t anywhere near building technology that can beat out the best agencies (combining technology and people). Still, if Google continues to get better at their tools, more and more advertisers will be willing to trust Google and save the 5% to 10% they currently spend outsourcing their campaigns.

Much Ado About Nothing?

I may be totally creating a conspiracy theory out of nothing here. It may just be that Google did some user experience testing and concluded that most users didn’t like or use the negative keyword creation functionality. Google is, after all, all about as much white space as possible on their pages! Maybe I’m just overthinking every Google move.

Then again, Google has a lot of smart folks at Googleplex, and Google doesn’t make changes to AdWords on a whim. Search agencies make a lot of money these days, and I sense Google doesn’t like seeing middlemen making money off their platform. Stay tuned.

About the Author

David Rodnitzky is CEO of PPC Associates, a leading SEM agency based in Silicon Valley. PPC Associates provides search, social, and display advertising management to growing, savvy companies. To learn more, visit ppcassociates.com, or contact David at [email protected]

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24 Comments

  1. Excellent post there though iam not much into ppc, and come here to read more specifically posts related to seo :)

  2. Are you sure the feature is gone or have you just listened to one of your PPC minions? Because my negative keyword tool is still here, fully functional and operating!

  3. I think you are quite right about theory #2. I don't know the status in the US but her we see more and more that Google want's to sit on chair of the agencies. Last September I was in Dublin visiting the European HQ. Noticing that they were rapidly building teams wit support an 'optimizers’' that directly support the end-users. They set up campaigns, optimize campaigns and dedicated account managers give support. At dinner I asked the EMEA director what their vision was on the agencies. The answer was that that was a very difficult question and that there was enough 'room' in the market for agencies and direct support by Google. One week later Google announced the ending of the BPF program in the EMEA countries. Clear enough I would say! But I'm not at all sure that the dissapearing of the negative keyword tool has anything to do with that....

  4. I've heard people report their tool missing as well but I just checked my account, and it is still there. Weird.

  5. Actually guys, don't confuse the "Edit Campaign Negative Keywords" tool with the "Keyword Tool." The "Edit" tool simply allows you to edit your *existing* negative keywords and not find new ones. The "Keyword Tool" allowed you search for and to discover potential new negative keywords. That functionality has now been removed.

  6. Negative keyword tool has not gone, but it has changed. To access negative keywords, you run the suggestion tool as normal. The suggestions appear but next to the add arrow it a little drop down arrow. The default add is add as broad match but from the dropdown menu you can choose to add a phrase or exact match, or a negative match, which google will trim down to the suggested negative for you. e.g. you ask for suggestions on widget, google will suggest blue widget, if you click the dropdown "Add as a negative -blue" will appear.

  7. @Dave Wilson: Missed that completely! In my opinion It does not improve the usability to have to define for each word the kind of match, but on the other hand is it now possible to do al the actions in one search query.

  8. @David: "Actually guys, don’t confuse the “Edit Campaign Negative Keywords” tool with the “Keyword Tool.” The “Edit” tool simply allows you to edit your *existing* negative keywords and not find new ones. The “Keyword Tool” allowed you search for and to discover potential new negative keywords. That functionality has now been removed. No it's not! Both tools still there!

  9. Here is the question: Eloi: Do you have a regular AdWords account or are you managing multiple clients? David: Same questions. Are you running My Client Center? I haven't touched my account in a while so I don't know if this is at all relevant. Could be...

  10. "Negative keyword tool has not gone, but it has changed. To access negative keywords, you run the suggestion tool as normal. The suggestions appear but next to the add arrow it a little drop down arrow. The default add is add as broad match but from the dropdown menu you can choose to add a phrase or exact match, or a negative match, which google will trim down to the suggested negative for you.: Dave, the negative option no longer exists in any account I checked this morning. It's not present on the external (logged out) keyword tool either. The help icon (?) indicates it should be there though... I have access via MCC and direct, doesn't seem to make any difference.

  11. Just to clarify further: both tools still show up in the user interface - there is a tool called "Edit Campaign Negative Keywords" and there is also a tool called "Keyword Tool." Both are still there. The difference is that the functionality of the "Keyword Tool" has now changed significantly. As David Wilson points out in his comment to this post, it is still apparently possible to find and add negative keywords through the Keyword Tool (though I followed his suggestions and I still couldn't make it work), but the functionality has basically been buried. In the prior version, it was very openly displayed and easy to use.

  12. David, It's definitely not present in all accounts. I imagine some accounts still have access to it...although none that I manage do. I just used it last week for a smaller account so this is definitely something that's happened in the past few days. Nice catch.

  13. With me it looks the same as the screenshot by Jeremy. But the screenshot is not the optionlist on keyword level.... I do have the 'negative' option. Thoug, the first word on the list is is the word on which the search query is done. This word you can not ad as an negative, but the following words do have the option 'negative'.

  14. It's possible that Google is phasing this feature out slowly, trying to keep things quiet. Be it as it may, there is a definite trend towards Google gaining more and more control over campaigns. Although the level of control AdWords provides is unprecedented, "do it yourself" tools are slowly being phased out while new tools that allow Google to make "suggestions" are being introduced. Of course, Google argues that this is done in order to make advertisers' lives easier and make sure they have less to worry about but ultimately this is a profit maximization tactic, IMHO. Not that there is anything wrong with that :)

  15. OK, here's my screenshot showing where you have to look now. As wilbert points out, the keyword exactly matching your search cannot be added as a negative in this manner.

  16. Wilbert - I see what you're saying....maybe we've jumped the gun. I run keyword tool report for "Arizona". The first word returned on the keyword suggestion list is "Arizona". It won't let me add that as a negative. If I go to the second word listed, "phoenix Arizona," it let's me add it as a negative. Same with all the other words in the list. I guess I've never tried to the add the first word (since it's the word you entered to start with) as a negative so I had never seen the negative option missing.

  17. I had not noticed it before and probably would not have for a long time if it was not for this post and the comment from Dave. Thanx. But... this is distracting us from the very interesting issue that is brought up by David: 'Is Google going to play the role of the agencies'? I would consider that sereously if I was Google. During my visit to Google the focus was on 3 things: video, video, video. It is obvious that they want a bigger piece of the cake of the budgets of large advertisers. That's what the want te agencies to focus on. Wat they miss in my opinion is that there al a whole lot of small advertisers that do not have the big budgets and never will digg into the 'rich media'. Those smaller advertisers do also lack the knowledge to run a good campaign. With an automated campaign it is a lot more difficult to measure the results. Dissapointment will follow I expect. Here is an important role for the (smaller) agencies to add knowledge, and keep the advertisers getting (measurable) results and keep advertizing..... Hope that Google will realise that in time.

  18. It seems to me that the leveled playing field that was SEM not too long ago was a temporary phenomenon. Money talks, and search industry is no different. The pie will always get split between the big boys and the smaller advertisers will be left with crumbs. The niche is liberal for as long as the companies with huge budgets are not paying attention. The small businesses will play by the rules set by Google and others because they have no choice. They will rant and rave but they'll still play. Google is starting to court bigger advertisers because they know the small Mom 'N' Pop's have few options. They came in with idealist beliefs in equal access to info and by extension to the markets but they are selling out, just like everyone else before them.

  19. " I could even see Google creating two user interfaces, one with the bells and whistles experts want, and the other with rudimentary reporting that novices desire." Well, they already have the "starter" and "regular' interfaces, but I think you mean something more wide-spread. I don't think Google is going after the SEM industry. I think Google is diving straight for the fat - of the lazy majority. These are the ones who will not hire a professional PPC manager at all, or at least will refuse to pay reasonable rates for their services. There are THOUSANDS of these people who are running adwords campaigns and have never even thought about conversion rate. I know this because my phone rings daily with a dozen of them. My #1 rank in Google for "Google Adwords Consultant" brings 'em in, and they're clueless and cheap 90% of the time. They are wasting money right and left, but won't hire anyone for more than $25 an hour. Think Superpages replacements here. IMO, Google *wants* that sweet sticky mess. It's just laying there for the taking.

  20. mislyd

    "Theory #2 also puts Google into direct competition with search marketing agencies. If Google really can create an automated system that delivers ROI for advertisers, what’s the value of search agencies?" I agree with this. I am a SEM agency with MNC customers, but Google is going direct to my premium customers! I can't believe they did that. That is a clear indication to me that they want to cut out the middleman - me. :( Anyone else experienced that?

  21. Definitely, they confuse the hell out of my clients - Yahoo! does it too, though. Even as a Search Marketing Ambassador and a Google Adwords Professional. But one time they did call me, but I think it was by accident since I put my phone/email on my clients' account information. I honestly think they "hadn't considered" the manager / adwords professional / MCI folks before starting these telemarketing campaigns. They just did a spreadsheet, sorted it by monthly spend, and started dialing.

  22. Google is diving straight for the fat - of the lazy majority. These are the ones who will not hire a professional PPC manager at all, or at least will refuse to pay reasonable rates for their services. There are THOUSANDS of these people who are running adwords campaigns and have never even thought about conversion rate.

  23. That would be a short sightet policy. Due to the still increasing numbers of advertizers and raising CPC's it would become unprofitable for those 'thousands' (probably a lot more!) to maintain a campaign. At that time they (and Google) need party's that can help them make visable what the results of their advertising are. If not, they will quit advertising. Al those togheter is still a lot of money for Google I guess.