It’s Halloween month around our offices, and, last I checked, the world, as well (we like to keep up to date on current trends), and in celebration of one of my many favorite, food-focused holidays, I thought I’d get into the spirit with the thought experiment of managing a PPC account for a particularly ghoulish client.

And what better client than Hell itself? Suppose Satan, basking in the gilded halls of Pandaemonium, one day decided that Hell should really offer some guided tours, since tourism has dropped off considerably in the seven or so centuries since Dante published his tour guide.

Now if Hell had a website, say*, I imagine that it wouldn’t need much in the way of SEO – being a government site and all – and, if anything, it would probably have some poor soul tasked with sorting through all the link-building requests.

But PPC, now I think we could definitely help out there.** And the lessons one could learn from such an exercise would be well applied to many PPC accounts – as much as I regret to say, there is something to learn herein.

“This account needs a lot of damned negatives”

But before diving in, note that I’m working on Hell as depicted by Dante – that is, the search terms we’ll be competing on will be landmarks, demons, etc. mentioned in The Inferno – after all, if someone is searching for, say, “Malebranche,” why wouldn’t they want to meet them in…person? (And I know the die-hard Milton fans reading this will raise some objections, but I can tell you where to send those.)

So, to begin, I took a quick trip to the Google Keyword Planner and looked up the search volume of some of the leading characteristics of each circle.

And something immediately pitchforked me in the behind: This account needs a lot of damned negatives.

Within the US, here’s what came up:

The search volume of several key Hell terms.

Now keep in mind this is search volume based on exact-matches, so to see a peculiar term like “dis” top the list – that is, receive more searches than Satan – is odd. Damned odd. Now the “Dis” we’re targeting is the city stretching from the sixth to the ninth circle of Hell. One wouldn’t think that it’s that popular of a place to account for the massive search volume, so what’s the deal?

Here’s what comes up when you actually type it into Google:

That Disney stock is going straight to…
And there’s our explanation: “dis,” or, more accurately “DIS” is the stock-ticker symbol for The Walt Disney Company. Some among you may disagree, but the kind of people checking up on the company’s performance are not necessarily the kinds of people we want to target.

Lesson 1: Search terms can mean a lot more than you think.

That is, a specific keyword you want to compete on can have one application in your target market and a lot of other applications in a lot of other, irrelevant markets – and that’s largely why AdWords allows us to use negatives. Quickly, negative keywords allow you to exclude search terms from your campaigns (or even ad groups). They’re an indispensable part of any PPC campaign, and one managers need to perpetually refine. The trick is in choosing the correct keywords to distinguish between the irrelevant audience (in this case, angry Disney investors) and relevant audience (people looking for a city in Hell).

So which negatives would I recommend for Dis?

In the spirit of negatives, I can tell you what I wouldn’t use: Broad match negatives. We want to weed out irrelevant traffic, and broad-match negatives can get a little too creative with the searches they exclude. Instead, I would add “Disney” as a phrase match – so with those quote marks, too. That would exclude all mentions of Disney in any carnation.

But that doesn’t totally solve our problem, since the keyword we’re competing on is “Dis,” and we well can’t make “Dis” a negative or else we’ll be unable to show any ads for it. Instead, we’d be better off heading to the Keyword Planner and looking for new ideas for our keyword – and it doesn’t disappoint; here are some suggestions:

Dis quote
Dis stocks
Stock dis
Quote dis
Dis nyse
Stock quote dis
Dis share price
Dis company
You get the idea. Now we could also make these phrase matches, but I like to be a bit more conservative – and, for an account first staring out, I would probably make these exact-match negatives – meaning that if someone were typing in just these terms, our ads wouldn’t serve. In all likelihood, we would probably end up making these all phrase-match negatives, which would exclude any searches that include these terms plus any additional qualifiers – e.g. “dis quote for today,” or “what is dis share price?” – but, again, I wouldn’t want to exclude too many searches because I doubt the Dis we want people to search for won’t have much traffic to begin with – and we can always refine later. Nevertheless, I’d still keep a close eye on the search terms for the first few weeks to be safe.


Let’s skip Satan for now and focus on this one. And any children of the ‘80s will probably identify the problem with this term, and for those of you who aren’t, Styx is the name of a band…and shame on you.

Another trip to the Keyword Planner gives us another set of exact-match negatives – styx tickets, styx concert, styx tour, oddly, foreigner concerts (which should only be a problem if we’re competing on broad-match keywords – and one handily solved by using broad-match modifiers) – but here’s another roadblock: styx tour.

Since we’re competing on guided tours of the river Styx, we can’t really make this a negative, so we have to get a bit creative.

Lesson 2: If there’s overlap between a term we want to include and one we want to exclude, look for a common theme among the qualifiers and try to exclude that.

Can you spot the common theme?

Clearly one of us has too much time on their hands.
I would say the year. Users searching for a band’s touring dates will typically do so by year because the concerts are infrequent compared to guided tours, which can occur multiple times per day. Someone searching for guided tours of the river Styx would likely search by month or day. Granted, that’s not a certainty, but, more likely than not, we would be safe excluding years from our campaigns.

That said, we still want to be careful not to exclude too much, so, for that reason, I would not use phrase-match negatives; rather I would use exact-match negatives such as [styx tour 2013], [styx tour 2014], etc.

The qualifiers “tour dates” are a bit trickier, and this is something that we may not be able to weed out with negatives, bringing us to …

Lesson 3: Sometimes ad copy is the best negative.

Because I’m conservative, I wouldn’t really want to exclude “tour dates,” because that could exclude too much relevant traffic. Instead, I think focusing on ad copy – and particularly emphasizing that we’re offering guided tours of the river Styx and not Styx concert tickets – will filter out the irrelevant searches. It may not do wonders for our click-through rate, but, given time, some other ideas for negatives may arise. Just be sure to pull search-term reports consistently.

And excuse me for the moment while I do the same. Tomorrow, we’ll move on to a deeper circle than search and explore some other opportunities for negatives. See you then…

*Note, I have not actually checked whether this is a real site or not, so explore on your own at your own peril and with abandoned hope.

**And assuming we would take the client; we do have ethical standards.

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