How To Stop Wasting AdWords Dollars On Bad Traffic

Image via Flickr user scobleizer

Are you wasting your dollars on inefficient Google AdWords campaigns?

Based on my research, yes. You’re wasting about 20% of your total spend. But the good news is you can easily fix the problem.

While Broad Match-driven campaigns easily drive traffic, you’re probably wasting money on low-quality traffic. You can optimize your landing page as much as you’d like, you’ll still waste ad spend on users who don’t want to buy your product.

If you invest a little effort into optimizing your keywords, you’ll drastically increase your conversion from click to customer.

Broad Match Gone Wrong

Let’s look at a real life example.

I worked with a company that runs a logistics marketplace. On one side, it has truckers who have extra capacity in their rigs. On the other, it has businesses that need to ship items.

The company ran an AdWords campaign to build additional truck capacity, targeting truck owners and operators. They settled on simple keywords using Broad Match, such as “truck loads”.

“Truck loads” gets a lot of traffic, but its queries are highly variable. Because there are so many matching queries (all with different intent), many of the people who clicked through didn’t convert to users.

Note: to measure conversions, set up a conversion pixel. It helps to determine which terms lead to a successful conversion or outcome. It also requires adequate traffic to make data-driven decisions.

For example, many searchers weren’t truck owners. They were consumers looking for cost information by searching “cost of” and “truck load”.

As a result, the company paid for these searches:

  • Cost of fill dirt by truck load
  • Cost of flatbed tow truck

It’s a reasonable match for Google to make but these queries didn’t convert.

The company also tried “flatbed trucking” to acquire businesses for the demand side. They ended up paying for queries like “eBay cars and trucks”, “eBay aluminum truck beds”, and “flatbed for sale by owner”.

Bad traffic, no conversions. It’s like burning money.

How much money are you burning right now? Here’s how to find out.

Perform A Self-Assessment

There are three steps to determine if your keyword portfolio suffers from unoptimized Broad Match traffic.

1. Pull Your Search Query History

Grab your search query history for the past 30 days.

  1. Sign into your AdWords account
  2. Click the Campaigns tab
  3. Click the Keywords tab
  4. Click the Search terms button

Make sure you’ve got the right time period. You’re ready to review.

2. Focus on Keywords with Clicks but without Conversions

Your goal is to optimize how you’re spending money. If your clicks are driving traffic (but not driving conversions), eliminate them using keyword negatives. Remove them immediately from your portfolio.

This step is the easiest way to reduce wasteful spending.

More about negative keywords later.

3. Scan for Other Themes

Check out the keywords that drove conversions. Are there words or themes that don’t match your goals?

For example: if you’re trying to acquire paying customers, why would you want your ads to show up anytime someone’s search includes the word “free”?

These themes and keywords should be easily understandable and specific in nature. “Free” is a great example.

By the way, here’s Google’s guide to Understanding the Search terms report.

“But My Ad Copy!”

Maybe you think none of this matters. Who cares about bad keywords and intent when you can filter people out based on your ad copy? You just want traffic.

The problem is less web-savvy users don’t read your copy! They just click on your ads and cost you money.

Fixing Broad Match in Practice

I worked with another marketplace company focused on healthcare. They connected healthcare providers with people needing in-home care. Ideally, they wanted traffic that would sign up to be a provider or customer.

I reviewed their search query history. They paid for ads triggered by searches like:

  • How to qualify as a caregiver
  • Agencies with highest paid caregivers
  • California pay rate for care and aid givers in California

Plus wholly unrelated queries like:

  • Geriatric dog care (← Yes, seriously)
  • Bon voyage cat caretakers
  • Where to buy memory unit 25

And other queries that didn’t fit, but triggered due to their length:

  • I am a current caregiver with 3-years experience I would like to get certified how do I do that
  • What is the average cost of an independent home caregiver for the elderly?

Whenever you have a query that long, it’s easy for it to trigger your ads even though it’s super specific (and not specific towards you). Regrettably, we can’t tell Google to eliminate triggers based on query length.

But we can eliminate queries with terms like “what”, “who”, and “how” to prevent our ads from showing to users conducting research but who aren’t ready to transact. Here’s how.

Using Negative Keywords

Working with that healthcare marketplace, we found that the company was paying for traffic from users investigating caregiving careers. We asked a simple question: will a user searching with that intent ever convert to a healthcare provider or customer? No, not in our opinion.

It turns out that most of the users investigating careers included the word salary in their search. We decided to exclude “salary“ from our portfolio with a negative keyword.

As you’ll see below, we created a phrase match negative of “salary” so that any search query containing “salary” won’t ever trigger our ads.

We did that by checking the box next to our search result and clicking the “Add as a negative keyword” button. I’ve highlighted the button in blue below.

Next, you can modify how your negative keyword behaves.

Modifying Negative Keyword Behavior

You can choose to have your negative keyword apply to an ad group or an entire campaign.

Again, this is a judgment call. It’s mostly based on how your portfolio is structured. But in this instance, we don’t think that any user searching for “salary” will ever be a valuable click. We select the campaign level.

It’s also important to understand how negative keywords interact with Google Searches. Google uses the same match logic that normal keywords use.

Note: Google treats words in quote as Phrase match keywords, words in brackets as Exact match, and words without either punctuation as Broad match.

We created a Phrase Match negative of “salary” to exclude our ads from any search query containing “salary”.

If we had only selected an Exact Match negative on [salary] instead of “salary”, we would eliminate the specific query of salary from our portfolio. But we wouldn’t eliminate any queries that contained the word salary, such as caregiver salary. Our keywords would still be inefficient.

You’re Not Alone

I did a random sample of 100 queries for a client. I found that greater than 20% of clicks and spend could have easily been eliminated by a cursory review of their keywords.

Why? Two Reasons:

  1. Many queries didn’t have transactional intent. Don’t pay for users to do research about topics related to your ad.
  2. When you use short, broad matched keywords, you give Google license to match your ad to a whole universe of searches. Your campaign around “home health care” could be triggered by home care for dogs! That’s not worth one dime of your money.

Google is smart. But Google doesn’t understand user intent.

That’s why you need to audit your portfolio, see what’s performing, and cut the fat.

My name’s Jon Weinstock. I previously ran performance marketing at I’ve optimized PPC strategies at huge corporations and built them from the ground up at startups. If you’ve got any AdWords questions, reach out to me at