Knowing When to Remove an Under-Performing PPC Keyword

By John Lee, Hanapin Marketing

Some keywords in a pay-per-click (PPC) campaign can work well immediately while others need specialized optimization in order to enhance performance. But how do you decide when it's time to pause or even delete a keyword to which you dedicated so much time nurturing and optimizing?

Before banishing a keyword, let's examine some ways you can attempt to salvage them with proper management and reporting. This is where the process begins for determining whether a keyword can stay or if it has to go.

The first and possibly most important piece to consider is how much time you have allowed a keyword to generate stats and perform. If you load a keyword on day one, and decide by day two to get rid of it, you may be missing some opportunities. There are so many variables at play, and so many chances to test, that you need to be certain of your decisions. The next question on your mind may be, How many clicks or how much ad spend should be recorded before making a decision?

Examine Your Keyword-level Quality Score

Every keyword is different, just as every business is different. The number of clicks generated or amount of money spent to qualify a statistically-valid decision will greatly depend on the market for your keyword. This should be approached from a comparative standpoint; if similarly trafficked keywords are meeting your click-through rate (CTR) or conversion goals, then it's time to begin aggressively testing your problem keyword so that you can make your final decision.

What should you examine first? If you're working in Google AdWords, the first place to look should be your keyword-level Quality Score. If it is low (in this example, anything under a six), then you have work to do. No keyword stands a chance of having a decent life expectancy if you maintain a low Quality Score.

To improve a low Quality Score, first review your ad texts. Do they contain the keyword in question? Next, review your landing page. Does it contain the keyword in question? Both of these factors will have a major impact on any keyword Quality Score. It might seem like an obvious oversight, but it's one that is often repeated.

There is a deep relationship between your keyword, ad texts and landing pages. If disconnects emerge at any stage of the process, your keyword may not be relevant to search engines, and therefore will not perform to your standards. For example, if your keyword is not in your ad texts, you will have a low CTR. Similarly, if you neglect to place your keyword on landing pages, you will have low conversion rates. And the same general rules apply to all the major search engines.

Keyword Average Position and Bid

Some keywords perform well as bottom-feeders - those keywords that consistently display your ads between the bottom of page one and the top of page two on search engine results pages (SERPs). Other keywords necessitate being in the top five, or even top three positions to reach their full potential. If your keyword has reached bottom-feeder status, try increasing your bid to display your ads prominently in the search results. The exact opposite can be true as well. Is your keyword's average position 1.1? Does it also have the highest cost-per-lead of your campaign? Lower that bid and your position and see if that fixes the problem.

Match Types and Negative Keywords

When efforts to optimize your ads, landing pages and bidding techniques don't seem to be working, it's time to dig in at the granular level. If you've been running your keyword on Broad Match (or Advanced Match at Yahoo!), chances are you've opened up a wide-range of search queries. Test your keyword with all available match types and you might find that Exact or Phrase Match actually perform much better. It's possible that Broad Match was too far-reaching.

That does not mean, however, that you should stop using Broad Match altogether. It can be a great way to discover new keywords and to get matched with search queries (and customers) you might have otherwise missed. This is where negative keywords and search query reporting comes into play.

Google AdWords' Search Query Report can be used to see why a keyword isn't performing. You could be driving traffic from search queries that have nothing to do with your product or service. Take that information and use it to create a thorough negative keyword list. You might be surprised how much a thoughtfully crafted negative keyword list can improve any keyword (or account's) performance. Through your analytics providers, those using Yahoo! Search Marketing and Microsoft adCenter should have filters available to snag those search queries for the same level of reporting.

Other Important Techniques

Seasonality is another factor to consider for your keyword. Many keywords suffer or excel during certain times of the year. This is important to remember when advertising for travel services, holiday- specific products or numerous other time-sensitive keywords. Use tools like Google Insights for Search or Google Trends to see how your keyword performed over time. This should allow you to discover the peaks and valleys of performance. Compare this to your keyword's performance and, if they match, this would be a strong sign that you should pause, or at the very least lower bids during your keyword's off-season.

After going through all of these optimization tactics, it is possible that problem keywords still exist, throwing your entire PPC program for a loop. Try taking some drastic measures. Literally quarantine your problematic keywords into their own ad groups - one keyword per group. This will allow you to focus all of your ad group's attention to making that one keyword really perform.

Moving On

When none of these tactics work to improve the performance of your keyword, it is time to start anew. Once you've put in the time to systematically test variables to improve your keyword's performance, you can confidently make the decision to pause or delete it from your campaign.

However, it is important to note that deleting a keyword will completely remove it from your PPC account's interface. Pausing a keyword has some advantages, as you can still review stats from your account dashboard for comparative purposes.

As you return to your PPC accounts and begin reviewing your stats, remember that knowing when to pause or delete a keyword shouldn't be a knee-jerk decision. Consider the time your keyword has had to become a part of the PPC landscape. To truly know your keyword's life expectancy, carefully test each variable - from your ad texts and landing pages for Quality Score, to bidding strategy, match types and negative keywords. Only after exhausting all possibilities can you make the decision to pause or delete your PPC keywords and start with a new campaign.

About the Author: John Lee is a senior search marketing consultant for Hanapin Marketing in Bloomington, Ind. He is a regular author for both of Hanapin's search marketing blogs: and He can be followed at