Treat them like slaves employees. If they are not working, fire them.

By Christian N.

Keywords: treat them like employees, if they are not working... fire them!

And if they are working hard,
breed promote them.

I have a twisted mind.

I see my keywords as my own personal slaves and I’m merciless towards those that fail to make me money.

Am I crazy?

I don’t think so.

Are you crazy?

Yes, if you let your keywords sit around doing nothing or if you let them waste your hard earned money day in and day out.

I’d like to tell you the story of how we cut a campaign’s number of keywords down from 200K to 9K while getting the same performance — and what we’re doing to get more with less.

Quick question first: what is the purpose of a keyword?

To make money.

Nothing else.

Why most advertisers don’t follow this principle is a mystery to me.

Here’s a staggering statistic:

Out of a small sample of 5 million keywords tracked in over 200 accounts that use the Adwords conversion tracking code, only 5.9% of those keywords have led to at least one conversion. That means that 94.1% of keywords are essentially doing something else other than making money.

You can argue about the validity of that statistic… but I’ll bet you a thousand Mangolian Tugrik that you will find it to be true in your own account.

A keyword starts making money when it leads to a conversion. On the journey to that conversion, a keyword must first get an impression then get a click. For most of us, any keyword that doesn’t go through those 2 first steps will never accomplish it’s destiny and ultimate purpose of making money.

You can also argue about keywords that assist in clicks or conversions. Take a thorough look into your own data, I’ll bet you another thousand Malawi kwachas that they’re not that many. In fact, in most accounts, they are so few that they can be neglected.

So what are 94.1% of keywords doing anyway?

Keywords with NO impressions are
wasting your time.

They’re asleep, dozing it off instead of working. That’s the fat in your account that needs to be trimmed out. With time, they’ll be so many that it will be hard for you to optimize. That’s the cost of the a so called “long-tail” strategy that I used to hear quite a lot a while back. I’ve seen advertisers keep hundreds of thousands of keywords, while only 10% of them ever generated an impression over the course of 3 years.

Keywords with impressions but NO clicks
are also wasting your time.

They’re pretending to work. Having too many of these will contribute to a low global CTR that can potentially hurt your Quality Scores. Take special attention to those that get lots of impressions and no clicks, those will definitely hurt you.

Keywords with clicks but NO conversions
are wasting your money.

These are the most dangerous type. Left untouched, they will bleed your account to a slow death and you’ll join that little herd in the corner that only swears by SEO or that other group on the side that curses Google claiming that pay-per-click doesn’t work.

What follows is a quick exercise for you. If you’re not shocked by the end of it, you can ignore the rest of this article, it’s not for you. If you’re shocked by what you find, well you have some cleaning to do.

How many keywords are wasting your time and money?

By using filters, you can discover how many of your keywords are doing what they are supposed to do or not. The screenshot below shows the three areas to look at: the keyword tab, the filters and the result.

Note: If you have a Tenscores account, the Budget area will show you this information, you don’t have to do all the filtering work below.

  1. How many active keywords are in your Adwords account? First, find out how many ACTIVE keywords are in your account. That means keywords that are not paused or deleted and are eligible to receive impressions.To find how many they are:
    • Create a new filter and choose “Status” in the filters drop down menu.
    • Uncheck the “Not eligible to run” field. This will exclude all keywords that are paused or in ad groups/campaigns that are paused .
    • Check the result at the bottom. Then share it with us in the comments.


  2. How many of them are wasting your time? Keywords getting NO IMPRESSIONS are clearly just dozing off. Keywords getting impressions but NO CLICKS are pretending to work. Make sure you take a very large date range (“All Time” is recommended) to make sure they’ve had enough time to prove themselves.To find 0 impressions keywords:
    • Click on the “+ Add another” link. This will create a new filter alongside the one you created above.
    • In the filters drop down, click on “Performance > Impressions”.
    • Choose the “equal” sign then enter “0” in the field. This will show you keywords that have 0 impressions.
    • Look at the result.

    To find 0 clicks keywords, repeat the process and choose “Clicks” instead of “Impressions”.

  3. How many of them are wasting your money? These are the rebels. The bad boys. The criminals. The ones you should be watching closely. Keywords that get clicks but NO CONVERSIONS will contribute to a high cost-of-acquisition; that’s when they’re kind enough not to get you completely broke.To find how many they are:
    • If you have done so in the last step, create a Filter to see all keywords that at least 1 click.
    • In the filters drop down, click on “Conversions > Conversions (1-per-click)” .
    • Choose the “equal” sign then enter “0” in the field. This will show you all keywords that have at least 1 click and 0 conversions.
    • Look at the result.

    You can also see how much you’ve wasted on those keywords.

  4. How many of them are actually making you money? This one always amazes me. It’s always a very small number of keywords that are responsible for 100% of conversions. Very often less than 10%. That’s your gold. These are the keywords you should cherish, expand, increase bids for, dance for, sing for… you get the point.I don’t have to explain the steps to find them, by now you should know the process. Look at you, all grown up now.


A few words about assisted clicks & conversions
Using the exact same process described above you can find out about keywords that assist in clicks or a conversions. As I said, these are usually very few and I personally don’t spend too much time on them. I prefer gathering a list of high converting keywords and trying to find more like them, over and over again.

If they’re not working,
fire them.

Time to crack the whip.

It’s crazy how much tolerance most advertisers have in regards to their keywords. The vast majority let keywords sit around and grow old while doing absolutely nothing.

Keywords that don’t convert will either cost you in management time or they will waste your money. Now that you know how to look for them, you need to find your own strategy on how to treat them. Ask yourself the following questions:

How will you treat keywords that
have 0 impressions?

Are you going to give them time to prove themselves? If so how much time is that going to be? How will you track the “age” of a keyword in your account? You can use labels. Personally, I don’t bother, if a keywords doesn’t deliver impressions within a few days (sometimes even hours), I pause it. The reason being that I always want to focus my time on keywords that really matter, the ones that complete conversion funnel.

How will you treat keywords that
have 0 clicks?

How many impressions will be enough for you to say good-bye and terminate them? If I’m dealing with an account that has bad quality score, I’ll let a keyword gather about 150 impressions. If no clicks, I’ll pause it. The reason being that 150 impressions to get a click is a very low CTR and that will have very negative impact on my quality scores and ultimately, my costs. However, if I’m in an account that has no quality score problem, I may wait a while, 1000 impressions even, the reason being that it might potentially be a high return keyword even with a low CTR. This is usually the case when I’m dealing with a very well optimized account and I’m trying to squeeze some clicks and conversions out of Google.

How will you treat keywords that have clicks
but 0 conversions?

These are the worst ones. Keywords that get clicks always have costs, they will bleed your account to death if you don’t watch over them carefully. Or they will quietly increase your cost of acquisition (CPA) without you knowing it. To deal with these keywords, it’s important for you to know what your maximum profitable CPA is. Personally, when a keyword has reached twice my target CPA in click costs and it hasn’t delivered any conversions, I’ll most likely kill it. Sometimes I might wait if I have some hope that it might deliver and I might let go up to 3x my target CPA, but that’s rare, and I’ll always pause it at that point. You can set rules in Adwords to do this automatically for you.

How will you treat keywords that have conversions above your maximum profitable CPA?

These are keywords that are doing the work they’re supposed to but not efficiently enough to make a profit. These aren’t bad keywords, they usually just need a little bit of help, a little bit of optimization here and there. The first thing I’d do is to bid less on these. Often times an increase in quality score might be necessary. Sometimes all they need is new landing page specific to them that can increase their conversion rate and thus reduce CPA. Whatever they need find it. And if you can’t, you might have to let them go in the end so you can focus on keywords that truly matter.

If they are “really” working hard,
promote them.

This is where the hidden gold is. What are your top 10 converting keywords? You need more like them. Find out which one they are and ask yourself the following questions:

Are any of them in broad, phrase or
modified broad match?

If so, pull out a search query report and find out exactly which search queries they are attracting. Add the new keywords as exact and modified broad match. You can add them as phrase match as well but modified broad is sufficient. The reason why you don’t just add them as exact is because you want these new keywords to continuously find new search queries for you.

Are you bidding at maximum profitability
for those keywords?

Put them in their own campaigns if necessary and try different bidding options: enhanced CPC, conversion optimizer, or manually figure out the optimal bid. At the very least, increase or reduce their bids considerably and see how the needle changes, you’ll be able gauge how much you should be bidding in order to squeeze the most out of them.

Do they have low quality score?

If their quality scores are below 7/10, they’re not performing at their best. Put each of them in their own ad groups (this is the only case in which I recommend having single keyword ad groups) and create new ads relentlessly until QS goes up. If it’s really low, like 3/10, you’ll need to bid aggressively while testing new ads. When I struggle with increasing QS for a keywords that is 3/10 or below, I will double or triple the bid while testing new ads (you absolutely need new ads, it doesn’t work as well if you just increase bids). When QS start to go up, I will progressively decrease the bid to the keyword’s avgerage CPC. I will keep reducing the bid until my traffic volume starts to dip.

Can you find synonyms?

Most keywords have synonyms. Go to and start looking for other terms people might be using to search for the same thing. If you’re on a mac, use the native Dictionary app, it works great to find similar keywords to the ones that are converting. A keyword that is composed of more than one word can end up generating a dozen new ideas simply because each word has multiple synonyms.

From 240,226 keywords to 9,433
with better performance.

Vince had over 200,000 active keywords in one of his campaigns and a fraction of those were responsible for all his conversions — 3,000 of them to be exact . We paused the huge campaign and created a new leaner, meaner one using only the 3,000 converting keywords.

The results?

  • Week 1 – We got half of the performance of the old campaign. Using the methods I described above and mining through search queries, we expanded the campaign to about 9,000 keywords and…
  • Week 2 – The campaign started performing as well as the old one.

Vince got married (Congratulation again Vince!) recently so we had to suspend our experiment, but we intend to exceed the old campaigns performance by continuously expanding and optimizing the smaller list of keywords.

Less is more.


The hidden cost of a “long
tail strategy”.

Having hundreds of thousands of keywords in your Adwords account only makes sense if each and everyone of those keywords are working to accomplish your advertising goals. If they’re not then they are — at the very least — costing you management time and making it hard for you to optimize the ones that do matter.

Some people advocate the use of long tail keywords as an effective Adwords strategy; I don’t. It is only effective when it works, meaning when you’ve expanded your account by intelligently adding keywords that do what they’re supposed to do. Most of the time, it only bloats your account.

There is a reason why match types exist. They allow you to attract impressions from keywords that are NOT in your account. Like long tail keywords you’d never guess on your own. Use broad match type as a tool to expand your keyword list. You can get performance data on a keyword before ever “officially” adding them to your Adwords account. Keep sifting through your keyword search query reports to find what to add and what to remove.

Don’t let yourself get suckered by your keywords.

Keep it lean.

Don’t make it more
complicated than it really is.

I’m a big fan of simplicity.

I sometimes read articles on the web or comments in linkedin forums from experts or people who call themselves experts and they like to go on and on about every little detail that they know about PPC. Often times, everything they say is 100% true. But often times, 98% of it is unnecessary.

For instance, you might be tempted to discard this article and spend much time figuring out if keywords are assisting in clicks or conversions and you might look for reasons to keep them. That’s complicated. Instead, I urge you to simply experiment with a new campaign using only the keywords that convert, and expanding that campaign every week for a month. Then you can decide if you like it that way or not. That’s simpler.

In everything, there are always a few things that matter more than everything else. Focus on the significant few and spend the rest of your time drinking a cool beer under the sun.

About Christian N.

Chris is one of the two-man team that founded, he wrote his first PPC ad in 2007, fell in love and hasn't stopped ever since.
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  • Mike Erickson

    As always – an engaging and thought provoking post Chris.

    I agree with most of what you said except one item: Assisted conversions

    From my limited data, I would say that MOST conversions are assisted. I approximate 70%. When you factor in the niche, you might a long buying cycle results in even a higher amount of assists.

    But yes, I agree with you, keywords that don’t convert (direct or assisted) need to get tossed…er killed.

    • Chris

      Thanks for the compliment Mike. 70% assisted, that’s a lot. Thanks for sharing. I’m curious to hear if other people find such a high number, my data suggests it’s not the case for most advertisers.

      • Mike Erickson

        Correction – I meant total site traffic. I’ve found 70% of users need to interact with a site more than once before they convert. You’re right – assisted conversions involving adwords is maybe half of that.

        • Chris

          Can you share the percentage of keywords that have generated recorded conversions? Thx

          • Mike Erickson

            Chris, every time we talk, I always walk away stepping my PPC game up.
            When I look at assisted conversions in Analytics, I never trace that back to individual keywords.
            The best kind of PPC manager is the one that’s always improving. Cheers buddy!

  • Shriharsha Bhat

    Hi Chris,

    A very good read! I agree with most aspects. Even i have noticed these things about my account. I have two queries:

    1) Is it really necessary to pause or delete these keywords which haven’t resulted in any conversion nor too much in wasted spend? I know its a long shot but they might just result in some conversion over time.

    2) Some of these keywords (broad and broad modifier) might actually be helping with assisted conversions even if they themselves have generated few impressions. What to do with such keywords?



    • Chris

      Great questions.

      1) Yes, pause them. They’re not doing anything useful. Most people adopt the same attitude in thinking that one day a keywords will miraculously start doing what it’s supposed to do. It won’t. And match types exist so you don’t miss out on searches. You need to focus on the keywords that are working and find more like them. Everything else is distracting you away from that.

      2) That’s up to you to make the call. I personally don’t bother with those most of time. But if you’re in the same situation as Mike, then I wouldn’t dismiss them. What I prefer is to conduct a test with one campaign: I pause the campaign and create a new one using only the converting keywords and I expand that new campaign slowly over the course of a month. Usually, I get better performance.

      The idea is to give you room so that you can focus your time on the keywords that are making you money.

      • Shriharsha Bhat

        Thanks Chris, that makes sense. I will try this and see how it goes.

  • Emma

    Great post as usual!

    Want to add a small note – the reason some keywords get 0 or very few impressions can be a symptom of internal competition. For instant if your broad general keywords (often with higher competition and higher bids) triggering general keyword + model number and leads you customer to the start page instead of your high converting product page.

    An easy way to find out if you have this problem before you sack your useless keywords is to use a pivot table and see how many search terms you have per ad group. :)

    • Chris

      Hi Emma, you always have great additions to my blog posts. I should send them to you before I publish to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything :-)

      Pivot tables and excel spreadsheets are a pain though, we’ll need to build a tool for that. coming soon…

      • Emma

        haha Anything for you! Love your posts!
        Indeed, getting tired of crashing excel..
        A tool somehow to analyse search terms would be great, see costly search queries without conversions for instant!

        • Chris

          Working on it, stay tuned! ;)

  • Neeraj Thakur

    Great insights! Quite liked your Lean approach for executing campaigns for high profitability! :)

    • Chris

      Thank you. Less is sometimes more.

  • Keyword Hoarder

    Active Keywords

    0 impressions

    0 clicks

    Clicks but no conversions


    • Chris

      Let me translate that…

      0 impressions: 88%
      0 clicks: 96%
      clicks but no conversions: 3%
      converted: 0.9%

      You don’t have to hide or be ashamed, you’re not the only keywords hoarder. At least you’re brave enough to share. Congratulations for admitting, that’s the first step.

      (I think we’ll soon have to start a group called KHA – Keyword Hoarder Anonymous)

  • Jordan McClements

    It’s especially difficult to take advantage of long tail keywords now that Google refuses to display ads for the vast majority of them (low search volume). I guess this approach worked a lot better many years back before they introduced the low search volume thing (and made themselves millions of extra dollars).

    • Chris

      Exactly Jordan, and a lot of people are still doing this to their expense.

      • Jordan McClements

        I’m not convinced it actually does any harm though…

        • Chris

          It does. Insidiously. If you only have couple hundred keywords or even a couple thousands, you won’t feel the harm that much. But as time goes by and your account grows, it becomes harder to optimize if you don’t purge it regularly. Ask Mr Keyword Hoarder in the comment below with over a million keywords.

  • Mukesh Shah

    Good and useful advise. Dr. Glenn Livingston Hyper responsive club goes further and focus on few most relevant keywords. If we check ROI then I am sure we can drill down to few hundred keywords for any business to focus on. 80/20 will lead to profitable 4% and those are ones to worry.

    • Chris

      Thanks Mukesh. I don’t who this Dr. is but he does have the right diagnostic.

  • Ivan Beemster

    I’m a sucker for complexity, so this will be valuable approach. Props! I will testify of another sin though: I have a few accounts without any real conversion tracking…

    • Chris

      Be careful Ivan, if you keep sinning like that you’ll never reach the adwords heaven! :)
      Let us know the results you get once you apply the approach, we’re very interested.

  • Miles Wooglar

    Chris please can you share with us your cut off criteria for when you
    deem a keyword useless e.g. x clicks or
    no clicks after x amount of impressions, plus time periods for testing. Thanks

    • Chris

      Hello Miles, it depends on the business, how long it’s been running, the results it’s getting and the current objective. If you give me an example that you’re working with maybe I can give specifics.

      (sorry for late response, I only noticed your question now)

      • Miles Wooglar

        Hi Chris

        The example is for an eCommerce site. The info below is for an ad group as well as for a specific keyword. Thanks

        BMM – Pierre cardin luggage
        clicks 8
        impressions 681
        CTR 1.17%
        no conversions
        Avg pos 2.6

        specific keyword doing most of the work
        +pierre +cardin +luggage
        clicks 6
        impressions 570
        CTR 1.05%
        Avg pos 2.6

        • Chris

          – Keyword is getting impressions: yes
          – Keyword is getting clicks: yes
          – Keyword is getting conversions: not yet

          You need to give that keyword more time to acquire more clicks and prove to you whether it can generate conversions (or not). If your average conversion rate is let’s say 3% and after 200 clicks the keyword is still not converting I’d either kill it or see if the problem is with the landing page.

          It sounds to me like you’re working with a new account that is very young in maturity, in which case you need to give all your keywords a lot more time to gather data.

  • Ashok Patidar

    Excellent highlight Chris. I am actually suffering through such complexity issues in some of my client accounts. I have never thought to remove those that are either not incurring any impressions or not generating any clicks. I always thought that they are not harming me, but they are actually hurting me in the long run given that they also need some sort of management time. You tips opened my eyes and gave me a great idea of how effectively I and my team can manage multiple clients in less time. Thanks and Cheers!!!

    • Chris

      This can make big changes. And if you instead focus on your top keywords, you’ll find it easier to find more like them.

  • Tony Mceachern

    I do not have a huge account and many have keywords have bee recently paused. 1466 though

  • Preeti Mittal

    Do not use many keywords into single adgroup. Break them into different ad group so that quality score remains high.