Keyword blocklists: What they do and whether you should use them


After a year like 2020, it’s easy to understand why keyword blocklists have become an even more common practice in the advertising world.

Keyword blocklists are sets of keywords that appear in content that you do not want your ad running alongside of. In other words, blocklists prevent ads from appearing next to content that contains specific words.

Their use largely applies to current events and news content while digital advertising.

Some top examples include:

  • Shooting
  • Dead
  • Explosion
  • Death
  • Bomb
  • Murder
  • Gun 
  • Rape

At a glance, it makes sense that advertisers want to promote brand safety, guarding against any association with inappropriate or damaging content. A fashion brand, for example, would not want to advertise its newest products next to an article about rape. However, the use of keyword blocklists is a bit more nuanced than that.

For example, you could have the keyword “shoot” on your blocklist, but that keyword is very context-dependent. A photoshoot and a school shooting are two very different things.

Vice recently called on marketers to reconsider their blocklists as it pertains to racism. In fact, even the use of “coronavirus” on many blocklists has not worked how intended, where 76 percent of coronavirus content is actually considered to be safe. This means that when three out of four news stories at one point were related to the coronavirus (aka COVID-19), many advertisers missed out on potential campaign reach.

Simply put, it’s the potential of missed opportunities that makes some question the use of keyword blocklists.

So, are keyword blocklists right for your business? Here are some factors to consider.

One-size-fits-all approach reduces reach and impact

First of all, there is no recommended one-size-fits-all approach to keyword blocklists. 

Yes, some obvious keywords (like “terrorist”) make sense, but if you tend to get excessive with your list, you will find that your digital advertising is overly restricted with an ad spend that won’t lead to the results that you’re looking for.

Think context before expanding your blocklist with keywords that (at a first glance) might make sense but ultimately could have perfectly fine uses in the content you actually want to appear next to.

Keyword blocklists need to be updated regularly

It’s all too common for keyword blocklists to be added to but not fully revised.

Why is this important?

Outdated keywords often stay on blocklists long after they are related to a breaking news story.

One example is the term “Las Vegas,” which was commonly listed on blocklists after the October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas. To this day, there are blocklists that continue to contain “Las Vegas,” which is possibly a huge missed opportunity depending on the brand that’s advertising.

This also speaks to the need to ensure that you’re choosing the right keywords. Yes, there was a mass shooting in Las Vegas, but would a travel agency want to miss out on content talking about visiting Las Vegas during that same time period? Again, context is king.

So, not only do you want to maintain a blocklist that is relevant, but you also want to frequently update it so that you don’t end up missing out on reach and conversion opportunities. Consider whether you have the time and resources to keep up with your blocklist relevance.

Would blocked-content categories suffice?

One key point that can be missed in conversations about keyword blocklists is the effectiveness of content blocking at the category level, such as illegal drug content and adult content.

Looking at the categories you set in that manner, is that enough? It very well could be, and in that sense, any additional keyword blocklists could overly restrict where your advertising appears. Again, missed opportunities and limited campaign reach are common with excessive keyword blocklists.

In conclusion

The most important consideration to keep in mind is your brand and the context of content your digital advertising could appear alongside. 

Where are the risks? Where are the opportunities?

From there, you can decide if content-category blocking is enough or whether keyword blocklists are right for your advertising to ensure brand safety. If you decide to use a blocklist, remember that you should keep the list to a bare minimum. When adding to it, keep in mind how long a new keyword should be listed.

Keyword blocklists are a tool that will only be as powerful as the consideration and attention that you give it.

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