Targeting on Google’s Display Network (GDN): The Lowdown on Layering

Historically, the Google Display Network (GDN) had limited features, and it was impossible to fine-tune and narrowly target segments/users/customers.

Today, there are more ways advertisers can target people/users interested in buying products or services.

Furthermore, we’re better able to layer products so they work in tandem. In this article, I’ll discuss some of the targeting options available and discuss some of the ways I like to layer them into campaigns.

The inspiration for this article came from a Pub Con session called New PPC Ad Types (specifically Kevin Adam’s presentation from RankHammer).

Getting Started With GDN Targeting Features

Here are some pointers, which I’ve tailored to search marketers but are helpful for anyone getting started with specific targeting:

  1. Search is very specific — and as such, it has a much smaller reach than display. Although it may feel like second-best, we need to go broader sometimes and go “where people are,” especially if we have an exceptional offering that is new, from a strong brand, likely to get people talking and so on. Display can do what search cannot. This is potentially the riskiest PPC spend there is — you can waste a lot of money if you’re not careful.
  2. As I mentioned earlier, new Google targeting options provide more choices and control for advertisers. Specifically, the positive targeting options like interests, topics, placements, remarketing and keywords. They can be combined for greater precision (more on this below).
  3. I recommend using the “Target and Bid” setting. This makes the targeting you’ve selected a requirement and will only place a bid in the auction if a specific target is present. The “Target and Bid” setting is great for direct response. It also prevents cannibalization of other PPC campaigns you may have set up.
  4. I like to use the “conservative” targeting option. This is the default setting in Google, and it finds additional customers at your current cost per customer. On the other hand, the “aggressive” targeting option uses Google’s Display Campaign Optimizer. Note: Turning on any setting to find additional customers may seriously dilute your results. If it’s turned on for your Remarketing campaigns and results start to go south, for example, consider shutting it off.

Following are some of the targeting options you can use in your Google Display Network campaigns, along with how to put them to good use.

1. Topic Targeting

Topics are essentially the category of the page the user is searching on. Without specific topics, the default targeting is “all topics,” and ads will not be specifically targeted.

Naturally, topics can be very useful for display advertising. For example, Home & Garden -> Bedroom -> Bedding & Linen would be a great topic for a company that sells bedding.

Similarly, you could advertise fishing rods and tackle boxes to fishing enthusiasts inHobbies & Leisure -> Outdoor -> Fishing, as it would make sense for these ads to appear on hobby fishing pages.

Selecting specific topics can work well, but volume can be pretty low in cases like this. Thus, I’d only use this strategy if you were working with a higher-volume account, where all the work that you put into it will be worth the effort.

I use negative topics to fine-tune and block sites that I don’t want my ads to appear on. In the above example, I’d add Auto & Vehicles, Beauty & Fitness and Books & Literature as negative topics to help ensure my ads showed to fishing enthusiasts. In theory, Google should be able to figure this out without advertisers having to include negative topics, but this is the best workaround we have for now.

Remember, this is more top-of-the funnel advertising. Your conversion figures will not be as high as they are on the search side of the equation. It’s important to be as specific as possible with ads so you don’t get a lot of tire kickers who won’t end up engaging or buying something from your company.

2. Interest Categories

Google can only target interests if they have data on the user. Because of this, “interest” targeting is often mobile-heavy. There are a couple of types:

  • In-Market Audiences are users who are actively researching or comparing products or services across the GDN. This audience is valuable, as they are further down the funnel and are closer to making a purchase. A good example of this is a Saab car dealer who targets folks who have been shopping for BMWs. I have yet to see this work super-well, but I have really high hopes for this targeting option. Also, advertisers can layer the in-market on top of their remarketing lists to increase reach while maintaining relevancy.
  • Affinity Audiences takes a broader view in allowing advertisers to target users based on their interests. Unlike in-market audiences, these users are not necessarily in the market to purchase a product at the moment.

I like to mix interest segments with sites related to those interests. Google provides reach estimates broken down by demographics and top interests.

I rarely use negative interests. I find it hard to gauge intent based on interests, as people’s interests can be quite varied and unique.

When targeting by both interest and topic, I like to include one interest per ad group with a set of similar topics. With this, you’re telling Google that the ads in this ad group should target users with specific interests while they’re on web pages with a specific topical focus.

This allows me to have a good understanding of which interest/topic combinations are converting. The narrower focus also makes it easier for Google’s algorithm to figure out exactly who and where to target.

3. Placement Targeting

If you already know which websites your target audience is visiting, you can use this targeting option to show your ads on those sites. If you’re not sure which sites to target, try using the Display Planner.

My strategy is to launch campaigns without this targeting option enabled, then look at the specific sites my ads were placed on. If my ads have not performed well on a site, I exclude it from showing my ads.

This is time-consuming, but it’s a very beneficial strategy to screen out specific sites that don’t perform. Check often, as rogue sites can creep in. I add the negative “” to avoid showing in apps.

Here are some more tips:

  • If the placements work well, I make them a “managed” placement.
  • URLs up to two subdirectories deep can be targeted.
  • Personally, I like adding negative topics to an account, then folding in negative placements. Done right, I find that this can block most of the traffic I’m not interested in.

4. Contextual Targeting (By Keywords)

Using too many varied keywords makes targeting too broad. Google’s algorithm is trying to find either the words directly or the context of the page as they relate to the keywords. Here are some tips on GDN keywords:

  • Google takes time understanding themes, so I use five to ten keyword terms that are very tightly related in terms of theme.
  • As contextual can be slow to ramp up, I overbid at first and reduce my bids later.

5. Demographic Targeting

I love demographic targeting, and I find that demographic info is a huge help in accounts. Demographics include age, gender and parental status.

In my experience, the “unknown” segment is typically anywhere from approximately 10 percent to 30 percent. It’s 33 percent in the example below:


I like to also include negative demographics. Excluding groups like men, women or specific age groups can be useful. It can be especially useful to segment ad groups for better messaging.

7. Site Category Exclusions

Finally, though this isn’t listed alongside the GDN’s other Targeting Tools, AdWords allows you to exclude site categories at the campaign level. The category options include sites, content and ad placements (error pages, parked domains, social networks, “bizarre” pages, suggestive content, below-the-fold and so on).

Excluding sites that aren’t appropriate for your business/audience can certainly help improve your ROI on Google Display Network placements.

Final Thoughts

With the right targeting, the Google Display Network can become a powerful channel in your digital marketing mix. How are you using it?

Originally posted on Marketing Land – Targeting on Google’s Display Network (GDN): The Lowdown on Layering