Making sense of AdWords Display options

I often come across many misconceptions and misunderstandings about the display targeting options available in AdWords (including in tutorials and articles on otherwise very reputable industry blogs). So I thought I might give it a shot myself at explaining the options available.

If you regularly log into a Google AdWords account or if you follow industry news, you may already know that Google recently consolidated all the display targeting options previously available at various locations throughout the interface under a single tab now called “Display network”.

The options currently available are:

  • Display Keywords: better known as “contextual targeting”. You provide the keywords and AdWords takes care of selecting the best pages within the Google Display Network, whether they are blogs, e-mails (within Gmail), news websites, mobile apps…
  • Placements: using placements, you are in control of where your ads appear. Use the placement tool to find websites which might work for you and hand-pick placements manually.
  • Topics: select groups of placements depending on their content. Using this option, you don’t have visibility on which websites or domains your ads will be displayed.
  • Interests: target people based on their interests regardless of the placement (meaning that your ads might be displayed on pages unrelated to what you are advertising). Google groups its users categories of interests (over 1,600 categories to choose from) based on the websites they visit, third party cookies and information from “social networking sites” (possibly Google+, Twitter…). Note that Google currently doesn’t use users’ search history to categorize them, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see this change implemented shortly.

Now here is where it gets interesting: you can combine those targeting methods to refine your targeting and reach your ideal audience with much greater accuracy.

You are presented with two options (campaign settings tab): “Broad reach” and “Specific reach”

AdWords Display options

Broad reach: the “primary targeting method” is used for targeting but specific bidding options from other targeting methods (if any is set) will be used whenever applicable. For example: if you have keywords and placements for a particular ad group, the keywords will be used by the system to decide where your ads will appear, but if an ad appears on one of the placements in your list, then your placement bid is used.

Specific reach: the equivalent of an “and” logical operator: all conditions must be met for your ad to be displayed. If you have keywords and placements for an ad group, then only pages from those placements which also match your contextual targeting settings (keywords) will be eligible to display your ads.

AdWords Display options broad reach AdWords Display options specific reach

What is the primary targeting method?

This is where it gets serious: Google is not very specific as to why the broad reach option works this way, but whenever you select more than one targeting method, the system follows an order of priority to decide which one is the “primary targeting method” that will effectively be used to decide where your ads are displayed.

The order of priority is as follows:

  • Keywords
  • Interests
  • Topics
  • Placements

This means that, for example, if you have selected keywords and interests, the keywords will be your primary targeting method and will define where your ads will be displayed, but the audience/interests bid will override the keyword bid for placements matching both your keywords and selected interests.

AdWords Display options primary targeting method

So which option is the best for my campaigns?

  • If you are building an awareness campaign or your goal is to generate a large volume of qualified traffic to your website, then I would suggest that you use the broad reach targeting option. Use topics or interests to quickly select all the categories relevant to your business. Check your placement report a couple of days after the launch of the campaign to make sure you are not wasting your budget on irrelevant websites. If this is the case, you can either exclude those websites or add keywords which accurately describe the kind of content you want to target (thus switching to contextual targeting as your primary targeting method).
  • For a lead generation campaign or if you are promoting an e-commerce website with a specific CPA or ROAS target, then you will most likely need to select the specific reachoption. This will allow you to select several targeting methods to refine your targeting and improve your results. Example: Let’s say that you are selling DSLR cameras: you will be able to target a large number of relevant websites by selecting the “camera” topic, but adding keywords like “DSLR” or “reflex” to your ad group is likely to give much better results by allowing your ads to appear only on websites and pages within this topic which specifically relate to DSLR cameras.

AdWords Display reach vs accuracy

What’s next?

As a matter of fact, I do have a crystal ball in which I can see the future of Google Display advertising (that and the eye of Sauron from time to time). Here is what it says:

We can expect Google display targeting to become increasingly relevant and powerful as Google starts implementing the knowledge graph. (Learn more about this subject in this video from Google or check out this article my esteemed colleague Mohammed wrote recently.)

This change in Google’s algorithm should provide it with a better understanding of the content and context of a page and the kind of people who interact with it (author, comment section, clicks on Google+ button…) which should in turn allow for more precise targeting of your ads to the right audience.

With the rise of Google+, I also believe that it is only a matter of time before Google adds connection targeting to the options available on the display network. Just like on Facebook, but on a much wider network, advertisers will have the possibility to target friends of people who have plus one’d their page (it’s a new verb, get used to it!).