The Simple Guide to the Google Display Network

Millions of dollars flow into the Google Display Network (GDN) every day. But why? Google offers marketers endless ways to promote their products. How is this network different?

To be honest – because it works.

When industry competitors’ search engines are overwhelmed, the GDN can be a great alternative. This reduces competition for inflated keyword bids, so you are more likely to reach users who are actively searching for your products and services. While the audience intent isn’t as strong, you get a much lower cost-per-click and a lot more impressions.

This section explains why you should use the Google Display Network (GDN), how GDN differs from search ads, and how to target your GDN ads to reach the right people in the right places.

Why use the Google Display Network?

The value for GDN boils down to reach and affordability. Prospecting, brand awareness, and remarketing can come at a high cost with traditional search ads. In comparison, GDN bypasses a lot of costly competition from other networks. There are endless options for customizing your targeting too.

Ultimately, you don’t need a fat wallet to set up a campaign through Google Display. All you have to do is choose the right targeting factors for your marketing goal.

With the Google Search Ads, you’re essentially casting a wide web that can be a hit or miss with both the audience and the way they spend money.

In the Google Display Network, on the other hand, you can define your target group in a way that search engines cannot. Since you can target more than just keywords, you’re not limited to the Google results page. Instead, GDN lets you target websites based on audience affinities, market segments, and keywords with custom intentions. You can even choose website placements that suit your target audience.

The other differentiator is volume. Where do the fancy image ads appear when you’re marketing with GDN? To the millions of websites your prospects visit every day.

But really – what’s the difference between GDN and a simple search ad? Let’s examine that now.

Google search vs. Display network

You need a different mentality when using the Google Display Network than when using the Search Network and other networks available in Google Ads. Let’s define some use cases and expectations.

google ads - ppc Example of a Google search ad in Google Serp

Your average conversion rate with GDN is a tiny 0.7%. Why? Because you’re targeting users who may not be at all familiar with your brand. The Google Display Network is primarily a prospecting and branding tool.

The standard click-through rate for this network is still below 0.5%. However, this is still pretty good for potential customers outside of search engines and social networks.

Example of a Google Display Network banner ad

The next key differentiator is the fact that the user’s primary interest is the website content itself – the display ad plays an indirect, secondary role in the attractiveness of the website to the viewer.

Marketers hope that the prospect will see their GDN ad on its way to serving some other purpose. This makes user intent different from showing an ad at the top of a Google results page for a high-intent search term. It’s not surprising that the click-through rate and conversion rate for GDN are below 1%.

Other than search, there are a variety of non-keyword targeting options that span a network of millions of websites. Most Internet users can be accessed through website placements. Your ultimate goal at GDN is to find the right target group size with strict targeting criteria.

There are ways to approach this network with a closer and more relevant focus. Ultimately, remarketing is unlimited – but it involves developing the audience outside of the Google Ads platform. First, let’s examine the standard prospecting options that Google offers and focus on options that are tailored to your brand and those who have dealt with your website.

Remarketing or prospecting on the Google Display Network?

You can aim at the GDN in two ways. First, you can target potential customers on the internet who may not have any prior knowledge of your website, brand, product, or service. Second, you can reach out to users who have been involved in some form with your website. With option 2 you can use the target groups found in Google Analytics for your website. If you haven’t created audiences for Google Analytics websites, it’s incredibly easy to do. Just set up an audience for a user who will take certain actions.

Options in the Google Display Network: Demographics, Affinity Segments, Custom Interests, In-Market, Similar Audiences, Remarketing

Some of the most common remarketing audiences are:

  • General website visitors
  • Users who submitted a form
  • Users who have downloaded content
  • Users who viewed certain product pages
  • Users who signed up for an account or trial offer
  • Users who have completed a transaction or purchased a product
  • Users who started any of the above but left the page before completing

Remarketing and prospecting are two very different initiatives that you can take through GDN. Some companies prefer to focus only on remarketing because reaching users who are familiar with their own brand will drive leads and sales at the cheapest cost. However, other companies focus less on returns and more on raising awareness of their products and services. It all depends on your company’s marketing goals.

Examples of Google display ads

Once you know how to target, you want to create the collateral that will get the attention you need from your ad placements. Here are some great examples of Google Display Ads:

1. SEMrush

Example of a google display ad titled,

The copy of this ad does two things:

  1. Indicates the value (“explode your marketing”)
  2. Provides social evidence (“like our customers”)

It does this with a large white font on an eye-catching blue background with bold oranges and pinks, making it colorful and strong enough to grab attention.

2. Conversica

Conversica Google Display Ad that says

Conversica uses the large vertical format that takes up a lot of space on a page to hopefully get all website visitors out of the “banner blindness”. Your strategy is not to promote your company, but rather an offer: Research on virtual assistants in sales.

3. E * TRADE

Example of a Google Display Ad titled

This is one of the thinner horizontal banners, and E * TRADE uses it to make a bold statement: “$ 0 commissions” in large letters in the middle. The call to action (open an account) is much smaller than the value proposition, so they see the value first before taking action.

Audience targeting for the Google Display Network

How To Achieve Success With GDN Targeting For Prospecting And Brand Awareness:

1. In-market segment targeting

In-market segments are Google users who are interested in broad categories of products and services, including real estate, education, home and garden, sports and fitness, and more. Google defines these segments based on users’ historical views, clicks, and conversions on previous content. There are sub-categories for certain types of each segment, but the criteria Google uses for these are not public. The size of each sub-category can easily reach millions – and sometimes billions – users. It is safe to say that testing a GDN market segment is a good place to start.

However, to create a focused user pool, demographics, device targeting, and other affinities must be layered.

In-market segment for targeting

A simple way to control audience size for market segments is to compare it with Google Analytics data. Google Analytics’ in-market segments are a perfect match for Google Ads. Google Analytics should show you which market segments on your website have the highest conversion rates.

Educated guesswork for targeting on the Google Ads platform can only go so far. Google Analytics has the tools to identify and create data-driven audiences from which Google Ads can learn and optimize. Ultimately, using Google Analytics can help you reach highly skilled users.

2. Affinity audience targeting

Affinity audiences, like in-market segments, are Google users with similar interests, including cooking, fashion, beauty, games, music, travel, and more. These are very broad categories of Internet users. Therefore, it is equally important to find targeting criteria to narrow the size of an affinity interest or its subcategories.

Affinity category for targeting

Rigorously relying on the standard in-market segment and affinity group options in Google Ads can put a heavy strain on your marketing spend budget. Google Analytics can be of great help in determining exactly which affinity groups are getting the highest conversion rates on your website.

Google Ads also creates a “similar” audience based on the Google Analytics audience it creates. These audiences tend to be more focused, making them ideal for testing.

similar audience for targeting

3. Custom Audiences

Custom audiences are another valuable contextual targeting method.

How does it work? In short, Google can show your ads to people who are “likely to be interested in certain keywords and website URLs”. Your ads may also be shown to people who recently searched for your suggested keywords.

Custom audience for targeting

The main difference between custom audiences and other targeting methods is that you aren’t targeting websites that use those exact keywords, and Google won’t just place your ad on specific website URLs. Rather, Google delivers your ads to users on various other websites that have a contextual link to the website URL or keyword from Google.

4. Placement targeting

Google can show your ads on certain websites if placement URLs are provided. This option provides tighter and more controlled targeting as display ad placement is limited to custom websites selected by the marketer.

You could save money by being so specific, but you could also miss out on mainstream websites that your target audience is more actively visiting.

Placement targeting

Put simply, users who visit your website also visit other websites. With custom audiences for affinity (interests) and custom intent (keyword and URL), Google can target these users to other online goals. Think of your specified website as the center of a digital spider web. Google uses the central URL to target users on other URLs on the spider web and to expand your reach to sites you may not know.

These websites may contain content related to your suggested keyword or URL. However, Google knows that these websites are sites that users of your suggested keywords and URLs visit as well.

5. Topic targeting

Google can only place your ads on websites on the topic you specified. Some of these topics may be similar to interests or affinities, or outside of the standard categories offered by Google (such as hiking, camping, or farming).

This targeting is an alternative to researching and selecting website placements for an interest without knowing the implications of those placements.

Three important factors for target group formation

Now that you understand the basic mechanics of targeting and creating audiences, here are three important tips to make sure you are building those audiences better. In the following you will find some important areas in order to optimize the target group approach where it matters.

1. Select the correct devices.

When setting up a display campaign, it’s important to consider where the target audience is using the product and how they are signing up. If the user experience on a particular device is detrimental, or nowhere near as good, consider excluding that device entirely.

For example, is mobile really the right platform for your landing page offering? Can your products or services be easily used on tablets and other small devices? If your company produces games or apps, mobile is ideal. However, if you are marketing business software that will be used on desktop computers, mobile targeting can be costly and unnecessary.

Device targeting

2. Choose the right demographics and locations.

Google allows you to customize various demographics when targeting a display campaign. For example, age and household income are divided into seven different areas. If you know your audience isn’t between 18 and 24 years old, or making up the top 10% of household income, you can easily exclude those users when creating ad groups.

There may also be some states in the United States or in international territories where your company would rather not grow sales. The bids of these locations can easily be adjusted to redirect your budget to more profitable locations.

Location targeting

3. Select the check box for content exclusions.

Before starting a campaign on GDN, it is easy to make the mistake of skimming the additional settings for websites with explicit content. Some advanced content settings are available to prevent your website from appearing on parked domains, websites with sexually stimulating content, websites with sensitive social issues, and more.

By default, Google does not mark these fields. Therefore, they must be selected manually to prevent your ads from showing on unwanted websites.

Content labels for targeting

Optimize the results of your Google Display Network

Now that we’ve looked at targeting methods and specific targeting factors, let’s dig deeper into how to optimize your GDN results.

1. Assess demographic performance and recalibrate if necessary.

Some of your demographics might be great for traditional marketing, but they can perform poorly in a digital environment. Even after setting up a specific demographic and location targeting, it’s important to review the performance of what hasn’t been ruled out. For example, there are some demographic categories (such as “Unknown”) and ages (such as “65+”) that can become costly once launched.

Demographics for targeting

2. Assess placement performance and use this analysis to continually improve.

It’s easy to use Google to check where your ads will appear on a daily or weekly basis after the campaign starts. You can find this information at “Placements -> Where ads were placed.”

Placements for targeting

Filtering placements for unusually high spend or click-through rates can quickly identify websites that pose an immediate threat to the health of your campaign. When considering bulk exclusions, it can be helpful to export web placements within the “all time” timeframe.

Focus on blocking the duplicate placements that don’t produce results, as repeat offenders have a higher priority than sites that come up once with just a few impressions. After identifying duplicates, check the relevance of those websites, how much they spent and whether they resulted in conversions.

3. Think about the ad style and location that will produce the best results.

There are two main types of ads available for a GDN campaign: standard image ads and responsive ads. Standard image ads come in a number of formats including square, rectangle, skyscraper, and banner. These ads are an image-only display option. Here is an example:

Example of a banner advertisement from webmechanix

Responsive ads, on the other hand, offer a combination of text and image options that appear in different formats depending on where the ad is located. The full display consists of three types of images, up to five short headings, one long heading, up to five descriptions and a company name. The short headings and descriptions rotate to find and indicate the top performing combination. Here is an example:

Examples of banner advertising from webmechanix

If you have limited time, budget, or creative resources, it can be difficult to know which display ads are best for your campaign and you may not want to risk testing others. In this case, it’s important to note that studies have shown that 300×250 and 728×90 get more impressions than other ad formats. Half-page ads and large rectangles also get higher click-through rates than other ad formats. If you’re not sure where to start, try the rectangular formats and leaderboards!

Example of a banner advertisement from webmechanix

Find out if the Google Display Network is the right choice for your business

With the right attention to targeting, you can get very strong reach on the Google Display Network. The affordability of the network as well as the separation from the competition make it a viable marketing option.

This guide has covered various targeting and optimization factors that will help you run campaigns on the Google Display Network. Whether you are just starting out or have room for improvement, check out the custom audience features to see if one is right for your next campaign.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in May 2019 and has been updated for completeness.

Kit for using Google Ads

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