Display Advertising: Targeting Options 101

With display advertising growing quickly both in investment and sophistication, we thought it would be a good idea to break down the different types of targeting options available and how they differ (and what they are called in the Google Display Network interface, since Google has its own naming conventions for all of these concepts). There are two basic ideas in targeting for display: targeting people and targeting sites.  In simple terms, with targeting methods that are focused on users, you are able to show ads to people across the internet (or GDN if you are exclusively working through AdWords), no matter where their browsing takes them, whereas, if you are using a method that targets sites, you are showing ads to any possible visitor on that site.  From there, we can break down our options further.

Targeting Users:

Site Retargeting (aka Remarketing on the GDN)

By placing special tracking tags on your website, you are able to show display ads across the web to users who visited your site, regardless of what site they are currently browsing. You can target based on activity to specific parts of your site, such as users who visited the homepage or a specific product page.  The shopping cart page can also be tagged, and, by excluding converted users, you can target users who were close to ordering but got interrupted and never completely checked out.  A good rule of thumb is to exclude converted orders from all your retargeting groups so you don’t continue to advertise to happy customers, unless you are going to retarget them for an upsell.

Search Retargeting

Allows you to target users who have searched for terms relevant to your products on a search engine (Google, Bing, Ask, etc) but did not click through to your site.  Later, as the searchers are out browsing the web, you can target these individuals with your ads for similar products on your site. In the example below, the user searches for “tick medication” and clicks through to a general site discussing tick medication (or they don’t click through to any site, but simply navigate to another page).  Sometime later, that user is browsing another website and is eligible to see an ad for your site (in this case 1-800-PetMeds), even though the user never clicked through to the 1-800-PetMeds site from the SERP.

3rd Party Data Buys (aka Interest Categories on the GDN)

Users are categorized based on their previous browsing history and identified with certain likes and dislikes.  You can apply these categories to campaigns to target people who fit certain characteristics or like certain activities.  Buying third party data from providers like BlueKai will allow you to target individuals based on their browsing history or data collected from sites where users enter information about themselves (dating sites, social media sites, etc).  Google’s Interest Categories are developed based on your browsing history.  Curious to see how Google classifies you?  You can see what they think about your interests at www.google.com/ads/preferences.

Targeting Sites:

Site Targeting (aka Placements on the GDN)

Shows ads on specific sites you select, regardless of the user who is visiting the site.  Conversely, you can also block specific sites on which you do not want your ads to appear.

Categories of Sites (aka Topics on the GDN)

Shows ads on sites that fall into specific categories you would like to target.  Again, this is independent of the users who happen to be browsing that site.  For example, say you want to target sites in the “music streaming” category, which would put your ads on sites like pandora.com, grooveshark.com, etc. without you explicitly having to list them all like you would in site targeting.

Direct Buys/Run of Site (Reserved Inventory Buys typically on youtube.com through the GDN)

You can buy a block of impressions to show on a publisher’s site with varying specifications depending on the site’s capabilities.  You can dominate a specific spot on the page with your ads for the whole day, get a guaranteed number of impressions for the whole week, etc.  Your ad will be blasted to anyone who browses that site or one of its sub-pages.  These deals are usually negotiated on a case by case basis.

Combining the Two:

You can, of course, overlap these methods in a campaign. This will make your targeting more precise, but in many cases it will greatly shrink the available traffic for your ads.  For example, say you set up a retargeting campaign with a specific site list also applied to that same campaign.  Alone these two would have 2 distinct pools of traffic to pull from.

But together, only the combination (users with the retargeting tag AND happen to be browsing the site on the list) is eligible to have an ad show. It’s just like the Venn Diagrams from 3rd grade, it leaves a much smaller group of potential users that will see the ads.

Traffic volumes and the available audience size will also vary by the type of targeting. For example, with retargeting the pool of qualified users is small and restricted to users who have already visited your site. They have a higher likelihood of conversion and would be a good strategy for an ROI-focused initiative.  Run of Site can be a great method for a branding initiative because the potential traffic volume is large and not as specifically targeted. Depending on the goals of your program you may want to try different combinations or hybrids of these campaign strategies.


Join the Discussion