An Overview of Targeting Options on the Google Display Network

October 15, 2019

Have you ever purchased something from an advertisement you saw while browsing your favorite sites or apps? Or maybe you were shocked to see an ad for something you researched, mentioned, or even just thought about buying a while ago? What you likely saw was the Google Display Network (GDN) in action. Spanning across 2 million websites and reaching over 90% of people on the internet, GDN serve ads to users while they browse websites, Gmail, YouTube, and apps. Unlike Search Engine Marketing (SEM), display ads are less direct in that users don’t have as much intent as they would when searching specifically for what they want. This means that Impressions and CPC’s are cheaper to come by – but you shouldn’t underestimate the power of these ads. With advancements in machine learning, Google’s algorithms are better able to understand the customer journey and serve the right ads at the right time and place. Since there’s less intent with display ads, advertisers must put more of an emphasis on targeting in order to maximize their spend. In this article, I’ll explain how to set up targeting for a successful display campaign.

Targeting Options

There are 2 categories of targeting users on the Google Display Network: audience and contextual. 

Audience targeting is based on specific users who may have visited your site before (remarketing), are in the market for a given product (im-market), or fall within specific demographics. 

With contextual targeting you can place ads on specific website/app URL’s (assuming they’re a part of GDN) on pages that contain specific keywords or topics that you indicate. In addition to the type of targeting, you can also select the degree of “Targeting Expansion” you’d like each ad group to target. Increasing your reach allows Google to broaden your targeting based on audiences similar to your target audience. I recommend setting this to “Off” at the initial launch so that budget gets focused on your selected targets before allowing Google to expand beyond and find potential customers.

Contextual Targeting


Placements are specific sites or apps you want your ads to appear. This is useful if you’re, let’s say, a life science company and you know which life science websites (or any website) that you know your ideal customers are browsing. Since Google’s reach is so extensive, there’s a good chance that the place you want to advertise is within the network. To evaluate the performance of your placements, you can view “Placements > Where Ads Showed” and pull the data to see which placements are wasting money. If you spot any “bleeding” placements you can easily exclude them from your ad groups and campaigns.

Keywords and Topics

Contextual targeting allows you to target ads on specific URL’s or content that’s based on keywords that you specify. I recommend using a list of 15-30 keywords that are about 1-3 tokens long (e.g. “raw denim” = 2 tokens) so that Google can better match your keywords to pages and serve ads on placements that are highly relevant to your business. If your keywords have too many phrases and your topics are uncommon then you might receive the following warning and your ads won’t serve.

When adding keywords you’ll also be asked to select the “Keyword setting” that you want to target – either audience, topic, or keyword. Google recently sunsetted the audience keyword option in April 2019 in favor of custom intent audiences based on keywords. I like to use the keyword setting so that I have more control if I want to exclude certain keywords. Just like placement targeting, you can analyze the performance of certain placements and exclude them; this can’t be done with audiences.

Audience Targeting

The 2nd targeting category is for audiences, which is especially helpful in remarketing since Google can keep track of users that visit your site and serve ads to those same users while they browse elsewhere

You’ll find the standard options for audiences such as: “in-market”, “custom intent”, and “custom affinity” below. I’d suggest giving these audiences a try if you’re desperate to expand your reach. Google’s machine learning improves over time so you can be confident that they’ll find you the right customers. That said, I highly recommend you review performance here to make sure everything is going as planned.

Protip: If you navigate to “Tools & Settings” > “Audience manager” > “Audience Insights”, you can see Google’s recommendations for audiences based on their index. Index refers to frequency with which audiences appear on your list vs the general population. For example, if your index on flights is “4x” this means you have 4 times as many users on your list then expected. 


Now you should be ready to target your advertising on the Google Display Network and I hope you’re excited! Display ads are a great way to reach customers no matter their stage on the customer journey. They’re relatively cheap and can yield great results when done right. But don’t think that targeting is all you need; good creative is equally as important. So what if your ad gets in front of your ideal customers? If your ad doesn’t compel them to click (and convert), then your hard work is all for naught. For tips on maximizing your creative material please browse our educational materials. If you have any questions please feel free to reach out or maybe you’ll find what you’re looking for on our site. Thanks!