Your Guide to Targeting Prospects on Google’s Display Network (Part 1)

by Adam Kreitman

Last updated on February 14th, 2018

Think Google AdWords is just about targeting people who perform searches on Google?

Think again!

Google Search is just part of the puzzle. In fact, there are FAR more Impressions, Clicks and, possibly, Conversions waiting for your business on Google’s Display Network (GDN).

google display network placeit

The GDN is a huge network of websites—from the New York Times site down to tiny sites hardly anyone knows about—that run Google ads.

As a website owner, by placing Google ads on your site, you share the revenue (with Google) that’s generated when someone clicks an ad on your site.

As an advertiser, it gives you the option to place ads that could potentially be shown across thousands of websites that reach an estimated 92% of global internet users (according to Google’s figures).

The trick is knowing how to target your prospects effectively on the Display Network so your campaign gets the Impressions and Clicks that have the best chance of converting for you.

Targeting options are constantly evolving, and there are some intriguing new ways to target people on the GDN. If you’re interested in giving GDN advertising a try, here’s a primer on the different targeting options you can use to target your ideal prospects.

But, before we start, here’s a word of warning…

Advertising on the GDN Is Not for the Lazy or Faint of Heart

Most of the targeting methods described in these articles require that you watch the results VERY closely because your ads are gonna appear on a ton of URLs that don’t have anything to do with your market.

My personal favorite example comes from my own experience: We were targeting sites that were supposed to be about marketing and noticed ads appearing on a website that was basically a live webcam of a chicken coop in the Boston area (and, no, you couldn’t pay to place your logo/slogan on the chickens!).

Off-the-wall placements (“placements” are the web sites/pages your ads show up on) like that are not uncommon on the GDN. So when managing most GDN campaigns, you’ll be spending a lot of time on the ‘Placements’ page under the ‘Display Network’ tab.

display tab

On this page you’ll see what sites your ads are being displayed on and can exclude the sites that are not performing well and/or not good fits for your business. If you don’t spend the time excluding these sites in a GDN campaign, your money can evaporate quicker than you can say “chicken coop.”

Okay, so with the understanding that you’ll be spending a lot of time excluding suspect websites from your GDN campaigns, let’s take a look at the first few ways you can target your prospects and find the websites and targeting options that will convert for you…

Contextual (Keywords) Targeting

If you’re familiar with AdWords at all, you likely think of it as a way to target prospects based on the keywords they type into Google. Well, you can also target people based on keywords on the Display Network. It just works a lot differently from Search (just one of the reasons you ALWAYS want to keep Search and Display in separate campaigns).

In the GDN, it’s known as Contextual targeting. Here’s how it works:

On their end, Google analyzes all the URLs where their ads can appear and assigns them a theme based on the content of the page/website.

On your end, you select keywords related to your market. Compared to Search campaigns, where you’re generally being very targeted with your keyword selection, in a GDN campaign, you’ll usually want to select a broader group of keywords.

In a Contextually targeted campaign, Google places your ads on websites where it believes the theme of the content on a web page matches the theme of the keywords in your campaign.

What Google also does, however, is show your ads to people who have recently been looking at websites related to your keywords.

So, for example, let’s say you sell bowling balls. Someone may hop online and start looking at sites related to bowling. Then, they get distracted and decide they want to see the latest gossip on Justin Bieber. (Surely most bowlers love Justin Bieber. I mean, they’re only human.  😉  )

Anyway, they hop over to some celebrity gossip sites. But because they had been recently viewing bowling websites, it’s quite possible your ad can show up right next to a picture of the Biebs.

If you don’t like the idea of your ads showing up on sites like this, you can exclude the sites on the Placements tab or use Campaign Exclusion settings which we’ll cover later in this series on GDN targeting.

When it comes to GDN campaigns, we don’t run campaigns that only use Contextual targeting very often. When we do use it, it’s usually because a Contextual campaign is a nice way to cast a wide net and find some good placements to target. Which brings us to…

Managed Placements

With Managed placements you select the specific websites you want your ads to appear on. There are a few main ways to find these placements.

1. Do a manual search of sites related to your niche and see if they’re running Google ads on them. If you find some good site during your search, you can go into AdWords and add them to your campaign.

2. Use the Display Planner, where you enter keywords and/or a landing page URL and the Planner gives you Placement ideas (among other targeting options). You can access this by going to Tools | Display Planner in the top navigation in your AdWords account.

3. Use the Placement targeting tool in the AdWords interface. This allows you to type in keywords or websites to generate a list of sites Google thinks are related. Here’s are the top sites Google returned when I was looking for sites related to bowling balls and bowling shoes…


As you can see, it will give you the URL (ie. Placement), what types of ad formats the site runs (text, image and/or video) as well as the estimated Impressions per week for the site.

4. This is the one we use most often. It’s where we use other targeting methods (like the Contextual targeting that we just covered, as well as other targeting options like Topic, Interest, etc., which we’ll be covering in a future article),  and let Google place our ads on sites their algorithm thinks are relevant.

We like this method because, at the end of the day, even with the methods listed above, you don’t know better than Google and its algorithm what sites your ads should go on. That’s why we set up “Discovery” campaigns using other targeting methods and then mine the data for placements to find the diamonds in the rough.

Once we find good placements from the Discovery campaigns using other targeting methods, we’ll move them into a separate campaign (or ad group) where we can try to optimize them further.

One word of warning, though, if you do this. When you move a placement into a new campaign, it could significantly affect the results.

To reduce the chances of royally screwing things up, what we do is add the placement to a new campaign or ad group, increase the bids a bit BUT keep it active in the original campaign / ad group. We let the two run simultaneously and, once the placement is getting impressions and performing well in the new campaign / ad group, we’ll exclude it from the original.

The Bottom Line

Managed Placement and Contextual Targeting are pretty straightforward and have been around since the dawn of GDN advertising.

However, there are a number of other GDN targeting options that have been introduced recently that we like to use even more. We’ll dissect those in Part 2 of Your Guide to Targeting Prospects on Google’s Display Network. Check back for more PPC insights, coming soon.

Check out more Crazy Egg articles by Adam Kreitman.



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Adam Kreitman

Adam Kreitman coaches business owners on how to make their websites more compelling to their prospects.. and to Google. He owns Words That Click, a firm specializing in Conversion Optimization and managing Google AdWords campaigns for small businesses.Follow him on


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  1. RongReu says:
    June 12, 2015 at 4:16 am

    Hi Adam,

    Thanks for your sharing. My question is: how to optimize the Facebook campaign with my GDN and Adwords targeted?

    Hope to hear from you soon.

    Many thanks!

  2. Bryan says:
    February 18, 2015 at 12:42 pm


    Additionally, how do I ensure automatic placement won’t show on my managed placements only campaign? There used to be settings to easily change this but with the several targeting features that have rolled out, its a bit confusing. Any insight is greatly appreciated.

    • Adam Kreitman says:
      February 19, 2015 at 3:37 pm

      Hi Bryan-

      You can exclude placements at the ad group or campaign level so you’d just need to do that for any placements you don’t want to appear in your automatic placement ad groups/campaigns.


      • Bryan says:
        February 19, 2015 at 4:04 pm

        Hey Adam:

        Let me rephrase. In the managed placements only campaign, how do I assure automatic placements don’t show? Make sure the flexible targeting is set to Target & Bid? There used to be a setting that you could enable to essentially only show on the managed placements added and no longer show on automatic.

        • Adam Kreitman says:
          February 20, 2015 at 2:46 pm

          Hi Bryan-

          When you initiall set up the campaign, you just choose the Placements option and the campaign should only show ads on the placements you select. If you haven’t already, check out this Help page:


  3. Bryan says:
    February 17, 2015 at 8:30 pm


    Great article – thanks for the read!

    When shifting ‘good’ automatic placements to a separate managed placements campaign, do you layer in contextual (keyword) targeting so you’re still being placed on the most relevant pages within a particular site? Or at this point, do you add the placement as managed without keywords?

    • Adam Kreitman says:
      February 18, 2015 at 9:31 am

      Thanks for the comment Bryan and great question!

      The answer is it depends.

      If the original campaign was set up using contextual targeting, then we’d want to carry that over into the new campaign. If not, we don’t. Basically, when shifting placements around, we generally want to keep things set up the way they were in the original campaign as much as possible.

      That said, you have to use some common sense and think about the placement itself. If the placement is on a site that has a broad range of topics, then you might want to consider layering in contextual targeting to try to further improve your results and take a “good” placement and make it even better.


      • Bryan says:
        February 18, 2015 at 11:23 am

        Hey Adam:

        Thanks for taking my question!

        Here’s my current situation:

        The original campaign is setup using contextual targeting AND includes managed placements that I’ve added over time as I’ve scraped ‘good’ automatic placements and added as managed. However, I’ve noticed a significant decline in impressions, clicks, etc. so I decided to test splitting automatic and managed into two separate campaigns, as your post mentions.

        My intentions are to ‘clone’ the discovery campaign and use for a managed placements only harversting campaign while keeping the discovery campaign active for automatic placements. Since I have added managed placements over time, do you suggest deleting these once I’ve added to the managed placements only harvesting campaign?

        Thanks for the insight, greatly appreciated!

        • Adam Kreitman says:
          February 19, 2015 at 3:36 pm

          Hi Bryan-

          I would not delete placements from the original campaign until you see them getting similar, if not better, performance in the new campaign.


          • Bryan says:
            February 19, 2015 at 4:05 pm


            Makes sense! Do you suggest at least bidding down so they’re not ‘competing?”

          • Adam Kreitman says:
            February 20, 2015 at 2:42 pm

            Hi Bryan-

            Not initially. Changing bid prices can affect things greatly so we keep them the same initially.


  4. chawki trabelsi says:
    May 26, 2014 at 5:40 pm

    Nice article Adam, If we use Placement targeting tool very well, and targeting specific websites where we want our ad to display, our bid per click or per thousand impression will be really cheaper 🙂

  5. Adam Kreitman says:
    April 11, 2014 at 4:16 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Gary. I can’t say for sure, but I bet most of the GDN success you’ve had for your clients have come from web pages that do NOT have Bieber on them! 😉

  6. Gary Victory says:
    April 11, 2014 at 12:03 pm

    Great article Adam. Anything to get my client’s on the same page as Bieber is a bonus, right 🙂

    Joking aside, you highlighted some really important key points for discussion. We’ve had many success stories whith GDN campaign’s, although this very much is dependent on the product or service your are advertsiing.

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