facebookIcon tracking


Guide to Acquisition on the Google Display Network

Published: December 6, 2017

Author: Bob Sturges

The Google Display Network (GDN) is Google’s network of millions of websites, videos, and mobile apps that enable advertisers to show ads on those placements. The GDN can be used to acquire new customers and/or increase brand exposure and interest. At 3Q Digital, we’ve found that GDN acquisition can work well for three primary client types:

  • App-based clients
  • Lead generation
  • eCommerce

It is important to keep in mind that GDN acquisition is unlikely to perform as well as paid search if you’re using click-based last-click attribution. While it is a low-CPC channel, it is also a channel that can drive a large volume of poor quality leads.

In this post, we’ll give you a full (bullet-pointed) list of considerations and options for tracking, targeting, campaign structure, creative, and more. It’s a big list, so bookmark away.

Tracking and Measurement

It is unlikely that a GDN test will be successful unless view-through conversions are given some value. Even with the most granular targeting available, there is far less intent in GDN than in Google Search, and GDN inventory can be very low quality.
We generally use one of three attribution scenarios:
1. Evaluate incrementality uniquely for that client
– Attribution Platform: MTA (multi-touch-attribution) like Convertro 
– Google’s Conversion Lift Test if there will be sufficient volume for the results to be meaningful.
– Google Analytics Assisted Conversions
2. Flat 20% attribution: If a test is not practical, 20% is a rough average we’ve seen across our accounts when we have tested the incremental value of view-throughs
3. No value: As a last resort, if the client is unwilling to give any value to view-throughs, you can give 0 value, but it’s less likely that the GDN test will successfully hit efficiency goals.

Targeting Options

Contextual targeting

These targeting types allow you to find relevant site content to show your ads. There are two sub-types:

  • Content Keywords: Target or exclude by a page’s key phrases. This targeting relies on similar technology to Google’s SEO algorithm to read a page and determine what keywords are relevant to that content

  • Topics: Target or exclude by a page or site’s central theme. Site content is grouped together in pre-determined sets of topics.


Reach specific groups of people, or audiences, that fulfill your targeting criteria. Options include:

  • Audience Keywords: Target people likely to be interested in your keywords, even when they may be browsing content about other topics.

  • Interest categories: People are grouped into specific interests based on their browsing behavior across pages, apps, channels, videos, and content across YouTube and the Google Display Network as well as on YouTube search results.

  • In-Market Segments: Users who are actively searching/shopping for products. To qualify someone as being in-market for a specific product or service, Google takes into account clicks on related ads and subsequent conversions, along with the content of the sites and pages they visit and the recency and frequency of the visits.

  • Remarketing: People who have visited your site before.

  • Similar Users: These audiences are built off of your remarketing lists and share characteristics with the seed list. This is Google’s equivalent of Facebook’s “look-a-like” targeting. Often this will have very low volume.

  • Demographics: Age group, gender, and household income.

Placement targeting

Select/exclude specific websites and apps. You have two options:

  • Managed Placements: Target or exclude specific sites, mobile apps, videos or channels.

  • Site category options: Allow or exclude by Display Network categories, like crime, police, and emergency.

Acquisition Campaign Structure

GDN campaigns should be segmented by targeting type to best control performance and spend. When you are building GDN acquisition for the first time, it’s typically best to test targeting in the following order (the items at the top of the list are most likely to perform):

  • Similar Users: build lists off of your converting remarketing audience, or even your highest-value converters. Volume will be very low here, but it can be a good starting point.

  • Content Keywords: Target your top performing search terms in the GDN.

  • Audience Keywords: Target audiences interested in your top search terms. This often works best when layered with Interest, Affinity or In-Market audiences from GA or AdWords audience insights to narrow in on your core targets.

  • In-MarketTarget users who are actively shopping and researching for a specific product/service type.

  • AffinityTarget audiences of users who are generally interested in pre-selected topics.

  • Smart Display: this targeting type should only be used in select cases since it is a complete black box and it can be challenging to build off of any success here. If the client is lead-based, this strategy is particularly challenging since you won’t be able to make adjustments based on downstream lead quality and revenue data. You may elect to test this campaign type on accounts with very limited spend that are unlikely to scale.

Note that Display Select Keywords (DSK) and Keyword Contextual Targeting (KCT) are both deprecated targeting methods that are loosely replaced by Content & Audience keywords above. We do not recommend Search and Display Select campaigns.

Campaign Settings

When building your acquisition campaigns, keep these best practices in mind:

  • Target & Observation (formerly Target & Bid) vs. Bid Only: Be careful to review your ad group settings. There are cases when you may be layering audiences simply to bid differently, when you should use “Bid Only,” and others where you want only the overlap between multiple targeting types, in which case you should use “Target & Observation.”
  • Exclude mobile apps by excluding the placement adsenseformobileapps.com.
  • Exclude your remarketing audiences from all acquisition campaigns.
  • Add every relevant ad type and size available to each ad group.
  • Group similar targeting together within ad groups (i.e. all keywords can go in a single ad group); do not attempt SKAG or SPAG.
  • Avoid “Targeting Optimization.” If you elect to use this default feature, Google will reach beyond your targeting methods to find new users and you’ll effectively turn your campaign into a black-box similar to Smart Display. This targeting setting should NEVER be used in remarketing campaigns because it will turn remarketing into a blended remarketing/acquisition campaign.
  • Do not make targeting mutually exclusive. We do not need a similar negative tactic like Alpha/Beta control or the exclusionary method often used in Facebook targeting..
  • Test tCPA! We’ve seen promising results with a range of accounts.
  • Optimize for Conversions: Ad rotation should be set to optimize for conversions to drive the best possible performance from each subset of the target audience. This will work particularly well when paired with tCPA.
  • Set a mobile bid modifier. Consider what ad sizes you have available and what performance you expect from mobile. Set a negative modifier for mobile based on your knowledge of the account. Note that if you’re using tCPA, that modifier signals to the system what CPA goal you’re going after for mobile, not an adjustment on the bid as it will if you’re on manual bidding.

Ad Copy

Ad Copy Types

  • Image Ads: Static or interactive (HTML5)
    • Recommend using at least the common sizes to reach majority of GDN inventory
  • Responsive Ads: Auto-generated ads based on manager input headlines, descriptions and images
    • Offers flexibility across websites and apps
    • Replaces text ads, which were retired in January 2017
    • Should always be used in GDN campaigns as they typically drive the best performance thanks to broad inventory
    • Advanced advertiser controls for Responsive Ads Beta gives you more color and format control
  • Gmail Sponsored Promotions (GSP): Collapsed > Expandable ads in Gmail
    • You can highlight single products, multi-product catalogs, or even have a video or form fill in the ad unit itself
  • Dynamic Display Ads: Show personalized content from a product feed
    • Can select from Google Templates or create your own
    • Generally strongest performing for remarketing

Ad Copy Best Practices

  • Create relevant and compelling messaging
    • Align your messaging with your targeting. Example: For prospecting, highlight your brand and products. Prominent logo, HD imagery. For non-purchasers, utilize product-specific imagery and strong CTA/offer (Dynamic Remarketing)
  • For image ads, utilize as many sizes as possible and definitely use the most common:
    • Desktop: 250×250, 200×200, 468×60, 300×250
    • Mobile: 320×50, 300×250, 320×100
  • Test, test, test: Create multiple ad variations with different imagery, CTAs, and headlines
    • Be sure to apply learnings to new tests
  • Rotate in fresh creative approximately every four weeks
    • Image ads become less effective over time because of ad fatigue
    • While refreshing ads is important, flighted messaging is not recommended. If you are seeing strong performance tied to an audience & copy combination, leverage it as long as possible without a cap.

Optimization Tactics

  • Use tCPA whenever possible as quickly as possible. This is best achieved by minimizing segmentation.
    • Manual: CPCs are lower than search, so smaller changes can equal larger results
  • Exclude high-volume low performing placements and do not worry about any low-volume placements so that you’re not constantly playing placement whack-a-mole
  • Add other exclusions by determining patterns & categories to exclude
    • Use frequency capping
    • Recommend starting at 5-10 imp/day/ad
  • Limit demographics
    • Cut based on known customer base
    • Cut based on performance data (even when it’s on tCPA to help control even further)
    • Avoid cutting ‘unknown’ unless it’s really problematic or we’re budget-constrained

Other Common Campaign Types

  • Gmail Sponsored Promotions (GSPs): Target users in GMail
    • Users are shown a collapsed ad at the top of the Promotions tab in their Gmail account. When clicked, it expands
    • All standard GDN targeting is available, but you only show on the GMail placement
    • Can be used successfully for lead gen and e-commerce
  • Smart Display Campaigns
    • Automated targeting, bidding, and ad creation
    • Utilizes responsive ads; upload images, logo, headlines, and descriptions, and Google will mix and match
    • Virtually no control and complete black box results
    • Mixed results with clients and no opportunity to scale from results

Summary Recommendations (TL;DR)

  1. Set the expectation that results will not match paid search
  2. Determine value of view-through conversions
  3. Use tCPA
  4. Use Responsive Ads
  5. Refresh ads every four weeks
  6. Watch out for poor lead quality

If you made it to the end, bravo! Again, we recommend bookmarking this as a reference. If you have questions on anything GDN-related, drop a comment or drop us a line anytime.

1 S Wacker Drive
Suite 2250

Chicago, IL 60606(650) 539-4124


Want to become a client?

Contact Us decorative arrow

Want to join the team?

View Our Openings decorative arrow

Find us on social media.

Press inquiries.

Email Us decorative arrow

Expert insights for your inbox. Subscribe to our content.

Accept No Limits.