The Ultimate Guide To The Google Display Network

The Google Display Network provides a great opportunity to reach 92% of online users.

But all the time I hear marketers telling me that the Google Display Network doesn’t work or the leads that it generates are poor.

So what gives?

If you are not generating a consistent stream of high quality leads from the Google Display Network your not using it effectively.

Today I am going to break down how to use the GDN effectively. I’ll show you the different targeting methods and ad formats and when to use them. I will then walk you step by step through creating your first Google Display Network campaign.

Why people on the Google Display Network don’t buy

One of the most common complains that I hear about the Google Display Network is that people don’t convert in the same way that the do on the Google Search Network.

The reason for this is because people on the GDN are in a different stage in the buying cycle.

People on the Display Network are not directly searching for what you offer, compared to people on the search network that are.

Therefore they have less conversion intent and will enter the sales funnel in the awareness phase, as opposed to the interest phase.

As a result of this the display network has:

  • Lower cost per clicks
  • Lower conversion rates and conversion intent
  • Lower CTR
  • Lower cost per conversions

You will also tend to find that your calls to actions on the search network will not work as well on the display network.

Instead you will want to optimise for top of funnel content that will raise awareness and then you can use content marketing to push people down the funnel into the consideration and intent stages.

Here are some great top of funnel lead magnets that have a low barrier to entry that will convert well on the GDN.

  • Ebooks
  • Webinars
  • White papers
  • Video courses
  • Checklists
  • Demos
  • Consultations
  • Industry research papers

What more inspiration? Here is a list of 69 lead magnet ideas that work well.

We would suggest that you A/B test several different lead magnets to see which ones resonate most with your audience.

I hope that you can now see that with the correct strategy you can turn the Google Display Network in to an effective direct response marketing channel that will constantly generate low cost, quality leads.

Google Display Network Targeting Options

The Google Display Network provides a huge range of different targeting options.

You can choose from the following targeting methods:

  • Display Keywords
  • Placements
  • Topics
  • Interests and Remarketing 
  • Demographics

It is also possible to overlap different targeting methods to reach the most relevant audience.

For example if you want to target people who were interested in bond investing that were between 30 and 65 you could use display keywords to target people who are visiting pages relating to bond investing and then overlap this with demographic targeting to target people who are interested in bond investing and are between age 30 and 65.

Display Keywords

Display Keyword allow you to place your adverts on websites that are contextually similar to your keywords. Unlike the search network there are no match types.

If you were for example were advertising bonds like one of our clients was, you will want to add closely related terms such as “bond investing”, “investment bonds” etc.

Google then places your ads on website that its algorithm has determines are related to those keywords

Because you are giving Google a lot of discretion of where your ads will be placed it is important that you check your automatic placement reports regularly and exclude any irrelevant or poor performing placements.

You can select keywords to target by entering them into the box on the left and then selecting “add keywords”

To identify new keywords you can select “find relevant keywords” or for more advanced users you could use the Google Display Network Planner.

Keywords grouping

In the same way that you would create tightly themed ad groups that have similar keywords for the search network, you need to do the same for the Google Display Network.

Here is an example of how to effectively group keywords on the Google Display Network.

You have too different targeting options:

  • Audience. This allows you to show your adverts to people who are interested in your keywords and are on webpages, apps and videos that are related to these keywords.
  • Content. This only shows your ads on webpages, apps and videos that are related to these keywords. (When testing this we have often found that this limits reach but outperforms audience targeting)

Placements (Gmail ads also use this format)

Placements allow you to specify websites that you would like your adverts to be shown on.

There are two different ways to search for placements, you can enter a domain that you want to target, or keywords and Google will suggest suitable placements.

For more advanced users you may want to consider using the Google Display Network Planner tools that allows you to search for placements and see their respective demographics and impression volumes.

Another way to find new placements is to use a tool called Whatrunswhere that allows you to see where your competitors are running their display ads.

**Gmail ads also are technically placements. 

To place your adverts on gmail you need to add the placement

You have too different targeting options:

  • Target and Bid. This allows you to show your ads on this placement irrespective of your other target methods
  • Bid Only. This allows you to add the placement so that you can bid on them and your ads will only be shown when your other targeting methods match too. Think overlapping audiences.

Topic Targeting

Topic targeting allows you to display adverts on websites that Google has already grouped into relevant buckets.

For example for the bond advertising client we targeted people in the category Finance > Investing > Stocks & Bonds > Bonds.

If you want to save time searching through them you can find a list of topic codes here.

You have too different targeting options:

  • Target and Bid. This allows you to show your ads on this placement irrespective of your other target methods
  • Bid Only. This allows you to add the placement so that you can bid on them and your ads will only be shown when your other targeting methods match too. Think overlapping audiences.

Demographic Targeting

Demographic targeting allows you to target people based on:

  • Gender
  • Age
  • Parental status

When using this feature make sure that you base your decisions on data as opposed to gut feeling.

A study by Think With Google showed that 40% of baby products are purchased by households that don’t contain parents.

If you were to exclude non parents here you would exclude 40% of your target audience.

When it comes to the Unknown demographic where Google is unable to match users with their data you will not want to exclude this is most cases.

We have often found that Google is unable to match large proportions in some campaigns so by excluding this demographic you are likely to loose a large amount of relevant traffic.

Interests and Remarketing

Interest and remarketing comprise several different type of targeting:

  • Remarketing (we will not cover this here as we have a detailed guide on Adwords remarketing)
  • Affinity Audiences
  • Custom Affinity Audience
  • In Market Audience
  • Customer Match
  • Similar to remarketing audience (designed for expanding the reach of your remarketing lists)
  • Similar to custom email list (designed for expanding the reach of your custom email lists)

Before drilling down into each of these different targeting options it is important to see how the fit into your wider strategy.

Here are the different stages of the buying cycle that are relevant to “affinity audiences”, “Custom affinity audiences” and “in market audiences”

  • Affinity audiences – These are allow you to target top of funnel users who are currently unaware of your brand
  • Custom affinity audiences – These are best for targeting people who are in the conservation phase that already know your brand and are considering if they need your solution
  • In-market audiences – These are best for targeting users who are displaying behaviour of purchasing

Remarketing & Dynamic Remarketing

Have you ever just been on a website only to find the product that you are just looking at is now mysteriously following you around the internet?

This can be achieved by adding a piece of code to your website that allows you to track who has visited your website using cookies that you can then display ads too.

You can create audiences lists to target people who have visited certain pages on your website, have stayed on your website for a specific amount of time and a whole host of other different factors.

I won’t go into it much here as we have a very in-depth guide to remarketing that you can read here.

If you have a huge product inventory there is also dynamic remarketing

This is where you select a remarketing template and Google will then populate it with products from your merchant feed so users see the last product they viewed on your websites.

If you would like to learn more about dynamic remarketing your can read our in-depth guide here.

Affinity audiences

Affinity audiences are very high level audiences that are not particularly specific. For example you can target people who like particular brands, persons or TV show.

I woud recommend using these types of campings for branding as opposed to direct response advertising.

Custom Affinity audiences

Custom affinity audiences allow you to create audiences based on interests and websites that your audience likes.

For example, following on from our Bonds themes I have created a custom affinity audience that targets people who like the website the financial times and are interested in bonds or bond investing.


In-Market audiences

In Market audiences allow you to target people who are displaying behaviour of being close to conversion

There are several wide audience buckets that you can choose from. To use this feature effectively it is a good idea to layer it with other targeting methods.

For example going back to the bond investing client we would target people who are interested in bonds specifically using keyword targeting or topic targeting and then layer this with In-Market audiences to target people who are both interested in investing in bonds and are ready to invest soon.

Customer Match

Customer match is a slightly different targeting method that allows you to target people with ads on the Google Display Network that are on your email list.

This feature can be accessed by uploading a customer email list to Adwords. Google then matches the list to its users across its different platforms such as Gmail and Youtube.

All of these different targeting methods can be accessed within the interests and remarketing targeting options shown below.

Similar to audiences

Similar audiences work in a similar way to lookalike audiences on Facebook. Google uses their data to create an audience that is similar to your email or remaking list.

Because you are targeting people who are very similar to people who have visited your website or even purchased from you should reach people who are highly likely to convert but have not yet heard of you.


Just as there are negative keywords within Google search there are also negative placements within the Google Display Network.

There are a matching set of exclusions and something called “site category options”. The matching set of exclusions means that you can exclude certain keywords, topics, placements and demographics.

If you want to ensure that your brand integrity is kept in tact and you don’t waste money on poor performing placements you can download this list of 400+ placements to block.

The site category options allow you to exclude a certain types of websites such as parked domains, error pages and sexually suggestive websites to ensure that your brand integrity is kept in tact.

Google Display Network Ad Options

When it comes to ad creatives there are several that you can run on the Google Display Network:

  • Text Ads
  • Responsive ads
  • Image ads
  • Dynamic ads (ad gallery) (we won’t discuss this here as we have an article dedicated to Dynamic remarketing ads)
  • Lightbox ads (ad gallery) 
  • Video ads (ad gallery)
  • General purpose ads (ad gallery)
  • Gmail ads (ad gallery) (we won’t discuss this here as we have an article dedicated to Gmail Sponsored Promotions)

We will now analyse each of these different ads types individually to determine which will be best for your campaign.

 Text ads

Plain old text ads make up 67.5% of ads on the Google Display Network according to Wordstrem and see huge impression volumes.

You might however want to consider swapping them out for display ads as on average they have a CTR of 0.31% compared to text ads with just 0.23%.

Image ads

Image ads are probably the most common format on the Google Display Network and are more commonly known as banner ads.

There are several different dimensions of image adverts available on the Google Display Network.

  • 250 x 250 – Square
  • 200 x 200 – Small Square
  • 468 x 60 – Banner
  • 728 x 90 – Leaderboard
  • 300 x 250 – Inline Rectangle
  • 336 x 280 – Large Rectangle
  • 120 x 600 – Skyscraper
  • 160 x 600 – Wide Skyscraper
  • 300 x 600 – Half-Page Ad
  • 970 x 90 – Large Leaderboard

Wordstream did some research into the percentage of impressions that each different ad format gets using data from advertisers that use their platform.

On key takeaway here is that you need to ensure that you have the top 5 ad format sizes otherwise you are going to loose over 80% of your impressions.

Responsive ads

Responsive ads are a perfect if you are in a rush and want to create multiple adverts to test. They automatically change shape to adapt to the size of the placement on the page giving you great coverage on the Google Display Network.

Here is what the responsive ads looks like within Google.

Lightbox Ads

Lightbox ads allow you to mash up several images and videos to create interactive ads for users to view.

When users click on your banner a lightbox pops up and you are charged every time somebody expands your ad.


Video Ads

Were you just about to watch an epic Youtube video only to be interrupted by an advert that you couldn’t skip?

These are called in-stream adverts and are available within the Google Display campings. Other Youtube ad formats have moved to Video campaigns.

Video ads allow you to either upload a video from your browser to use within your ads or to use an existing  video on Youtube or Spotmixer.

General Purpose Ads

General purpose ads provide you with this ad builder that allows you to create ads based on

Gmail Ads

Gmail ads are incredibly effective and a great way to generate cheap leads.

Here is an example of a Gmail ad creative. If you want to learn more you should check out our post on Gmail Sponsored Promotions.


Setting Up Google Display Network Campaigns

There are three main steps to setting up a display network campaign:

  1. Creating a Google Display Network Campaign
  2. Select your targeting methods
  3. Select your advert formats

To create your first Google Display Network campaign take the following steps.

1. Creating a Google Display Network Campaign

The first step to building a successful Google Display Network campaign is to create a new display network campaign separate from your search or shopping marketing.

STEP 1. Click +New Campaign and then from the drop down select “display network only”.

We would suggest that you follow a constant naming structure and that you create new campings for different types of display network campings such as remarketing, Gmail ads, youtube ads and general display campaigns.

STEP 2. For more advanced users select “No marketing objective” as shown below and then  “all features”. If you are creating ads for mobile apps then select the “ads for mobile apps” option.

Once you have done this give you campaign a suitable name. For example “Gmail | UK | Display” so that it is easy to find.

STEP 3. Choose the locations that your campaign is targeted at in the same way you would set up your targeting options within a search campaign.

STEP 4. Select your bidding model and then enter your maximum budget per day.

STEP 5. A simple optimisation that you can make is to set your ad delivery method to “accelerated”. Google will then show your ads as soon as possible as opposed to pacing your budget out throughout the day.

This is especially useful for remarketing campaigns where you want to reach people quickly before they buy from your competitors.

Advanced settings

The advanced settings can be useful for improving your ad split testing and also to ensure that you don’t irritate users by showing your ads to frequently by using a feature called frequency capping.

STEP 6. To change the ad rotation method (suggested provide that you use some form of split testing software or a script) first select the “ad delivery” section and expand it as shown below.

Once you have done this select the 4th option down “rotate indefinitely”. This will allow you to split test your ad copies manually to reach statistical significance.

STEP 7. To make sure that you don’t annoy users especially on remarking list you may want to use frequency capping.

Research by Microsoft showed that for remarking campings the conversion rate dropped below the campaign average on the 8th impression of the advert.

It therefore might be a good idea to cap the number of impressions per day to 1 – 2 so that you don’t irritate people with your remarketing ads. For other display format this should not be as much of an issue.

To apply frequency capping select the ad delivery settings. Once you have done this in the frequency capping section select that you want to cap impressions and enter the maximum number of times that you want a user to see your advert.

You will then be prompted to create your first ad group and will see a screen like the one below.

At this point give your ad group a name, enter a default bid and select your targeting options.

2. Applying targeting options

Once you have selected your campaign settings its time to start selecting targeting options for your ad groups.

This section will run you through step by step how to do this.

STEP 1. Go to the display network tab and then select “targeting” as shown below.

STEP 2. Select an ad group that you want to apply your targeting method too a shown below.

STEP 3. Click the add targeting option as shown below and then select the targeting method that you want to use.

STEP 4. Add placements, keywords, topics, demographics or remarketing lists as shown within the display network targeting section of this guide.

STEP 5. You then have the options to optimise your targeting.

If you would like to widen your net you can let Adwords automatically find new customers based on your target options by checking the box next to this option.

You can then either select, conservative targeting if you want to slightly widen the net or aggressive targeting if you want to go all out.

How to use overlapping audiences

If you want to use more than one targeting method you need to add one targeting method and then follow steps 1 to 3 and then select a second targeting method.

3. Selecting your advert format

Once you have set up your targeting and are happy with it then you need to move on to creating your ad copies for the Google Display Network.

STEP 1. Head to the ads tab and then select +ad as shown below.

STEP 2. Select the ad type that you want to create from the dropdown.

STEP 3. Fill out the required fields for the advert type that you have specified.


There you have it, you have the exact blueprint that you need setup a successful Google display Network campaign.

Once you have gotten to grips with the fact that users don’t convert in the same way on the GDN as they do on the search network and optimise accordingly by changing your lead magnet you will be well on your way to generating large volume of low cost leads.

Don’t be afraid to test the different targeting methods to see which ones provide the best results.

Overlapping different audiences can also be particularly powerful especially when you couple In-makret audiences with placements or keywords to target cash out ready buyers that also show interested in your product.

The array of different ad options gives you the ability to create video, animated, static and text ad formats to increase brand awareness and drive conversions.

If you have any questions about this guide please feel free to ask them in the question box below and I will do my best to get back to you!

wesley parker
About wesley parker

Wesley is Founder and CEO at Clicteq. He currently manages a £6 Mil Adwords portfolio across a range of different sectors. He regulally features in leading search publications such as Search Engine Journal, Econsultancy and Certified Knowledge. You can follow him on Twitter or connect with him on Linkedin

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