The Ultimate Guide To The Google Display Network

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

And yet I frequently have marketers telling me that the Google Display Network doesn’t work, or that the leads it generates are poor.

So what gives?

If you’re not generating a consistent stream of high-quality leads from the Google Display Network, you’re not using it effectively.

Today I’m 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 complaints that I hear about the Google Display Network is that people don’t convert in the same way as they do on the Google Search Network.

The reason for this is because people on the GDN are at 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, who are. 

They therefore 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 click-through rate (CTR) 
  • Lower cost-per-conversions 

People also tend to find that their calls-to-actions on the Display Network do not work as well as they do on the Search Network.

Instead, you’ll 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 and will convert well on the GDN: 

  • e-books
  • Webinars
  • White papers
  • Video courses
  • Checklists
  • Demos
  • Consultations
  • Industry research papers

What more inspiration? Here’s 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 into 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 the ages of 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 both interested in bond investing and are between the ages 30 and 65.

Display Keywords

Display Keywords allows you to place your adverts on websites that are contextually-similar to your keywords. Unlike the Search Network, there are no match types.

If, for example, you 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 determined are related to those keywords. 

Because you’re giving Google a lot of discretion of where your ads will be placed’ it’s 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 clicking the button ‘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’s an example of how to effectively group keywords on the Google Display Network.

You have two 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 often found that this limits reach, but outperforms Audience targeting)

Placements (Gmail ads also use this format)

Placements allow you to specify websites you’d like your adverts to be shown on.

There are two different ways to search for placements. You can enter the domain or keywords that you want to target, 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 are also technically placements. 

To place your adverts on Gmail, you need to add the placement ‘’

You have two 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, but 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 two 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. but 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. 

This seems obvious, so why are we making a point of this?

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’d be excluding 40% of your target audience.

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

We’ve often found that Google is unable to match large proportions in some campaigns, so by excluding this demographic you’re likely to lose a large amount of relevant traffic. 

Interests and Remarketing

Interest and Remarketing comprises several different types of targeting:

  • Remarketing (we won’t cover this here, as we already 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’s important to see how they 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 – This allows you to target top-of-funnel users who are currently unaware of your brand. 
  • Custom Affinity Audiences – This is best for targeting people who are in the ‘Conservation’ phase – people who already know your brand, and are considering if they need your solution. 
  • In-Market Audiences – This is best for targeting users who are displaying behaviours of purchasing. 

Remarketing & Dynamic Remarketing

Have you ever just been on a website only to find the product that you were 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, using cookies, allows you to track who’s visited your website, and enables you to then display ads to them. 

You can create ‘audience 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 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 website.

If you’d like to learn more about Dynamic Remarketing you 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 shows.

I’d recommend using these types of campaigns for branding as opposed to direct-response advertising.

Custom Affinity audiences

Custom Affinity Audiences allows you to create audiences based on which interests and websites your audience likes.

For example, following on from our investment bonds theme, I have created a Custom Affinity Audience that targets people who both like the website ‘Financial Times’ and are interested in bonds or bond investing.


In-Market Audiences

In-Market Audiences allows 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’s 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 by 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 & remarketing’ targeting options shown below.

‘Similar To’ Audiences

‘Similar To’ Audiences works in a similar way to lookalike audiences on Facebook. Google uses their data to create an audience that is similar to your email or remarketing list. 

Because you’re targeting people who are very similar to those who have visited (or even purchased from) your website, you should be able to 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 as well as 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 intact and you don’t waste money on poor-performing placements, you can download this list of 400+ placements to block.

The ‘Site category options’ section allows you to exclude certain types of websites such as parked domains, error pages and sexually-suggestive websites to ensure that your brand integrity is kept intact. 

Google Display Network Ad Options

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

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 WordStream, and see huge impression volumes.

You might, however, want to consider swapping them out for Display Ads, which on average have a CTR of 0.31%, compared to just 0.23% with Text Ads.

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. 

One key takeaway here is that you need to ensure that you have the top 5 ad format sizes, otherwise you may lose over 80% of your impressions.

Responsive Ads

Responsive Ads are perfect if you’re 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

Have you ever been about to watch an epic YouTube video, only to be interrupted by an advert that you weren’t able to skip? 

These are called in-stream adverts, and are available within Google Display campaigns. 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 the ad builder seen below, which allows you to create ads based on the product or service you want to advertise. 

Gmail Ads

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

Here’s 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. Create 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. Create 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 the red ‘+ Campaign’ button, and then from the drop-down menu, select ‘Display Network only’.

We would suggest that you follow a consistent naming structure, and that you create new campaigns for different types of Display Network Campaign, such as Remarketing, Gmail ads, and YouTube ads.

STEP 2. For more advanced users, select ‘No marketing objective’ as shown below (which will allow you access to all available features and options). Under this header, select ‘All features’, or alternatively ‘Ads for mobile apps’ if you’re creating ads exclusively for mobile apps. 

Once you’ve done this, give your campaign a suitable name so it’s easy to find later – for example “Gmail | UK | Display”. 

STEP 3. Choose the locations that your campaign is targeted to (in the same way that you’d set up your targeting options within a search campaign).

STEP 4. Select your bidding model, 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 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 too frequently by using a feature called ‘Frequency capping’.

STEP 6. To change the ‘Ad rotation’ method, first select the ‘Ad delivery’ section under ‘Advanced settings’, and expand it as shown below.

You can choose to rotate evenly, or optimise for clicks or conversions. You’re also given the option to ‘Rotate indefinitely’. We would suggest choosing this option if you already use some form of split-testing software or script, as this it allows you to split-test your ad copies manually to reach statistical significance. 

STEP 7. To make sure you don’t annoy users, especially those on your remarking lists, you may want to use ‘Frequency Capping’.

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

It might therefore 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 formats, this should not be as much of an issue.

To apply Frequency Capping, expand the ‘Ad delivery’ section under ‘Advanced settings’. Once you’ve 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’ll 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’ve selected your campaign settings, it’s time to start selecting targeting options for your ad groups. 

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

STEP 1. Go to the ‘Display Network’ tab and then click the red ‘+ Targeting’ button as shown below. 

STEP 2. Select an ad group that you want to apply your targeting method to, as 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 (‘Let AdWords automatically find new customers’). 

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 follow steps 1 to 3, and then select a second targeting method. 

3. Selecting your advert format

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

STEP 1. Head to the ‘Ads’ tab and then click the red ‘+ Ad’ button as shown below.

STEP 2. Select the Ad Type that you want to create from the drop-down menu.

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’ve gotten to grips with the idea that users don’t convert in the same way on the GDN as they do on the Search Network, and once you optimise accordingly by changing your lead magnet, you’ll be well on your way to generating large volume of low-cost leads. 

Don’t be afraid to test out 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-Market audiences with Placements or Keywords to target cash-ready buyers that also show interest 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’ll 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 Econsultancy, Campaign Magazine and Search Engine Land. You can follow him on Twitter or connect with him on Linkedin

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