The Ultimate Search Targeting Guide

Search Targeting is one aspect of marketing that has evolved leaps and bounds since the early days of the internet. Advertisers can narrow down audiences based on demographics, interests, recent searches, social media settings, and other characteristics. It’s even possible to target “similar audiences” full of consumers who may not know your brand but who are similar to your loyal customers in various ways.

However, getting poor results from ad campaigns is still a common occurrence. For every $1 spent on Google Ads, Google says businesses receive $2 in revenue. That’s an ROAS (return on ad spend) of 2. Although we don’t know how common unprofitable campaigns are, the average ROAS would probably be much higher if everyone targeted well.

Poor search targeting or display targeting decisions can cost lots of money. But fret not. You’ve found a resource to help you grasp your options when it comes to targeting. We’ll focus on Google Ads in this resource but other platforms offer many of the targeting methods we’ll cover.

Keyword Targeting

Keyword targeting matches keywords (i.e. words or short phrases) to search queries. Implementing keyword targeting is much the same process in Google Ads, Microsoft Ads, and Yahoo Gemini (Verizon) Ads. In display campaigns, keywords can be matched with webpages and youtube videos to generate ad impressions.

Keyword Targeting for Search Campaigns

Keywords are matched with searches before an ad is displayed on a search engine results page.

For example, what if someone types red shoes into Google? If you’re targeting the user’s location, Google will check your account and if you have red shoes in it, you’ll be eligible to compete for a spot on the search results page. If you’re not using any eligible keywords, Google ignores your account.

The system of symbols that determines which searches trigger an ad is called match types. They narrow or broaden the searches you want to target.

Match Types

There are 4 match types:

1. Broad Match

Broad match more or less makes you eligible for any search that is related to your keyword. If your keyword is red shoes, your ad might show for searches such as shoes in colour red, red sneakers, red tennis shoes, and so on.

2. Broad Match Modifier

You can add a “+” symbol to any word in your keyword to make sure your ad is only eligible for searches that include that exact word or a close variant (i.e. typically a plural version of it). This is called the broad match modifier. If you use the keyword red +shoes, your ad might show for searches such as red shoes, red tennis shoes, red shoes with white sole, etc.

3. Phrase Match

Phrase match makes sure only searches with a specific combination of words in a particular order can make your ad eligible. Simply put a quotation mark before and after the phrase. Use the keyword “red shoes” to target searches like red shoes with white sole, bargain red shoes, etc. Notice that no words appear in the middle of the phrase “red shoes” but words may appear before and after it in a search.

4. Exact Match

Exact match limits eligible searches to the exact phrase you use as your keyword and phrases that have the same meaning. Put brackets, “[“ and “]”, before and after the keyword. [Red shoes] in exact match would be eligible for searches like red shoes and shoes in red (which have the same meaning) but few others if any at all.

Add keywords of any match type to any ad groups in your search campaigns. Keywords in an ad group should be very similar, containing some of the same words. Group theme into themes so no ad group has too many concepts.

Navigate to the ad group, click keywords in the left-hand column, and then click the big, blue “+” button.

Keyword targeting

If you want an expert-level understanding of match types, see our Ultimate Guide.

Keyword Targeting for Display Campaigns

Keywords aren't only for search campaigns. They can be used for display campaigns as well. Of course, there are no search engine results pages on the Google Display Network (GDN). So how does it work?

Users who see keyword-targeted ads on the display network may not have searched any related phrases recently. Display keyword targeting matches keywords to page content on any relevant pages across the web. Match types don’t apply. If Google thinks a page has content that relates to a keyword, you might get an impression.

Add keywords to display ad groups the same way you do in a search ad group. Within the ad group, click on keywords on the left side of the page. Then, click the big, blue “+” button.

adding keywords to a display ad group

You’ll see the option to select a keyword setting below the input box. Selecting content tells Google you want your ads to show only on pages that are directly related to your keywords. This is considered a type of “contextual targeting.”

The other option, audience, takes users’ search history and interests into account but might not show ads on pages with related content. For example, a user may search “how to get six pack abs” and later see an ad for a personal trainer service on a news website (which doesn’t have anything to do with exercise).

PPC display targeting

Dynamic Search Ad (DSA) Targeting

Instead of using specific keywords to target your ads, Google can crawl your webpages and determine the search queries that are relevant to each of them.

To set up dynamic search ads, you’ll need to create a dynamic ad group inside a campaign. Open a campaign and you’ll automatically be taken to the ad groups page. There, just click the big, blue “+” button.

Now click the dropdown to change the ad group type to dynamic.

Dynamic search ad targeting

Dynamic search ad targeting

Choose the option that suits your needs. There are several ways to target dynamic ads.

1. Target Using Landing Pages from Your Standard Ad Groups with DSA (Dynamic Search Ads)

If you’re already running some ad groups, you can use the landing pages that are contained in them to target dynamic ads. This is a good way to get more traffic to pages you’re already using. Although, it doesn’t always improve your performance metrics.

For example, you run an electronics e-commerce website and you’re currently running search ads that are directing people to the “headsets” page. To expand your reach to users searching for queries relevant to this page, expand the categories recommended for your website section and find the landing pages from your standard ad groups option at the top of the list. If you don’t have any active ad groups, you won’t see it.

using your landing pages to target ads in google ads

2. Targeting by Theme with DSA

With theme targeting, Google categorises your webpages by topic or theme. You can choose the themes you want to use. For example, a website that sells kitchen appliances might have themes like “blenders,” “mixers,” etc.

To select a theme, click on categories recommended for your website and then search for any theme you would like. Theme categories in blue can be clicked and expanded to view subcategories.

targeting by theme with dynamic search ads

3. Targeting by URL with DSA

You might want to use specific pages (i.e. URLs) for dynamic targeting. There are 3 ways to do it.

The first option is to simply enter URLs. If you want dynamic search ads running for your “heavy-duty coolers” page, copy the URL and enter it. Google will try to match search queries with its content.

Click on the create a new rule to target specific webpages option and select use exact URLs. Then, just copy your URLs, paste them into the box, and click add before clicking save and continue.

selecting URLs to use for targeting dynamic search ads

Secondly, you can target any pages with URLs or page titles that contain a specified string of characters.

Let’s say your website has an “auto body repair” section. All pages in that section have a URL that begins with www.myautobusiness.com/auto-body-repair/. There’s a page within that category for auto glass replacement, located at /auto-body-repair/auto-glass-replacement. If you want to use the auto glass replacement page and all other pages in the auto body repair section to target ads, target pages with a URL that contains /auto-body-repair.

  1. Click on create a new rule to target specific webpages.
  2. Click create rules to target webpage.
  3. Select an option from the dropdown menu. For our example, we select URL.
  4. Enter your criteria. For our example, we’ll enter /auto-body-repair.
  5. Click and to add additional criteria if you need URLs or page titles to contain two character strings.
  6. Click add.
  7. Click save and continue.

creating rules for dynamic search ad targeting

 

Lastly, you may create a page feed (basically a list of URLs) that identifies pages with characteristics you find important. For example, pages featuring products with a high profit margin can be labeled “high_margin” and used for dynamic targeting. For more information about page feeds, click here.

4. Combining or Layering DSA Targeting Methods

You can use more than one of the three dynamic search ad targeting options (theme, URL, landing pages) above at the same time. Google conveniently puts your categories into the create a new rule option so you can layer criteria and narrow the eligible pages.

If you want to use a combination of DSA targeting options, this is how you would do it:

  1. Click on create a new rule to target specific webpages.
  2. Click create rules to target webpage.
  3. Click the dropdown menu to select one of the four options we mentioned above (URL, page content, page title, category).
  4. Click in the box and enter a character string such as /auto-body-repair, as in our example, or click select category.
  5. Click and to select another criterion and narrow the eligible pages down.
  6. Then, click add to add your criterion to the list on the right. Check those out to make sure they’re correct before clicking save and continue.

Placement Targeting for Display Ads

Placement targeting is the most exact kind of display targeting that does not target specific users. It lets you pick specific pages across the web on which you want your ads to show. Any webpage that is opted into AdSense can be selected.

To select placements, go into the ad group or campaign you want to modify. Click on placements, on the left-hand column, and then click add placements.

selecting placements for display ads

From there, you can search for any URL, keyword, or Youtube video ID. Click on the ones you like to add them to your placement list. Then, click save. If you want to exclude your ad from a placement (i.e. a webpage), click exclusions on the left-hand column and click the blue pencil icon button to add exclusions.

Display Targeting with Topics

Topic targeting is a simple way to get your ads on webpages and Youtube videos that relate to a particular topic. It’s another kind of contextual targeting. You can select broad topics like “arts and entertainment,” subtopics like “comics and animation,” or even “sub-subtopics” like “anime and manga.”

In any ad group, click topics, on the left-hand column. Then, click add topics and search or browse to find relevant ones.

Audience Targeting

Audiences are groups of consumers who have similar attributes. The attributes can be based on behaviours, interests, demographics, and more. For both display targeting and search targeting, audiences give advertisers extra precision.

In-Market Audiences

Google Ads eligibility: Search, display, video, and shopping campaigns

These are audiences that are actively shopping for a particular product or service. There are hundreds of product/service categories to choose from. If you select the “watches” in-market audience, Google will show your ads to users who have recently searched for watches and seem to be in the market for one.

Let’s use an example to describe the usefulness of in-marketing audiences. This is Rabih. He is looking around his local Apple store for a new smartphone but he decides he’s not ready to spend the money on a brand new iPhone right now.

 

 

Example of inmarket audience

Rabih has recently searched Google for things like “newest Samsung Galaxy model” and “Google Pixel phone.” He also used Google to find local electronics stores. All of this history gives Google’s algorithm the impression that Rabih wants a new phone, so he becomes part of the “mobile phones” in-market audience.

Now advertisers can show ads to people like Rabih, who are likely to buy a mobile phone soon.On top of that, they might use keywords to narrow the audience to people who have searched for specific models. Keywords like iphone 11 would increase the likelihood that your audience will end up choosing that particular model, for example.

It’s worth checking out Microsoft Advertising’s in-market categories if Google doesn’t have one that applies to your business. Microsoft has a few that Google doesn’t offer.

Life Events Audiences

Google Ads eligibility: Video campaigns

Engage with users who are experiencing important events, such as graduating college or getting married, with life events audiences. This option might give you better performance than in-market audiences for purchases that typically accompany major events. For example, booking a ballroom for a wedding.

Since Facebook profiles usually include information related to life events, this is a great targeting method for the Facebook Ads platform.

Affinity Audiences

Google Ads eligibility: display, search, shopping, and video campaigns

Affinity audiences consist of users who have a specific passion, habit, or interest. “Beauty Mavens” and “Avid Investors” are examples of the groups available to target.

Take Ben and Israel as an example; they love to spend time at the beach. Google’s machine learning has recognised this and added them to the “Beachbound Travelers” audience.

Example of affinity audience

Businesses that want to advertise to people who spend lots of time at the beach might use this audience. For example, a vacation rentals company that focuses on oceanside properties, a company that sells novelty beach toys, or a local jet ski and boat rental company.

Next time Ben or Israel go to the beach, they might see ads for these kinds of products and services. But without knowing exactly what they’re in the market for (without using keywords or another targeting method), advertisers might not expect any immediate revenue. They might just want Ben and Israel to remember their brand name. Affinity audiences are useful for list building, awareness, and other top-of-funnel campaigns.

Similar Audiences

Google Ads eligibility: Search, display, and video campaigns

If you’ve created an audience that happens to convert well, a “similar audience” could be a good way to find more revenue. With similar audiences, Google uses machine learning to find users who behave like your audience, have similar interests, etc.

In some cases, even consumers who are very similar to your high-conversion-rate audiences might not convert. It depends on your product. Is it something everyone in the audience might be inclined to purchase now? Is it affordable? Those are questions to ask before running a test campaign.

If your existing audiences are large enough, Google will create similar audiences automatically. For display campaigns, a minimum of 100 audience members usually qualifies. For search campaigns, about 1,000 members will be needed.

Microsoft Advertising started offering similar audience targeting to select users in 2020. “Lookalike audiences,” on Facebook Ads and Yahoo Gemini platforms, are an excellent alternative as well.

Selecting and Applying Audiences

Audiences can be added to ad groups and campaigns in most cases. Navigate to the one you want and then click audiences on the menu in the left-hand column. Click the blue pencil icon button and then click edit audiences.

You can search or browse for audiences by clicking the appropriate button. Sometimes Google will provide ideas that seem to be a good fit for you.

the audiences menu in google ads

Similar audiences are found in the How they have interacted with your business section if the account qualifies.

Demographic Targeting

Google Ads eligibility: Search, display, and video campaigns

Targeting demographic segments is a great way to get your performance metrics dialled in by making sure your budget is spent on the best groups of consumers. Most advertisers use demographic targeting on top of other targeting instead of alone.

Google uses user behaviour and profile content to segment users into groups based on age, income, location, etc. Use these segments to narrow your reach in search, display, or video campaigns. You can also view the performance of each segment to find out if there are any that deserve more budget.

Demographic targeting segments available in Google Ads are as follows. The options in Microsoft Advertising are very similar.

  • Age: Broken down into age groups such as “25-34”
  • Gender: Male, female, and unknown
  • Parental Status: Parent, not a parent, and unknown
  • Household Income: Categorised into percentiles like “top 10%” and “11-20%”

Exclude demographic segments you don’t want to target at the campaign or ad group level.

  1. Go to the campaign or ad group you want to modify.
  2. Click on demographics in the menu on the left-hand side.
  3. Select exclusions.
  4. Select the segments you do not want to target.
  5. Click save.

demographic exclusions in google ads

At the ad group level, you can set bid adjustments for segments that should receive more or less budget than others.

  1. Within an ad group, click on demographics in the menu on the left-hand side.
  2. Select a segment to modify (e.g. age or gender) and click the corresponding bid adjustment (bid adj.) icon.

Demographic targeting

  1. Select increase to bid a certain percentage higher on the selected segment, or decrease to bid a specified percentage less.
  2. Enter the percentage and click save.

Saving bid adjustment

For more information about bid adjustments and the parameters that are allowed, click here.

Location Targeting

Google Ads eligibility: Search, display, and video campaigns

Generally, location targets are defined during the initial setup process of a campaign. You can edit your locations after the campaign is complete by clicking locations in the menu on the left-hand side of the Ads interface. The process is the same no matter when you do it.

Target cities, towns, states, provinces, countries, and other geographic regions in which you want to show your ads. No matter how far you ship your products or how small your service area is, you’ll be able to target the right region.

  1. Navigate to a campaign and click more on the left-hand menu.
  2. Click locations.
  3. Click the blue pencil icon button.
  4. Enter a place name. Be mindful that there may be more than one region with that name. Our example shows a city and a metro area with the name “Charlotte.”
  5. Click target.
  6. Find more regions and target the ones you want before clicking save.

Add city into location targeting

You can also choose a city or address and target a radius of a specified distance around it.

  1. Select radius.
  2. Enter a mileage (or switch to kilometers).
  3. Search a city name or address and click target.
  4. Click save once you’ve chosen all your locations.

Location targeting

If you need to target lots of different locations, try bulk location targeting.

Remarketing

Remarketing is a common targeting method. It targets users who have interacted with your business in a specified way, giving you a chance to reach out and coax users toward conversion.

For example, if someone visited your website and added a product to their shopping cart but didn’t check out, that person could be added to an audience of others who also added to the cart but didn’t check out.

Setting up a Google Analytics audience is what you’ll need to do to start remarketing. Then you can import it to Ads. Optimise Smart explains the process here. You’ll need to see step 8 to create the audience and step 4 to import it to your Ads account.

Google Analytics Audience Import

A key feature of Google Analytics is the ability to create audiences based on website activity. For example, you can assign all users who visited a certain page to an audience. You could also assign all users who added an item to a cart to an audience.

Let’s say you have an audience of users who spent more than two minutes on a product page but didn't check out. You could target them with a special promotion or some additional information to try to get them to go through with the purchase.

Imagine you sell a comically large spatula called the XL400 and that’s the product your audience pertains to. It’s called “Nearly Bought XL400.” Analytics updates this audience list frequently, so you know everyone in it seems interested in buying the spatula but didn’t end up doing so.

To make use of this audience in Google Ads, you’ll first need to link your Analytics account to your Google Ads account. Hallam explains how here.

To try to convert the audience, you decide to offer 20% off. You create a display campaign that provides a promo code in every ad.

Apply your audiences in Google Ads.

  1. Navigate to the ad group or campaign you want to modify.
  2. Click audiences, in the left-hand column.
  3. Click add audiences or the blue pencil icon button.
  4. Search for the audience you want or click browse and then how they interacted with your business to see the audiences created in your linked Analytics account.

Setting up Google Analytics

Customer Match

Customer Match targets a remarketing audiences via their phone numbers or email addresses. If you have a list of newsletters subscribers or text notification subscribers, you can target them with ads.

The key benefit of customer match targeting is that the users don’t need to have visited your website or social profile (and don’t need a cookie assigned) for you to target them. You can get in touch and reach out with important promotions with only a bit of contact information. Learn more about customer match here.

When You Shouldn’t Use Targeting

Advertisers frequently use a combination of the targeting options we’ve mentioned here. Usually, the goal is to narrow the reach of the campaign so that the users who see the ads are those who are most likely to convert. One targeting method is the minimum but more is always better, right?

We recommend giving your targeting a second thought before you go live. Think about who you’re going after. There are two questions to ask.

  1. Is the audience congruent with my target market?
  2. Have I ended up with an appropriate reach (quantity of users or consumers)?

In some cases, you might be tempted to layer away with audiences because you feel the urge to reach a very small, niche segment. Just make sure you don’t take it too far. You could end up with an audience of zero if your parameters filter everyone out.

For example, you target a small town in Wisconsin and you layer the “auto enthusiasts” affinity audience on top of it. It wouldn’t surprise us if there just aren’t many active users in that small town who have the browsing history to qualify as an auto enthusiast. You might not get any impressions.

To avoid getting too narrow, you can tell Google you want to find out what kind of performance you would get if you applied another audience. This is the usefulness of observation mode. After you accumulate some data, you’ll know if you should apply the targeting setting.

When to avoid targeting

Keep in mind that some bidding strategies automatically try to determine the best demographics and scheduling for you. If you’re not completely sure who to target and when, you could let Ads figure it out with an automated bid strategy.

A Few Notes

You’re nearly an expert now! There are a few things we think you should remember, though.

First, don’t forget that some campaign types don’t allow some targeting methods. Eligibility in Google Ads (which is very similar to Microsoft Ads) is as follows:

Display Campaign targeting options are affinity, custom audiences, demographics, life events, in-market, remarketing, customer match, and similar audiences.

Search Campaign targeting options are affinity, demographics, in-market, remarketing, customer match, and similar audiences.

Video Campaign targeting options are affinity, custom audiences, demographics, in-market, remarketing, customer match, and similar audiences.

Shopping Campaigns are eligible for in-market and affinity targeting.

Secondly, remember you’re not guaranteed to receive great performance. Targeting is important. Getting it wrong could cost lots of money. Here are a few tips to help you get the results you need.

  1. Understand your customers or target market. Do quantitative and qualitative research so that you can target effectively and write copy that speaks their language.
  2. Don’t hesitate to adjust your strategy if your data shows areas for improvement. Set up experiments to find out if a different approach improves your numbers.
  3. Get the best reporting you can. Don’t settle for conversions if you should be paying closer attention to revenue or ROAS. Take your time setting up the right tracking.

One last tip is to take your time. Speak to your customers. Segment them so that you know who’s high-value, and optimise your campaign little by little to get the most out of your budget. It’s an incremental game. You got this!

Heroes of Digital has helped hundreds of businesses improve their marketing performance. When you need an expert to guide your targeting decisions, contact us.

Xavier Tan
Co-Founder
Xavier is the Co-Founder of Heroes of Digital. He started social media marketing and SEM long before it became popular in Singapore. His passion is in helping businesses grow through effective lead generation. He has overseen campaigns for Amara Hotel, NTU, Marina Bay, L'Oreal, and 100+ SMEs.

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