Paid Media Specialist, 8+ Years Experience in Marketing Strategy & Data Analysis
October 31st, 2019
What are Google display ads?
Unlike traditional Google search ads, Google display ads are ads shown to users across 2 million+ websites, videos, and applications that are a part of the Google Display Network (GDN), based on their previous online activity.
"Raise your hand if you've ever felt personally victimized by Google Display Ads..."
Someone is following you. They're following you right now, and they have been for years — and their name is Google.
Google, along with a fleet of advertisers using the Google Ads platform, are after your hard-earned dollars, and so they're stalking your movements all over the web, waiting for just the right moment to pounce.
Think about the last time you did a little online window shopping. You went to a website, but controlled yourself like the smart spender you are by not buying anything.
Then, the madness begins.
No matter where you went online, you started seeing ads for whatever it was you restrained yourself from buying on other websites. Sweaters from Old Navy, a baseball cap for your favorite time from the MLB shop, a new dining set from Wayfair, and so on.
Finally, you give in. You buy whatever it was you had successfully dodged, and resign yourself to being the weak-willed consumer many of us are.
But you're not alone. YETI got me a few weeks ago.
Avid kickballer and softballer that I am, lugging around my old Coleman cooler full of all the tailgate necessities got tiring. So, I fired up my computer thinking, “What’s the harm? I know Yeti is expensive, but let’s just see what they have.”
I was able to resist the call of the YETI as it followed me around the internet, after my initial website visit, for one week. Now I'm the proud owner of this gleaming specimen of a cooler with wheels.
But not just any wheels...
Just look at it. It's like the Jeep Wrangler of coolers, able to traverse any terrain with my grilling goodies, with ease.
Curse you, YETI!
OK, I actually love my cooler.
Also, as a Google advertising pro myself, I know retargeting potential buyers after they visit your website through this type of advertising is a tried and true paid media strategy.
And the culprit behind it all is what we're here to talk about today:
Google display ads.
As a consumer, you've likely encountered them (and succumb to them) a lot. As digital marketers and brand owners, however, there is a lot you need to know about this powerful paid media advertising opportunity. (Even though these ads have been around for years, helping marketers such as yourself reach their potential buyers and generate revenue.)
So, that's what today is article is all about — arming you with the essential knowledge you need to get started with Google display ads.
But first, here are a few Google display ad terms you need to know
One of the reasons why learning about Google Ads can be so challenging is that it has its own language. So, here are the critical terms you need to have in your brain for any discussion about Google advertising, but also Google display ads in particular:
Google Display Network (GDN)
The GDN is Google’s network of sites and apps. Google has agreements with millions of websites and applications, wherein the site receives revenue for allowing Google to advertise there. The GDN is where your display ads appear to users throughout the internet.
This is the practice of showing your ads to users who have previously visited your site, and are now being shown the ads in your display campaign through cookie tracking.
Your audiences are built by you, to tell Google which users you want to show your ads to. There are a few types of audiences:
Pretty straightforward. A user had broken their normal behavior online, sending a signal to Google saying “I’m in the market for something”
These audiences are people who have a predisposed interest in your product or service, like “landscaping” or “video production”
These audiences are defined by you, the ads manager. They usually consist of giving Google some specific webpages and saying: “Show an ad to everyone that has been to one of these pages.”
Bid modifications allow you to automatically adjust your bids if/when certain conditions are met. Some advertisers like to bid up on mobile devices, or on certain aspects of the audiences that they’ve built.
Where you tell Google you want you ads to show.
OK, now that you've got those terms jangling around in the ol' noggin, let's talk about Google display ads.
Google display ads vs. Google search ads
Looking back at my Yeti example, the most obvious difference between Google display ads and Google search ads is a simple one. Google search ads are ads that appear in search results, whereas Google display ads are ads that are shown on partner websites and applications through the Google Display Network.
Google search ad example
Google display ad example
Branding control with Google display ads
Google display ads give you control over your branding when advertising on Google. The difference between Google Search and Google display is this ability. With Google search ads, you are limited to headlines and descriptions that appear on the Google search engine.
Basically, you can’t really put your own pizazz into these ads:
Here's another Google display ads example to show you the difference:
Recently, while browsing ESPN's website, like I normally do when the World Series is on — RIP, Yankees 😢 — I was served this T-Mobile ad.
Unlike a Google search ad, this T-Mobile Google display ad is creative, with colors, animations, branding... the whole shebang. This is where Display ads get a leg up on Search. You can make them look anyway you want.
Intent is Google search ads' competitive edge
On the other hand, Google search ads (although not as jazzy and on-brand) are really powerful because they are paired with user intent. Meaning that a Google search ad is only served up in relation to a search made by a user.
Using the example above, the YETI ad was served to me in Google search results, because that is what I was searching for.
Display ads don’t follow a users intent. They appear where a user is browsing, outside of the Google search engine.
How the Google Display Network (GDN) works
The GDN is a complex network of "websites, videos, and applications" (more than 2 million and counting) and reaches 90% of internet users every single day. The GDN is so powerful because it allows you to get your ads in front of targeted audiences anywhere in the world for a pretty low cost.
You can reach a buyer when they’re viewing a news video, playing a game on their smartphone, or even as they check their email.
Furthermore, you can learn how to reach those buyers with your Google display ads early on in the buying cycle — when they’re still researching, weighing their options or, possibly, as yet unaware they need you...
So, how do these ads get in front of the eyes of your users?
How Google display ads work
Google display ads rely on cookies and data from signed in users to keep track of the websites and searches they make. These cookies are signals that Google uses to help advertisers reach their target audiences.
There are a few ways you can target users with these cookies using Google display ads — the most common method is retargeting, wherein you target ads toward potential buyers who have visited your website before.
Most display advertisers take it a step further as well, segmenting this audience based on specific page views or how recently they visited your website.
The typical retargeting audience is broken up into a few buckets:
All Users (seven days)
All Users (14 days)
All Users (30 days)
All Users (all time)
These are called engagement audiences. They show the level of engagement a user has with your site. They are broken out to tell you which users have been on your site within the last week, two weeks, one month, or longer.
This data allows you to market to the different segments in a unique way, based on how long it has been since they visited your website.
Someone that has been on your site within the last week is a hot 🔥 user! No, not "hot" physically or temperature-wise — well, maybe the latter if they aren't feeling well — but this just means that your brand is on the top of their minds and you need to capitalize on that opportunity before they forget about you.
Don't get left behind like Doctor Who. Get after those users!
What display advertisers do with these buckets is bid adjust. They will pay a lot more to show their ads to someone who is hot (been on the site more recently) over someone who hasn’t been back in a month.
You can also tailor your ads to these timeframes, as well. Promote urgency with your hot users, and tell your cold users, “We miss you, come back!”
When Google display ad retargeting fails spectacularly 💍
Retargeting is the most popular way to make use of the GDN, and it’s extremely effective at keeping your brand at the forefront of your users' minds. But sometimes the retargeting can be a little too effective... and it can backfire.
Let me tell you about my friend Dave.
Dave was in a relationship with a girl named Brianna.
Dave and Brianna had been together for a really long time.
Things were going really well!
So, Dave decides it’s time to make things official and take the next step with his girlfriend Brianna. He starts looking at engagement rings. Initially he's just trying to get ideas, while figuring the how, the when, the what of his potential proposal.
Innocent Dave heads over to BrilliantEarth.com.
Anyone who has ever been to that site knows how aggressive they are with their retargeting ads. (Earlier this year, I went there to grab a screenshot for an example of some retargeting and I’m still getting shown their ads.)
But back to Dave.
A few weeks go by and Brianna borrows Dave’s computer to look up a recipe she’s planning on making that night.
The Food Network website is a part of the GDN.
I'm sure you can see where this is heading...
Immediately, Brianna is bombarded with ads about diamonds and rings and jewelry galore from Brilliant Earth — and the cat, as they say, was out of the bag.
Of course, this story has a happy ending.
Dave and Brianna got engaged and it still ended up being a surprise even though Brianna’s radar was definitely up. But this story illustrates the thought process behind a company bidding heavily on hot users to try and get them back on their site.
Audiences can be very broad or very specific
There is a lot more to audiences than just engagement, and the best way to explain that to you is with an example.
And because I am a fan of everything tacky and dumb, we are going to pretend that these audiences are going to be based on a long-time dream of mine — opening an ostrich farm.
You can call me "Farmer Dan."
Yes, there I am. On my glorious ostrich farm. Ready to take the Google display ads world by storm. And, as Farmer Dan, I have a few options, as far as audiences go...
An in-market audience contains users who have deviated from their normal behavior patterns online.
Say someone only browses sites involving sports, news, and real estate. Then, all of a sudden that user starts looking at sites involving pets, large bird ownership, and recipes involving non-traditional chicken eggs.
This sends Google a big signal saying,“Whoa this person is in the market for something."
What Dan the Farmer can do is tell Google to show ads to those people. They may not know they want to buy an ostrich just yet, but you have flagged those individuals as potential customers for the ostrich farm.
An affinity audience is sort of the opposite of an in-market audience. These audiences are pre-defined by Google and bucket users based on their normal interests.
Let's say our sports-loving real estate enthusiast with a sudden interest for beets and beet farming, rather than large birds. Since I have an ostrich farm, I would not want to show them my ads, because they aren't a good fit.
What I would want to do is tell Google I want to display ads to users who have an affinity for agriculture, farming, exotic pets, etc. These folks are more likely to be interested in my farm.
Custom intent audience
These audiences require a little bit more brainstorming on your part. This involves telling Google exactly who you want to display ads to, based on their behavior. With affinity and in-market audiences, Google has the keys and builds audiences based on its machine learning.
With custom intent, you tell Google which keywords or landing pages you want to target.
In Farmer Dan's case, I would build an audience based on users who have searched “buy and ostrich,” who have visited my competitors sites and have been on my site.
Users falling into that audience are going to be extremely qualified and ready to make a purchase.
The landing pages you define are called placements. Making good use of strategic placements will allow you to be super targeted with your ads and also help you understand where else on the internet your qualified users are visiting.
What's new with Google display ads for 2020?
So, now you know how an ostrich farmer would use different audiences to target customers with Google display ads. But what’s next?
Well, this year Google unveiled some a few new features you should know about when developing your display ads strategy in 2020.
New privacy and data sharing rules for Google display ads
As mentioned before, cookies track a user’s behavior online, so they can be targeted with relevant ads. This new update relies more heavily on users being signed in to Chrome to track the data, instead of cookies.
This should accomplish two things:
First, it will enable advertisers to deliver relevant ads when cookies aren’t available.
Second, your ads (in theory) won't be shown over and over again to the same people, eliminating that stalker-ish feeling that can sometimes turn a user off to your brand.
Google always has and always will be in the business of making your website fast. Site speed, as we've discussed before, is absolutely critical in the digital age. Their business (and yours, indirectly) depends on it.
Parallel tracking lets display and video advertisers load click-tracking and behavior-tracking cookies and scripts in the background, after the page loads. So, those advertisers will be getting users to the page first and worrying about tracking second.
What this basically means is that Google is focusing on mobile site speed more than ever, even if it means sacrificing some accuracy when it comes to tracking users.
Parallel tracking became mandatory this year, so there isn’t much to worry about right now for your campaigns moving forward.
Responsive Google display ads
Probably the coolest and most important update you should know about are responsive display ads.
Before responsive Google display ads came out, you had to create your display ads according to very strict size and dimension standards. And if your ad didn’t fit in the space where it was available, it didn’t get shown.
With responsive ads, you basically upload a bunch of creative into your Google display ads portal, choose some headlines and CTAs, and Google will build the ad for you. This way it will fit anywhere there is space on a GDN website.
You also don’t have to worry about what your ads will look like on desktop vs mobile. Google takes care of that for you.
Here is an example:
Some of your ads will rotate in an animated slide — you can see the two panes of the ad on the left version, in the above example — and some will have more or less of the creative you uploaded.
This “washing machine” effect lets Google rotate what your users are seeing so you can draw which creative performs best with your users.
Google display ads are a no-brainer for 2020
While it may make us feel weak-willed to fall victim to Google display ads as consumers, the proof is in the pudding — Google display ads can be exceptionally powerful for companies, with the right strategy in place.
The key for you will be to really dig into audiences, so you can better understand your options, how you can effectively customize your audiences to best meet your campaign needs, and see the best results.