As most marketers know, the Google Display Network (GDN) covers almost two million sites, reaching 90% of internet users across websites, mobile apps, and videos. The GDN’s reach is so broad that few other networks can match it for sheer exposure or brand building power. However, if you’ve spent more than a few minutes on the internet, you know that for every great website there are plenty of cheaply-made sites stuffed with clickbait and generic content. Most of these websites exist solely to monetize traffic through display ads, presenting a challenge to advertisers, who need to use precious marketing dollars to access high quality potential customers. This post will explain how to setup and manage your display campaigns so that your display ads access the proverbial needles in the GDN haystack.

Discovering strong GDN placements can be like finding needles in a haystack. Image via Pexels.

What is a Placement, and Why are Some Bad?

A placement is any website, mobile app, or video that hosts your ad on the GDN. The Google Ads interface provides a report that includes all placements that showed your ad. You can also manually exclude your ads from showing on unwanted placements.

When you first view a placements report, you’ll likely see a few websites you recognize –,, and are all available via the GDN – as well as many you don’t. With thousands of unique placements, how can you identify which ones are weak and which ones are strong?

Do Conversions Matter?

The most intuitive way to identify strong performing placements is to look at conversion data – if people are buying your products after seeing an ad on a specific website, it’s likely that future visitors to that site will also be interested in your product. However, there are several cases where conversion data in Google Ads can mislead you.

For ecommerce retailers, where every conversion results in revenue, you can be relatively confident that your conversion data is accurate. But be sure to check that sales from your GDN campaign are actually shipping. In some cases, you may see conversions recorded from fraudulent credit cards, or orders canceled shortly after they have been placed. If that’s the case, the revenue showing in Google Ads doesn’t match the actual contribution to your bottom line, and you should adjust accordingly.

For lead-gen advertisers, the situation is trickier. If your conversion event is a lead form, websites may attempt to boost their own revenue by completing form fills to encourage Google’s algorithms to drive more impressions to that site. In this case, you should pay close attention to the quality of incoming leads. If you drive lots of leads but they’re all from “mickey mouse” or “,” then you should adjust your targeting.

How to Identify Weak Placements

While conversion performance can help to identify strong and weak performers, there are a number of subjective ways to separate and exclude weak placements without direct conversion data. This will vary for all advertisers – a poor placement for one marketer might be a gold mine for another – but you should keep the following factors in mind when reviewing display campaign placements.

  • Games (and especially mobile games): Most people visiting gaming sites or apps are there to play, not to shop. Even worse, many in-game mobile ads pop up during game play and result in accidental clicks. Now instead of the positive brand association you’re trying to build, the user is annoyed at your brand for interrupting their game.
  • Non-standard domains: When is the last time you visited a website with the domain .xyz or .info? It’s unlikely that you’re going to find a high-quality audience here, and you should approach these placements with extra skepticism.
  • Obviously Templated Sites: A quality website exists to provide content that is valuable to the visitor, but there are plenty of sites that exist solely to monetize traffic through ads. Take a look at these three sites, all of which received a significant amount of impressions in a display campaign. While the content on these sites contains relevant keywords, the redundant copy and uninspired site design indicates that they exist to drive traffic, not provide information. Other telltale signs of sites designed solely to drive traffic include generic text, or text that looks like it was copied directly from Google Translate, no updates for months, and minimal text alongside large photos.
  • Unrelated Content: If you sell enterprise software, you don’t want to show ads next to a recipe for pancakes. Yes, even CTOs need to eat breakfast, but they’re probably not going to remember your brand if they’re focused on measuring the right amount of flour. Generally, you should make sure the content of the sites you show on is at least somewhat relevant to your product.
  • Potentially Misleading Placements: In some cases, you may see placements that mislead the user to click on an ad without realizing it’s an ad. These are particularly prevalent among slideshows, where an ad appears next to the “next slide” button and can draw accidental clicks from confused users. Be on the lookout for these, as they can quickly drive up spend from multiple accidental clicks.
  • High CTR: The purpose of image ads is to drive brand awareness, so the average CTR for display ads is typically well below 0.5%. Even with great ads and fantastic targeting, most experienced marketers would consider a CTR above 1% a victory. So if you see a placement with 10 impressions and 5 clicks, a 50% CTR, that’s a good indication that those clicks are not all from typical users. Evaluate the content on the site for the warning signs above, and if it appears to be low quality, exclude it.

A Better Way?

As you consider all of the warning signs above, you may think that policing your GDN campaigns sounds like a full-time job. It’s true – evaluating every placement for even a single small GDN campaign could take hours each day. A better option is to setup your GDN campaigns to maximize exposure to quality placements, rather than excluding poor placements individually. Here are a few tips to do so.

Granular & Overlapping Targeting

The more targeting you add to your campaign, the less likely you are to show ads to unqualified users. This blog post covers how to user overlapping GDN targeting segments to narrow your exposure to the most qualified users.

Leverage Quality Data

As mentioned above, make sure you evaluate your GDN campaigns based on metrics that go beyond conversions in the Google Ads interface. Use CRM or shopping cart data to ensure that those conversions turn into SQLs (Sales Qualified Leads) or sales. If you’re receiving lots of low-quality conversions, add more targeting to narrow your exposure.

Use Category & Topic Exclusions

Google allows you to exclude various categories that might not be valuable to you. You can exclude sites with mature or violent content directly in the campaign settings. You can also exclude topics to minimize exposure on irrelevant websites. For example, if you sell parts for motorcycles, you could exclude the topic on auto repair to minimize exposure on placements dedicated solely to cars and trucks.

Leverage Impression Caps

Do you like it when you visit a website, and then see their remarketing ads hundreds of times over the next few days? Neither does anyone else. Use impression caps to prevent overserving. This will also help minimize low-quality traffic by shutting down your ads after the established number of impressions. We typically recommend an impression cap of four to eight impressions per day.

Use a Whitelist

Especially if you’re investing significantly in the GDN, you can likely get a better return by only targeting websites that you know are quality. In this case, create a “whitelist” of approved websites and set your campaign to target only these placements.

The downside to this strategy is that it will limit your total reach, especially since the websites you want to show on probably have lots of competition from advertisers using the same strategy. In this case, you can use a “varsity – junior varsity” strategy. Your varsity campaigns target just whitelisted websites with extra high bids to maximize exposure. Your junior varsity campaigns use broader targeting strategies for greater reach. Just make sure to check in frequently on the junior varsity team to ensure quality and adjust targeting if performance is poor.

Other Solutions

The strategies listed above should be effective for most advertisers. However, if you’re especially concerned about your brand identity, or you’re making a large investment in display advertising, you may want to consider some additional solutions.

  • Paid Social Advertising: Paid social advertising largely eliminates concern about placement quality because your only “placement” is on the social platform. Additionally, paid social ads allow you to leverage first-party data from the platform that can often be more accurate than Google’s targeting segments.
  • Programmatic Display Advertising: With many programmatic display vendors, you are able to set advanced brand safety and fraud prevention methods that you are not able to access on the GDN. Some vendors also allow you to incorporate first party data onboarding and third party data integrations for even more specific targeting.
  • Verification Tools: Advertisers making a significant display investment should consider additional verification tools to ensure placement quality and help draw insights about display performance.

Much like any advertising network, the GDN can drive solid results when managed strategically. If you’re looking for a second set of eyes on your display advertising, why not contact Metric Theory for a free display analysis?