If you’re like me, you’re far more comfortable optimizing a Google AdWords Search Network campaign than you are a with Display Network campaign. After all, the Search Network is methodically built on known rules – where the clicks that a campaign accrues can reliably be attributed to someone who had genuine interest in what your ad promised – while clicks occurring on Display Network always feel a tiny bit magical. We can often review our data after the fact and understand why or why not a search ad earned a good click-through-rate – but why do some display ads succeed while others fail?

Hello again, advertisers. I’m here to tell you that I have absolutely no idea how to answer that question.

Fortunately, nobody else does either.

Surveying the Battlefield: Display Placements

What I do know is that understanding what went through a user’s mind before they clicked on a display ad is not a prerequisite to optimizing your Display Network campaigns. As always, you look at your data, you correlate your significant hits and misses with your bid and budget resources, and then you make a call. And fortunately, there are some handy tricks that can be employed to make your life a lot easier when it comes to optimizing display campaigns.

The ontology of a Display Network campaign usually goes something like this: imagine all the available targeting methods on one axis, all the various content formats on another axis, and the resulting multiplication table is your starting strategy.

Display strategy by ad format and targeting method.

This line of thinking has its merits, but it can also lend to a slow and tedious optimization process. For example, it might take months or years before you have enough data about a rich text ad to know pausing it won’t harm your display keywords ad group more than your remarketing ad group. For those of us beholden to data-thirsty clients, this simply will not do. We need a flow chart for actionable display optimization – and we need it today!

To accomplish this, I recommend integrating an occasional direct display placement optimization pass into your monthly or bimonthly routine. That’s right: we’re going to bypass ads, targeting methods, audiences, demographics, and all those juicy “strategic” touchstones and instead focus on the individual placements themselves – the actual publishers of ad space that you’ve bid and purchased clicks from.

Deceptively simple. Chronically under-utilized. Placement reports are the actual battle ground of where your display campaigns are being fought. And keeping with the war metaphor, I implore you to ask yourself: what kind of general are you? Are the aloof comandante, issuing orders from the comforts of your praetorium far from the front lines? Or are you a Napoleon, down in the trenches looking for any single edge that could turn the tide of the entire campaign?

Turning The Tide: Precision Exclusions

If you’re still with me, congratulations on being a Napoleon. But you might be justifiably intimidated. After all, display campaigns can earn many clicks despite modest budgets. How can you be expected to comb through so very many placements to find actionable opportunities?

Obviously, there’s no practical way to go line by line down a list of 15,000 placements and evaluate them by CTR, bounce rate, conversion rate, etc. Even the most resilient office intern seems to quit or implode altogether around the ten thousand mark. No, we need a shortcut to make the task pragmatic, digestible, and repeatable at commonsense intervals.

I don't always excel, but when I do it's at spreadsheets.

Here’s a handy 3-step system I use to accomplish the above without expending too much time or brainpower.

Step 1: Exclude select international domain extensions.

Unless your account is an international conglomerate that can expect meaningful conversions from all countries around the world, you can be assured that most sponsored display traffic landing on international domains is just erroneous “noise” from AdWords. I always exclude Russian (.ru) and Chinese (.cn) domains first, but feel free to get more aggressive. Here’s a list of all domain extensions by country.

These placements are not producing value for your campaign, comrade.


Step 2: Exclude low active-view placements.

An unfortunate reality: Just because a placement records an impression does not mean that your display ad was actually viewed. In these instances your ad may have been placed “below the fold” or, more nefariously, been covered up altogether by a greedy publisher trying to take advantage of ad impressions without giving them due service.

A fortunate reprieve: Google isn’t just about to leave us advertisers in the dark. Hence the development of the “Active view measurable impressions” metric. This metric tracks the number of impressions accumulated on a placement where the sponsored content was made actually – yes, actually – viewable to the user.

Google provides not only this metric as a column in the display placements tab, but also these “actually viewed” ads as a ratio of all placement impressions. It’s a column that’s as useful as its name is cumbersome: “Active View measurable impressions / measurable impressions.” (This verbosity:usefulness ratio is a common thread on Google technologies.)

As part of my three-step routine, I make sure to exclude any cost-incurring placements that score below 20% on this ratio, but you can of course get more aggressive with your exclusions.

Not all publishers make their ads viewable to traffic.


Step 3: Terminate under-converting mobile ad placements with extreme prejudice.

Bearing in mind what I’ve said earlier about the Display Network’s “magical” ability to make converting handshakes across platforms, advertising on mobile apps can be dangerous if not done carefully and deliberately.

Note: If you aren’t 100% sure you can find conversions on traffic referred from sponsored mobile app ads, follow this simple procedure to exclude most apps from your display placements.

Many mobile ad clicks can be accidental – but a conversion should theoretically require multiple positive touchpoints indicating genuine interest. I recommend running a quick filter to identify any mobile app placements that are converting at below 0.5% conversion rate AND above 150% your goal cost-per-conversion:

Don't let your budget be gobbled up by runaway mobile ad placements!

And there you have it! This process can easily become a fast, 5-minute addition to your regular optimization routine. You can still continue to place your trust in the magic powers of Display Network matching – just remember that it can take some pruning every now and then!

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