Stop Your Google Display Campaigns Going Off The Rails

By Sam Owen | @SamOwenPPC | Associate Director of Paid Search at Hanapin Marketing

This week our blog series is taking a look at the most expensive “set it and forget it” mistakes. To open up I’m going to focus on some common problems I see sneak into Display campaigns that aren’t regularly maintained. I’ll also show how you can take a few steps to avoid most of the major issues that creep into these campaigns.

When it comes to Display advertising on Google everyone seems to have a strong opinion. Either it’s a runaway success, or it’s a bigger failure than new coke. However, a good portion of the most common complaints can be solved with regular care and maintenance. Display campaigns tend to go off the rails if they aren’t shown a lot of care and attention – more so than Search campaigns because the targeting is less concrete. Let’s look at the top things you can look out for, and the solutions to a lot of common display woes:


Placement Audits

Ever had a display campaign where CPA just slowly deteriorated over time? Take a look at this example from an account we took over recently where CPA had doubled in the past 12 months:

CPA creeping up every quarter

This isn’t an entirely unfamiliar sight in an AdWords account. Things can start to go downhill for CPA for a number of reasons. Perhaps your product isn’t as competitive as it used to be, maybe rival businesses have jacked up their display bids and made things more expensive for you, or it could just be that your product is out of season. In this case none of those applied. The CPA for the rest of the account had fallen from $61 to $49, a 20% drop, while maintaing conversion volume. What we saw when we dug into the account was that poor performing placements had been claiming more and more of the traffic.


Problem 1: Flappy Birds

Ok, so not just flappy birds but rather the tendency for your display budget to be consumed by mobile apps. Particularly apps where kids might be clicking at a furious rate in order to get a bird between some Mario piping and accidentally click on your ads instead. A lot has been written about this already (see this great post from Cassie), which covers how to fix most issues with this. As a quick recap – go to your Display Network tab and select Placements. Use the search filter to look for “App” to speed things along.

Flappy Birds in a Google Display campaign

Notice that I started to remove some of these manually. You can do this faster by excluding “” as a campaign level placement exclusion and excluding “Games” from your site category exclusions.

Take a look at my average session duration from Display Campaigns as I started to weed out Mobile and Tablet apps from this account – it trebled from around 30 seconds to a minute and a half:

Average visit duration improving after removing apps

This is really no surprise given that Apps were accounting for 6,300 of 17,100 clicks the month before I fully removed them.


Problem 2: Excluding Whole Sites

Conducting regular placement audits is one of the most important things you can do for your Display campaigns. However, you can be too zealous with pausing placements. A site like ours might have thousands of pages. Not all of these are going to be places you want to advertise, but some will be.

Number of pages on PPC Hero

It could well be that advertising your PPC platform doesn’t work too well on most of our blog pages, but it does work well on those that mention PPC platforms. I commonly have this problem when I’m advertising on huge sites like ESPN – there are some home run pages to advertise on, but the overall site performance sucks. To avoid having to pause your placement (either on PPC Hero or ESPN) go to the “see details” tab from your placements report.

See details for AdWords placement reports

From here you can spin out the relevant URLs into their own placements (with their own optimized bids) before pausing the rest of placements on that site.

URLs to spin out into new placements


Problem 3: Hour of Day

Another major issue I’ve seen with Display campaigns is that they tend to have quirky metrics much more often than Search campaigns do. In this case I want to highlight some strange changes with the time of day my ads were being shown. I dug into my dimensions tab and noticed that I was getting more clicks and impressions between 3 and 5 am than I was getting during peak evening hours. While I actually like the idea of people seeing my ads early, having such a high proportion of ads show at a time when my call centers aren’t even open was wasting my budget.


Problem 4: Site Categories

It’s a real shame that Google removed the stats from their site category exclusions list. You used to be able to see how many clicks you were getting from forums, games, 404 pages, adult content and so on. Nowadays you can only enable or exclude. If you are just setting and forgetting these, you’re missing out on valuable optimization opportunities. If nothing else, try turning them all off (or on) for a week and see how your display KPIs fare.

Available Categories in your GDN campaigns
Available Categories in your GDN campaigns


Display Campaign Optimizer

Sean wrote a detailed post on getting the most out of the Display Campaign Optimizer (DCO). As a quick recap, the DCO is essentially gives Google control over your Display advertising. You can find it in your Display campaign targeting options:

Options for turning on display optimization in Google AdWords


Once turned on, Google constantly tests and seeks out areas for you to use Display advertising based on where you’ve had success in the past. As a side note, you’ll need 15 conversions in your campaign’s past 30 days for it to work.

As you can imagine, leaving things in Google’s hands can be a mixed bag at best. While we’ve seen good success from DCO in most cases, it can jump around from great to terrible back to great within the span of a few months. Without regular maintenance those “terrible” times last a lot longer. Here are some tips to avoid them with DCO:

  • Adjust your target CPA. DCO works best when combined with Google conversion optimizer. Making slight tweaks to your CPA target can open up or close off swathes of new placements. Make sure you are regularly testing to find an optimal position.
  • Review your ads. Some will do better than others. Text might outperform image. With DCO, using the best ads is key to long-term success. If Google tests a bad ad on a potentially good placement and doesn’t get results, it might not go back there for a while.
  • You still need to do regular placement exclusions. For some reason Google still needs a helping hand to know that a placement spending 5 times over your CPA goal without a conversion might need to be paused.


Bad Ads?

“If you are lucky enough to write a good advertisement, repeat it until it stops selling. Scores of good advertisements have been discarded before they lost their potency.”  – David Ogilvy

One of the single biggest mistakes I see time and again with Display campaigns is people replacing good image ads with bad ones. Not only that, but very little provision is left to switch back to the old ads if the new ones are clearly worse (your KPIs will define a “bad” ad for you). You don’t see Nike replacing “Just Do It” in their advertising campaigns because it’s been running for a while. A good ad is a good ad until it doesn’t work anymore – there’s no such thing as stale when an ad is working well.


What Should You Do?

  1. Make time to audit your Display placements at least once per month.
  2. Set up email alerts for major changes to CTR or CPA.
  3. Create a policy where new image ads are to be tested before being put live. You have extremely powerful reporting in AdWords that will tell you exactly how well your ads are faring. Follow up on new ads at least every 7 days.
  4. Audit your image ads for sizes that are working best. It could be that ads on the side of websites aren’t doing it for you but square boxes are. Use this information to send back to your design team to have new ads built for those unsuccessful sizes.
  5. Check your DCO campaigns regularly to make sure they aren’t going off the rails.
  6. Start testing category exclusions.
  7. Look for topics, interest categories, demographics and other information that can identify strong and weak areas of performance for you from Display.
  8. Use a CRM to track back the quality of leads your various Display campaigns are generating. It might be that turning off Mobile costs you some conversions, but greatly improves your average lead quality.

Doing these simple things has helped us generate great results from Display for our clients. As always, let us know how your campaigns stay successful in the comments section below.