As you wander through your AdWords account, you may come across an interesting option you haven’t noticed before in the drop-down menu that allows you to add/remove tabs from the interface’s main navigational screen.

What’s that last option? It’s the topics tab! And if display advertising has a significant role in your PPC advertising strategy, you’re probably going to want to figure out how it works.

A few months ago, I talked about my initial experiences with interest category targeting on the Google display network, and, well, topic targeting is…very similar.

Unfortunately, topic targeting does not have the “custom combination” option available with audience targeting which allows you to specify that a person must be a member of more than one group, or one group and not another, to be qualified to see your ads, but that’s probably okay. For one, I am not 100% sure how well Google can determine who is in a given interest category but NOT another, or who was in multiple interest categories, and as a result of this how accurate my custom combination audiences were in their targeting. Adding custom audiences with multiple interest category types also made the traffic in the ad groups to which I applied them nearly nonexistent, so it basically severely restricted the audience to the extent that the ad groups were useless. In summary: there are probably more effective ways to specialize and exclude traffic to a broader topic or audience than making a custom combination audience anyway.

Fortunately I’ve learned a few things about audience targeting since then and those same best practices will apply to topic targeting as well. So we’ll discuss them here, and whether you use audience or topic targeting, you can apply them.

The basic best practices are easy:

Make new campaigns for topic targeted ad groups. Why? Because you want to be able to set your campaign settings to “Relevant pages only on the placements, audiences, and topics I manage” or else you’re basically just running on automatic display network placements just like any basic display campaigns, and that will probably not get you the specialized traffic you’re looking for by targeting topics. I’ve read Google’s description of how automatic, keyword-based contextual targeting works when you have topics in an ad group as well, and the summary is they’ll match you based on your keywords as per normal contextual targeting but if the page matches one of your topics, use your topic bid instead of your keyword bid. This sounds nearly identical to “normal” keyword based contextual targeting and since my goal is to determine the efficacy of more restricted topic targeting, I’m keeping my campaigns set to “Relevant pages only on the placements, audiences, and topics I manage”.

As I said in the interest category post, you might also want to separate each topic into its own ad group, because you won’t be able to see which topics drive your appearance on which websites any other way within AdWords. I also don’t know if multiple topics added to the same ad group interact with one another in some way or if they are just additive, so within my topic targeting campaign I’ve set up ad groups that combine 2 topics plus ad groups that contain each of those topics individually to see what types of traffic differences they see.

Selecting topics is fairly straightforward. You can either type in a keyword and it’ll give you matching topics, give it the URL you’re trying to find topics for, manually search through the topics yourself, or use the codes provided by Google to add them in bulk (you can do this in the interface or via the Placements tab in Adwords Editor). Just remember it’s ultimately your job to determine which topics might drive relevant and useful traffic- topics that seem related might be completely useless in terms of generating leads, whereas tangentially related topics can reach the right type of user.

Once you’ve set up your topic targeting campaign, the topics you’ve chosen will appear in your AdWords Editor under the Placements tab, and you can download stats there and manage them much as you do your managed placements.

Now on to some of the more interesting options:

You can exclude the same topics you can target! One of the more frustrating things about Google’s Display network is that excluding traffic via negative keyword addition and individual site/URL exclusion or the Site and Category Exclusion tool is helpful but can be less effective than we would like.  This is especially true for advertisers who perform well on sites that are more wide-reaching in nature and contain some very relevant pages and many less-relevant pages that are difficult to exclude with any of the available exclusion options. However, with topic targeting, you can exclude any of the audiences that are available to target. Note that this is a much-expanded function as compared to the “topics” available for exclusion within the Site and Category exclusion too. In combination with the other exclusion tools, I think the addition of topic-based exclusion (which looks like it’s available for all types of display campaigns, not just topic-targeted campaigns) should help further decrease irrelevant impressions and clicks. I couldn’t find anything that explicitly says Google will respect those topic exclusions for automatically contextually targeted display campaigns, but since the option is there, I think they will.

At the bottom of the topics tab, you can find this topic exclusion availability for all display campaigns.

Google gives us a handy chart of how topics, placements, and audiences (in this case remarketing audiences) interact with each other and keywords that you should consult while setting up any experimental ad groups you’d like to try to make sure you’re actually targeting who you want to be targeting, as it gets kind of confusing. That said, we’ve been trying a couple of topic/placement/keyword targeting combinations which I’ll describe and justify.

Using topics and keywords together could, potentially, help you reach some relevant users who would be hard to reach with either individually. For example, selecting the topic Fashion Design but adding school-type keywords will allow you to reach users on fashion sites on pages that mention school, so if you are advertising a school, this might allow you a larger reach than placement targeting with more specialization than automatic contextual targeting or topic targeting alone. We are testing ad groups with only topics as well as the same targets plus keywords to see how much traffic is reduced in by targeting both vs. only the topic, and also to see what the difference in ROI is when the specialization is more targeted vs. reaching a wider audience. There does come a point at which further specialization can damage return if you can’t reach enough users so I think it’s worth running these types of ad groups at the same time to test their comparative performance.

Using topics and managed placements together is also an interesting possibility for the right type of advertiser. If you’ve read my posts it’s not a secret that I’m not the hugest managed placement advocate but I think that’s starting to change as I currently have some clients who they’re working well for (using only high-conversion, low cost per lead sites who have a long high-performance history helps and you have to bid more aggressively than you might expect). If you want to target broad-reaching managed placements ( anyone?) rather than niche managed placements but specialize your traffic to a degree, using topics could help you with that endeavor. I’ll create managed placement campaign and ad groups with keywords OR topics to compare how well each works and report back, but I don’t have data on how well it works yet.

And that’s all she wrote for now- if you have any experience with topic targeting and would like to share, I’d love to hear, otherwise, I’ll break down how these various setups work out when they’ve received enough traffic to give me some real data.