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A Full List of Targeting Options in Google AdWords

James Parsons • Updated on October 17, 2022
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Adwords Targeting Options

Google AdWords may not have the deep interest targeting Facebook is known for, but it certainly has as much targeting as it has data available. Google just doesn’t have access to the people-centric bits of data, which is what makes Facebook’s Atlas experiment so noteworthy. Google’s primary advantage is their breadth of exposure, whereas Facebook is limited to their own site. With Atlas, Facebook takes over. But, that’s neither here nor there.

What can you use to target AdWords ads? Well, depending on what you’re looking for, you’ll either be pleasantly surprised or sorely disappointed. Where Google has data, they have deep data with robust options. Where they don’t, they have nothing.

Keyword Targeting

Any veteran of online marketing knows keyword targeting. You choose a keyword and your ad appears for queries – and on related websites – when that keyword is present. This type of targeting is available both on Google search itself and on partner sites (sites that use AdSense).

Keyword targeting has several sub-options. These are called match types. When you put in a keyword, you choose a match type. They range from broad to exact to negative.

  • Broad match: anything using the words in the keyword. The keyword “red widgets” would show up on queries for “red hats,” “blue widgets,” and “hate red widgets.” You can modify this with a + in front of specific keywords to make sure they’re included. “+red +widgets” would thus not bring up “red hats” because it does not include the word widgets.
  • Phrase match: anything using the exact phrase of the keyword. The keyword “red widgets” would show up on queries for “red widgets,” “where to buy red widgets,” “hate red widgets” and other such queries. It would not, however, show up for queries with the phrase disrupted, like “red or black widgets.”
  • Exact match: only queries using the exact keyword and nothing else. The keyword “red widgets” would display ads for the query “red widgets” and nothing else.
  • Negative match: any query that does not include the keyword. This is best used for supplemental keywords. For example, the keyword “red widgets” with the modifier “-hate” would display ads on queries like “red widgets reviews” but not “hate red widgets.” A list of negative keywords is virtually required for a narrow, useful ad.

Google will, by default, include slight variations on keywords. For all intents and purposes, “red widgets” and “red widget” would be the same query.

Location Targeting

Location targeting allows you to make your ads only display on queries originating from certain areas. It also allows you to exclude specific areas. For example, you could set your ads to only display to users in the United States, Australia and the Philippines. You could also set a global ad and force it to exclude Asia entirely.

This can be very finely tuned. You are able to specify countries, states, provinces, cities, counties, zip codes, and even congressional districts. When you select a location, Google will offer you suggestions as to other locations. You can choose to add, exclude, or “nearby” each location. Nearby essentially gives a fuzzy border around the location, so users near but not precisely within that location still count.

Language Targeting

Language targeting allows you to select languages to include or exclude from queries. For the default North American Google AdWords, the default is to limit to only English queries. You can choose to include Spanish or French Canadian queries, or other languages. For example, a European business might want to include the most prominent Euro languages. Limiting to English or selecting specifically the languages your site supports is a good idea.

Device Targeting

Device targeting allows you to limit your ads to only appear on certain devices. Typically, this is the divide between PCs, laptops, smartphones and tablets, or the convergence of any of them.

You can also specify device targeting based on the location of the device, or the time of day. This allows you to, for example, target ads at PCs during work hours and mobile during off-work hours.

Contextual Targeting

Contextual targeting is only available on Google partner sites, not Google search itself. Essentially, it allows you to have your ad placed on sites based on topics you choose. If you choose to have your ads displayed on pages that cover the topic “hiking,” your ad would display on any number of sites that use AdSense and are partnered with Google.

Google does not allow site owners to specify the topics of their sites, in the sense that it’s not the sole determining factor. Google themselves scan every site and determine relevant topics based on their own internal factors. This ensures that your ads appear on sites genuinely about the topics you choose, rather than on sites that just checked a box about your topic but have little related traffic.

Topic Targeting

Very similar to contextual targeting, topic targeting allows you to specify numerous topics at once for a given ad, rather than limiting yourself to one topic and Google’s automatic placement algorithm.

Placement Targeting

Similar to the previous two types of targeting, placement targeting requires that you create a list of approved websites, videos and apps for which your ads will be displayed. You manage this list within AdWords and can change it at any time.

Audience Targeting

The closest thing to Facebook’s targeting you can get on Google, audience targeting allows you to target specific people. You can build these lists in a few ways.

  • People who have visited your site and thus have an AdWords tracking cookie for your site on their computer. This also applies to users of your app.
  • Users as part of affinity audiences.
  • Users with specified interests tracked by Google. This interest targeting is significantly less robust than Facebook’s, but it is getting better on a monthly basis.

The key to success on AdWords is using several different targeting options in conjunction.


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