If you’re advertising through Google ads, it’s important to have control over who will see the ads, where they’ll see them, and in what context they’ll see them. Google offers an interesting array of options for ad targeting. However, not all options are available or applicable to all campaign types. Here’s an overview of the major ad targeting methods that can be employed.


Setting the geographic location area(s) for targeting is very important. You’ll want to advertise to the area(s) that make sense for your business and nowhere else. For example, if you own a restaurant in St. Louis, MO, you don’t want your ads to show in Atlanta, GA. Google offers a great deal of flexibility for location targeting. You can target or exclude based on the following:

  • Countries
  • States
  • Counties
  • Cities
  • Zip codes

You can also choose a customized radius around your business location.

Why would you want to exclude locations? If you wanted to target the whole state of Virginia except for Roanoke and Williamsburg, it would be easier to target the state of Virginia and then exclude those cities – rather than include every other town individually.

Besides choosing a location area, you can also specify people’s relationship to that location area to an extent. You can choose from these options:

Presence or interest: People in, regularly in, or who’ve shown interest in your targeted location. (This is the default and broadest setting)

Presence: People in or regularly in your targeted location

Search interest: People searching for your targeted location

Keyword targeting (for search)

If you are running ads to appear in Google search engine results, your targeting strategy would be heavily focused on keywords since people use words in their search queries. With keyword targeting, specific words or combinations of words can be set to trigger ad impressions. This type of targeting is unique in the history of advertising. Before search engine ads, there has never been a way to find businesses instantly by using one’s own descriptive words. With this type of advertising, you could say that these prospects target themselves for viewing ads just as much as they are targeted. Although search can be a very direct way to connect with possible customers, keyword targeting is not as simple as it sounds. There is an art and science to it. Also, there is a clever system that Google employs called the keyword “match types,” which allows a degree of control over which words or combinations of words trigger the ad, and which won’t. For example, one of the match types is called “negative match,” which allows advertisers to avoid impressions for searches that have a particular word or phrase in the query. For example, if a photographer doesn’t do weddings, they could add the word “wedding” as a negative keyword to prevent their ad from showing for wedding photographer searches.

At this time, Google offers the following keyword match types:

Broad Match – Ads may show on searches that are related to your keyword, which can include searches that don’t contain the keyword terms.

Phrase Match – Ads may show on searches that include the meaning of your keyword. The meaning of the keyword can be implied, and user searches can be a more specific form of the meaning.

Exact Match – Ads may show on searches that have the same meaning or same intent as the keyword.

As mentioned above, negative keywords are meant to prevent ads from showing for irrelevant searches. They are an indispensable feature that can help tremendously for the optimization of ad spending. Negative keywords can take different forms, including negative broad match, negative phrase match, and negative exact match.

Read more about keyword targeting in Google Ads.

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Audience targeting

“Audiences” are made up of segments, meaning groups of people with specific demographic attributes, interests, or intentions (as surmised by Google). In the ad targeting process, there is a wide range of audience segments to choose from. For example, options could include people who like tennis, people shopping for cruise vacations, or people who have previously visited your business website.

Here is a list of major audience segment types that might be available for targeting your ads, depending on the campaign type you choose:

Affinity – for reaching people based on their interests

Demographics – long-term life facts, like their gender or parental status

Life Events – for reaching people when they go through important milestones in life

In-Market – based on their recent behavior related to shopping or buying

Segments from Your Data – people who have visited your app or website, or who are your existing customers

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Content targeting

Content targeting is very different than audience targeting in Google ads because you are not targeting groups of people. Instead, you are choosing the type of content you want your ads to be shown alongside. For example, if you sell motorcycle parts, you might want your ad to show on a website that focuses on motorcycles.

If you choose to use content targeting in your ad group, you’ll need to decide between using managed placements or automatic placements. Managed placements allow you to choose the specific web pages, mobile apps, or YouTube videos you want your ads to be associated with. Automatic placements, on the other hand, allows the system to (attempt to) find the best placements for your ads. With automatic, you can give the system some guidance in one of the following ways:

Topics – Choose from a large, pre-made topics list that Google offers

Keywords – Choose keywords that describe the subject matter you want your ads to be associated with *

* The keyword match types do not apply to this type of targeting. They only apply to search advertising. Content targeting means advertising next to content on the web, in apps, or in YouTube videos – not searches.