Google Ads offers different ad targeting methods for where ads should appear, and to whom they should appear for. Although the methods have been mostly the same for many years, they have been adapted and reorganized.

One constant has been the way that keywords are used for search engine ad targeting. Search targeting is different than any other type because the viewers of the ads essentially target themselves by the words they use when they search. Not that there haven’t been changes in that area as well. The keyword match types have changed dramatically in recent years. Google also adopted a system of close variants, which means that plurals, misspellings, and synonyms are automatically included for targeting (much to the chagrin of pros like me who preferred having more control over that).

Beyond keyword targeting for search, Google has organized most other targeting methods under two categories: people and content.

What is “people” targeting?

When you use people targeting, you are choosing the people you want to see your ads. Google offers a list of pre-made segment types that can be selected to see your ads, but also lets you create your own segments. These segments are groups of people that can be chosen for display, discovery, shopping, or YouTube ad targeting. They can also be chosen for search ad targeting — layered with keyword targeting.

Currently, there are two sub-categories under “people” targeting:

Demographics – In the demographics targeting block, Google offers four options: gender, age bracket, parental status, and household income level.

Audience segments – In the audience segments targeting block, there are several categories of options.

  • Affinity segments — With affinity segments, you can reach people based on their passions and habits.
  • Life events — With life events, you can target based around important life milestones, such as getting married, moving, or graduation.
  • In-market — With in-market segments, you can target people who are actively researching to make a purchase. For example, they might be searching Google for vacation packages or new car models.
  • Custom segments — With custom segments, you can define a group of people by using specific keywords, URLs, and apps related to your product or service. Google Ads will then display ads to people who are likely to be interested in those keywords, URLs, and apps. This option can offer more specificity than the affinity or in-market segments.
  • Your data segments — Formerly known as “remarketing” audiences, these groups are made up of people who have already engaged with your company’s products, services, brand, or online presence. They can include past visitors to a website, mobile app, YouTube video viewers, or customers who have given you their contact information.
  • Detailed demographics — With detailed demographics, you can target groups based on other traits besides the standard demographic options of gender, age bracket, parental status, and household income level. Detailed demographics offer options that are different, and/ or more specific based on education, employment, homeowner status, marital status, and parental status.

What is “content” targeting?

Content targeting is an entirely different approach than people targeting. Rather than targeting groups of people to see your ads, you choose subject matter that you want your ads to show alongside. For example, if you sell motorcycle apparel, you could target your ads to show next to motorcycle-related content. This content could be in blogs, news articles, YouTube videos, or any website or app that is about motorcycles.

There are three approaches to content targeting:

Keywords (automated) – You can use keywords to tell the system what subject matter you want your ads to appear alongside. Keep in mind that this is very different that using keywords for search engine ads. With search, people are using words to search for what they want. With content targeting, nobody is searching. They are just consuming content, such as reading articles or watching videos.

Topics (automated) – Topic targeting has the same effect as keyword targeting, except you’re choosing from a pre-set list of topics that Google offers. The topics in the list are nested from general to more specific. For example, you could choose “sports,” “racquet sports,” or “tennis.”

Placements (manual) – With placement targeting, you choose specific places where you want your ads to appear. While keyword and topic targeting rely on the Google Ads system to decide where to place your ads (based on the guidance of the keywords or topics), placement targeting is a way for advertisers to be in firm control of placement.

Here are some options for placement targeting:


  • YouTube channels — Choose specific YouTube channels for focusing your ad placement.
  • YouTube videos — Choose specific YouTube videos for focusing your ad placement.
  • Websites — Choose specific websites for focusing your ad placement.
  • Apps — Choose specific apps for focusing your ad placement.

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Content suitability

If you’re using either people or content targeting for display or YouTube ads, your ads will appear next to content. But what if your ad happened to appear next to an article with profanity, violence, or adult content? Would that be damaging to your brand? Fortunately, Google offers a way to prevent that from happening.

By going to the Content Suitability page (in the Setup menu), you can choose from three options related to content juxtaposition:

Limited inventory — Exclude most types of sensitive content.

Standard inventory — Show ads on content that’s appropriate for most brands

Expanded inventory — Maximize available inventory by showing ads on some sensitive content.

Which is better?

So, which type of targeting should you use: people or content? You don’t need to choose one or the other. You can choose both for an ad group. For example:

People (demographics): Men between the ages of 35 – 54

Content (keywords): Harley Davidson

When you make selections for both people and content, it’s a combined approach where the methods are layered. In this example, you’re choosing to target men between the ages of 35 – 54 and to place the ads next to content related to Harley Davidson.

It’s not easy to say whether people or content targeting is better, but I’ll offer this tip: The simpler the data point, the more you can trust the targeting – in general. I trust the basic demographic settings the most – gender and age bracket. This data is easier for Google to obtain and use for targeting. Interest targeting (such as affinity lists) are not to be trusted much. Both Google and Meta keep track of our interests based on our online activity, but they don’t do it very accurately. Both allow you to see what interests they have attributed to you. When I checked mine, I found that about two-thirds of the list was incorrect. (Who knows why they thought I was interested in skateboarding or horror movies?) I also don’t have a lot of confidence in their automated content targeting for keywords or topics. That’s because Google Ads allows you to check where your ads placed, after the fact (which websites and apps). When I did, I found that many of the placements seemed to not have any relation to the keyword or topic that I chose for targeting.

It helps to keep in mind Google’s business model: They make money from clicks. They need places to put ads and they need people to show the ads to. It makes sense, from their perspective, to be on the liberal side with things like, “who likes badminton” or “websites about quilting.”

From a user-privacy perspective, content targeting is much more acceptable because it requires Google to know the subject matter of content, not the interests and habits of people. In the future, as more privacy standards are implemented online, content targeting might be the only option.

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Making safe targeting choices

As I mentioned in the last section, you can’t trust the targeting methods completely. Except for placement targeting, all other targeting for display ads and YouTube ads are automated – meaning you’re trusting Google to choose where to show your ads, and to whom.

Another problem is something called “click fraud,” which is prevalent on the Google Display Network (GDN). Click fraud is when clicks on ads happen, but not because a person is interested in the ad. With the GDN, website and app owners partner with Google for ad placement and split the money when clicks occur. It’s in their financial interest for more clicks to happen, so corrupt means are put to work sometimes, such as the use of bots to click on ads. Google claims to have significant resources in place to both prevent and detect click fraud. If Google finds instances of it having occurred, Google will credit a refund to the ad account that was charged. But no matter what fraud-prevention and fraud-detection measures are in place, click fraud can’t be stopped 100%.

Since the GDN is rife with click fraud, it should largely be avoided. The best use of it is to do “remarketing,” which means to advertise to people who have already engaged with your business in some way, such as having visited your website, watched one of your YouTube videos, or are in your list of current customers. I try to do remarketing as much as possible because (overall) it offers great value. The people targeted are the ones who are most likely to bring new business, since they engaged somehow in the past. Also, the cost is quite low since the list of people is usually more limited than for other types of targeting. Remarketing involves using “people” targeting, with Your data segments. (See above.)

For people targeting, I feel most confident with remarketing/ Your data segments. Next to that, I feel the most confident with basic demographics, such as gender and age bracket.

For content targeting, playing it safe means to use Placement targeting, where you choose the precise locations for your ads to appear – websites, web pages, apps, or YouTube videos.

People targeting (in repetitive fashion)

If you are doing remarketing ads (to People> Your data segments), it’s affordable enough to get a tremendous amount of repeated exposure to the same people. This could be a great thing for business, or it could be a creepy turnoff to those being “followed.” Fortunately, there is a feature to limit the amount of repeated exposure to the same people. It’s called Frequency capping. With frequency capping, you can limit the number of times per day, week, or month that you want the same person to be served an ad. Frequency capping can be set for display campaigns and certain types of video campaigns.

Another people-targeting feature is called “target frequency,” which is an available option for YouTube video campaigns. This is for reaching the same people with an ad several times per week. You can set the weekly target for two, three, or four times per week. Under objectives, if you choose “Create a campaign without a goal’s guidance,” and then choose “Video” as the campaign type, you’ll have the option to choose target frequency as the campaign subtype.