Do You Know Where Your AdWords Search Network Ads Are Showing?

By Janet Driscoll Miller | Jan 7, 2010
More Articles by Janet


I recently came across an interesting find: Target.com is serving Google Search Network ads. Now as you and I know, Target.com is NOT a search engine. For that matter, I was surprised that Target would even have Google ads on its site — what would stop a competitor from advertising on a product and luring visitors away from Target.com?

So how did I find out that Target.com is serving Search Network ads and not Content network ads? I tested a search for “706 software”, a rather obscure term used only by a very niche, accounting-based audience and a keyword for one of my PPC clients. The settings for this campaign and ad group are set to search network only, yet low and behold, their ad appears on Target.com:

Target Ad

Curious, I began to look into other sites that I know serve Google ads. Next up, Discovery Channel (Discovery.com)., where I also did a search for “706 software”. Again, this client’s ad appeared, meaning that Discovery’s website is ALSO considered a search network partner, even though they, too, are NOT a search engine:

Discovery Ad

How about The Washington Post? Check — search network partner:

Washington Post Ad

Amazon.com. Check — search network partner because the ads are redirected via A9, Amazon’s version of a search engine.

Amazon.com Ad

CNN. Check — search network partner.

CNN Ad

By now, you get my point. Many leading websites that are content or ecommerce sites are serving Google ads as part of the Search Network. So why is that bad?

In the past, sites like CNN, Discovery and The Washington Post were part of the Content Network. Even today, I can access many of these sites through Placement Targeting with the Content Network in AdWords. However, my expectation is that many advertisers expect the Search Network to be primarily “search engine” focused, placing ads on other search engine partner sites, like Ask.com, but I expect that many advertisers participating in the Search Network don’t expect to see their ads on Target.com and the like.

In fairness, Google does leave the door open about which sites are considered Search Network partners:

“Your ads may appear alongside or above search results, as part of a results page as a user navigates through a site’s directory, or on other relevant search pages. Our global Search Network includes Google Maps, Google Product Search and Google Groups along with entities such as Virgin Media and Amazon.com.”

Why That’s Bad

There are two main reasons why Google’s current Search Network offering isn’t optimal for advertisers.

  1. Content Sites AREN’T Search Sites
    Most advertisers likely think of the Search Network as other search engine partners, such as Ask.com and others. However, by including sites like Target.com, clearly a retailing site, in the Search Network, Google is, in a way, deceiving its advertisers. In no way does Google provide a full list of these Search Partners, AND, it’s certainly not easy to decipher Search Network partners from Content Network partners, unless, as an advertiser, you set up specific campaigns to one versus the other. In other words, to find out who is on the Search Network, YOU as the advertiser have to do the legwork AND sacrifice your marketing dollars to test your theories.
  2. Cannot Exclude Search Network Sites
    Unlike the Content Network, advertisers cannot select which Search Network sites to exclude. That means if you want to be on certain search engines (especially those that do not participate in the Content Network), then you must also be on Target.com, Discovery, CNN, etc. Although Google does not explicitly explain this, you CAN run a Placement Performance report on the Search Network — however, in our experience, it will only show “Parked Domains” in the Search Network and their performance — not other sites, like Target.com.

How to Get Around the Problem

Really the only way to get around the problem effectively is to advertise on the individual search engines directly. However, many of the smaller engines may not draw the impressions that Google will. So I wouldn’t spread myself too thin. Look in your analytics and see which engines drive the most traffic — focus on those first and advertise with them directly, if possible.

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  • kjripp

    Excellent post, Janet! It’s really important for search marketers to know about the inner-workings of the search and content networks. I personally don’t like placement on these networks – no matter how much work you put in to tweaking and targeting it, you’ll never get the same results as with good ol’ keyword campaigns. Sure you’ll get more traffic, but that means nothing if more than 50% of those visitors are leaving the site right away, or they’re not staying for more than a minute. Quantity does not equal quality.

    I agree with your advice about how to get around the search network problem. Advertising on individual search engines gives you a lot more control and allows you to focus your efforts on the biggest traffic drivers – thusly saving money.