You Shouldn’t Trust the Google Display Network. Take Control Now!
By Tad Miller
Feb 15, 2019
More Articles by Tad
For over a decade, I’ve been inheriting Google Ad Accounts managed by other agencies or in-house marketing departments. There are a few “go-to” tactics I use to evaluate just what kind of problem I have inherited and checking the Display Ads is a good way of knowing what kind of manager the previous account manager was. Because turning a blind-eye to what Google Display Network Campaigns does is the most common “set-it and forget it” tactic there is in pay per click management.
We recently inherited a group of ad accounts where the greatest sin of the former manager was failing to diligently manage and verify what his client was getting from its Google Display Network campaigns (He was getting Ad Clicks that were blatantly fraudulent). In some ways, it was easy to see why he ignored them. Those campaigns delivered far and away the greatest lead volume of the entire account.
But, a closer examination revealed to my experienced eye that there was no way those conversions were real at all and I didn’t even have to see the lead list of those that completed the lead-gen form to verify that.
You see, almost all of those conversions were derived from the early AM hours of night from ad clicks on mobile apps. I knew that there was no way that the “Woody Puzzle”, the “Jigsaw Puzzle Collection HD” or the “Wooden Block Puzzle” app were delivering legit lead volume and especially legit ad click volume to the remarketing audience the client was targeting to.
Digging into the lead list further solidified that “bot-driven” form completions were likely responsible for the overwhelming majority of lead volume (repetitive and incorrect form completion fields) – As hard as I tried, the 14 conversions from “Fortaleza Drive in New York were never going to be valid (there’s no such place in both the city and State of New York).
After digging a little deeper, I discovered what was worse than paying for invalid clicks. What’s worse is trusting Google to “Optimize for Conversions” and automating where to show more ads in order to get more of those bot-driven conversions. The merchants of ad fraud know this kind of laziness is standard operating procedure for the ad manager that “just doesn’t have enough time” and it’s why my client’s clicks were going to “iffy” at best ad clicks on mobile apps from about mid-night to 2:00 am. Some one or some thing (a bot) was filling out the lead forms for the purpose of getting more ad clicks.
I especially loved seeing USA based remarketing clicks on Indian Railway Train Status Apps or Indian “shopping” apps that essentially look like a way to crowd-source click fraud:
It’s also a very bad sign when a significant number of your app clicks are coming from apps like VPN Proxy Master which are popular in parts of the world where internet users like privacy and may be blocked from seeing Western news or using social media platforms like Facebook by their governments.
I’m all for freedom of the press and against censorship, however, these VPN apps can also be used to “spoof” a location and make it appear like they are browsing from the USA – when in-fact, they are on the opposite side of the world.
This makes for a super-convenient way for bad-actors to get paid for clicking on ads that they wouldn’t otherwise see (because of Geo-targeted ad settings) without the aid of VPN software. A major component of most click-fraud prevention software these days is preventing ads from being seen by those utilizing VPN software to browse the internet.
All of these apps boast about having multiple server locations that make it look like you are browsing from where those servers are located at:
Should I Give Up on the Google Display Network Because of Ad Fraud?
A look at your Google Display Network Placement reports to see where your ads are showing can tell you a lot. You can actually click through to see where those clicks are coming from and I encourage every Google Display Advertiser to do so to get an idea of how they are spending their ad dollars.
The reality is that people scrutinize the keywords they advertise on with search advertising with a great deal of care, but often fail to look at the ad placements their display ads show on the same way. It’s virtually impossible to monitor every single location where your ad can show when you just let Google Ads run on default settings for a remarketing audience. I’ve seen accounts that have 40,000 or more separate websites, apps or YouTube videos showing a client’s ads and Google both adds and removes new Display partners on a daily basis.
It can be a pretty disheartening exercise for an American advertiser to realize they have spent hundreds of dollars on a site that doesn’t even publish in the English language or a dating app for people on the other side of the world. The sad reality is that you can’t really manage your way out of the mess that all of the Display network is anymore (even if you are super-diligent). Hard work isn’t going to fix the problem. Even Google is struggling to do this as evidenced from a recent BuzzFeed Article on Ad Fraud on Android Apps :
Don’t Hate the Player. Hate its Default Settings Game
The reality of our times is that a remarketing audience isn’t a “pre-qualified” audience that you can trust to be your potential customers. We are in the “Age of Bots” that can indiscriminately crawl your site, become cookied for remarketing ads and then click away on the App or website of their choosing that participates in the worlds biggest display ad network. The internet is in many ways “Fake” and some channels are reaching the point of inversion where the machines may be outnumbering the humans. If you are an advertiser, it doesn’t matter if you sell surgical beds or propane, even the most niche products can be crawled by a bot or human bad-actors which can expose you to potential ad fraud that Google might not be able to catch.
You can no longer trust the simple event of Google saying that a website generated a form completion anymore as proof that your ad campaigns are working. You need to verify that you generated a valid lead by reviewing the list of leads you generate, cyber-stalking them out by name and verifying that they are in-fact valid, potential customers.
All of this means you can’t trust Google to find your audience where ever they might be and it definitely means that you can’t trust that they didn’t generate a junk lead. There are no more benefits of the doubt to be given with the Display Network default way of doing things…and truthfully there are no benefits of the doubt for anything on the Internet, everything deserves more scrutiny especially your advertising.
Possible Solutions to Clean Up Your Display Ad Clicks
You can add additional layers of targeting to your Display Campaigns to try to clean up the traffic sources. Limiting your ads showing to only specific topics (sites, apps & YouTube videos in those topics) is perhaps the easiest step to do this, but it is by no means a do it once and you are done fixing things kind of tactic.
Not all sites or Apps within a topic category are created equal and new Display Partner sites are being added everyday that can sneak into your placements and can accrue a lot of spend before you even know what happened. Would you even notice a site that spent only $3.00 a day? before it did that for 30 days straight?
The Hard Way is Likely the Best Way
We have taken a different approach for our client’s ads that was much more labor intensive. Instead of letting Google distribute our ads to 40,000 different ad placement sites at a time, we took the time to come up with our own top 1,000 list of where we want our client ads to show. This is known as a Managed Placement List.
We scoured the placement reports of all of our clients going back the last 12 months and evaluated where quality clicks were coming from. After compiling the top 400 it became very difficult to find placements that didn’t look like they existed solely just to get clicks from Google AdSense.
Quality destinations with quality content and “respectability” were difficult to find from just placement reports, so we expanded our list from more old-fashioned media channels – local newspaper websites and local TV station websites. Admittedly, we hadn’t seen a lot of traffic from these kinds of sites, but we have always seen legitimate conversions and quality traffic from these types of “local” sites and let’s face it, they aren’t very likely to hire armies of students in the Eastern Hemisphere to click on ads all night to “juice-up” their ad revenues. See below:
I never tire of looking at videos of Chinese click farms. It’s just so surreal to see hundreds of phones playing the same video for the purposes of fake engagment. pic.twitter.com/bHAGLqRqVb
— Matthew Brennan (@mbrennanchina) December 10, 2018
Are There Sacrifices to Using a Managed Placement List?
After looking at the first week of results with just advertising to our top 1,000 list we made a few discoveries:
- We can spend the same exact budgets and get comparable or better click volumes by just advertising on 1,000 sites as we do on 40,000 placements
- We get more clicks spread out throughout the day (the accounts we inherited were spending all their budgets within 2 hours of being on (likely because Google was optimizing for conversions in those early morning hours)
- The percent of new sessions from remarketing ads went up around 30% on average (we don’t have the same people clicking week after week)
- Ad impressions went up about 20%
- Local TV stations and Newspapers can spend way more on remarketing ads if other apps and/or placements don’t spend all the daily budget before the TV and newspapers can even deliver an ad impression
- You can actually add audience “reach” by subtracting the number of places where your ads show.
Google Display Network Takeaways for Moving Forward
- The only way to truly take control of where your ads show on the Google Display Network is to use a Managed Placement List
- Be diligent in verifying your lead list. If it’s full of junk, try to reverse-engineer where that bad quality traffic is coming from and take action to fix it
- You shouldn’t let Google “Optimize for Conversions” on the Google Display Network until you are absolutely sure they aren’t optimizing the volume of junk leads
- Click Fraud Software might be a good investment for blocking known fraudulent devices, VPN software users or people that click on your ads too often
- Avoid Red Flag situations:
- Apps comprising the majority of your display spend (especially games)
- Display ad clicks and conversions all seem to happen in the middle of the night (see if you can spend your budget first in the daylight hours)
- Ad placements all look “sketchy” – very few clicks coming from know publishers
- Repetitive patterns are very noticeable in your lead list (phone number patterns, similar names, street locations, wrong data in the wrong data fields, etc.)
- High composition of clicks/impressions from sites not originating from your target country