Google Adwords geo-targeting

Location targeting exhibits problems for some search terms

Google Adwords geo-targetingTargeting ads to geographic locations in Google Adwords has been around from as far back as 2006. It allows advertisers to target certain countries, states, cities, regions and even postcodes (in 11 countries). It is especially useful for local businesses who wish to have their ad only show up for searches in the area which they service. I have used it extensively for local businesses to ensure that their ad spend is not wasted on clients who are outside of their serviceable area. In the past it has worked very effectively, however I recently came across some peculiar behaviour.

Google Adwords geo-targeting SE MelbourneIn early January I set up a new Campaign for a client who runs a local business. Naturally they were only interested in reaching potential customers within a certain radius of their location, so my Campaign employed geo-targeting for this purpose. I selected the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, set an appropriate ad spend and tweaked the other settings as I saw fit. After making an Ad Group and selecting keywords, I expected to see the leads come rolling in. After a few weeks, I took a look at performance. Adwords was not using up our daily ad spend. Astoundingly, the cost in this period was a mere 9.76% of the budget that I had set! Why did Google not want to take my client’s money? (As a side note, they did not send us a warning email or notification about this, but that’s another issue).

We knew that there was more demand than the measly amount of impressions we were getting. We knew it was a big market. What was going on under the hood? First I checked the ads to see if our keywords had a low monthly search volume, but this was not the case. I then checked to see if the cost-per-click for our selected keywords was higher than our maximum bid, but this was also not the problem.

Coffee break and helpless frustration. Okay. Calm down and think like Sherlock: “Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.”

Adwords preview & diagnosis toolThe next step was to suspend my (misplaced) trust in Google’s algorithm and merely test. Were they actually showing my ads to the target region? First I used the Google Adwords Ad Preview and Diagnosis tool. It lets a user select a given country code top-level domain (ccTLD), location (country, city, region, postcode or geographic coordinate), and device (desktop, laptop, mobile or tablet) to see what ads are displayed to a given combination of these inputs. According to Google’s own tool, my client’s ad repeatedly showed up in first place for our keyword in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne! Nonetheless something was nagging at the back of my mind: What if Google’s method of deeming a user as being from this region was flawed?

I am currently situated in Berlin, Germany, although I had my colleague in Melbourne, Paul Thewlis, search from Glen Iris (in the south-eastern suburbs) and my client’s ad did not show up! Something was awry with Google’s algorithms.

According to Google, they do not yet use the W3C Geolocation Specification to determine where a given user is from. Rather they use a device’s IP address (in the absence of a GPS signal). The geolocation data for Paul’s IP address were as follows for four providers:

Geolocation data provider Location
IP2Location St Kilda East, Victoria, Australia
IPligence Balwyn, Victoria, Australia
IP Address Labs Balwyn, Victoria, Australia
MaxMind Glen Iris, Victoria, Australia

Google Adwords geo-targeting Glen IrisSt Kilda East and Glen Iris fall within the boundaries of the south-eastern suburbs, but Balwyn does not. Perhaps Google had incorrectly determined that Paul was located in Balwyn, which is in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, so I added this region to the Campaign. Once again, the ad did not display.

Therefore, I altered the geo-targeting settings to cover all of the state of Victoria and then Paul rechecked and my client’s ad showed up in first place. Odd! Stranger still is that this problem has not affected any of my other clients’ Campaigns. In any case I was glad to have solved it, but I was still curious as to whether anyone else had observed the same phenomenon.

I then discovered that someone in Utah had the same problem with geo-targeting beginning in October 2013 and the problem appears unsolved as of 19th February 2014. Given that the problem did not manifest itself until late 2013, I suspect that at some point Google rolled out an update and all their tests for earlier iterations of their geo-targeting system were not run. I am also not sure if this is related to the strange geo-targeting behaviour that Marta Turek from Mediative presented at SMX Advanced in June 2013, although it may be.

bug image-John Tann from Flickr

bug photo by John Tann (Flickr)

In any case, if I am running a geo-targeted Campaign in future and it is having issues exhausting the budget, this is certainly something to keep in mind. I will also continue to experiment in future with various permutations of geo-targeting in different Campaigns to optimise my clients’ conversion rates, due to my diminished confidence in Google’s geolocation algorithms. Even clever programmers in well-organised environments produce bugs.