Hey AdWords, Do You Offer GeoTARGETING, Or Just GeoSUGGESTION?

SMS Text

Google shows ads to people outside your geotargeting if they deem the search to be “relevant”.

What? Really?

Yep, I read about this recently and immediately called our AdWords people, and they confirmed it. AdWords parses all searchers’ queries- if a searcher is outside your geotargeting, but their search query appears to be relevant, they may still serve your ad to them.

For example, say I want to serve ads about Myrtle Beach Hotels only to people in North Carolina – I’m creating a campaign specifically for North Carolinians with ads about a gas credit to save money on the drive down to Myrtle Beach. With AdWords’ current set-up and the query parsing exception, if someone in California searches for one of my keywords, like “myrtle beach hotels”, AdWords may still show them that ad. This happens despite the fact that the ad is for a gas credit that no one in California would ever use. Ridiculous.

Here’s some background info:

One of our AdWords reps told me that the percentage of my clicks from outside by geotargeting should be small. So I checked, and the results are below. I’d be interested to see your results, if you review your geotargeted accounts.

Complicating this research is the fact that geotargeting is set at campaign level, but the geographic report in AdWords can only be run at the account level. So, I checked the three clients we have whose campaigns are all geotargeted. I may use Omniture and GA to check other clients later.


In one client, fully 30% of the clicks came from outside the geotargeted area. And 30% is not just a few clicks. For another client, 20% of my impressions are going outside the geotarg area and the CTR for those impressions is zero. That will lower quality score because it lowers the account CTR. I’m taking that to my rep.

Geotargeted Area
Outside Geotargeting
#1NC/SC only20% of impressions, zero clicks (zero
0%Lowers account CTR and quality score,
raises overall CPC
#2SC only51% of impressions, CTR is 1/8th
those in the geotargeted areas
13%Lost spend on bad clicks, again quality
score problem will increase overall CPC
#331 Eastern statesOnly 0.3% of impressions and good
MinimalNone, but still disconcerting


The first client reviewed was geotargeted only to NC and SC because it’s a medical service for which people are unlikely to travel much further. In a 2 month period, there were 669 clicks total. There was only 1 click but 10,738 impressions from other areas. The total of impressions from all areas was 51,526; so 20% of my ad impressions were shown to areas I didn’t request. Is AdWords’ insistence on showing outside relevant areas dragging down my quality score? Because 20% is substantial- but because the quality score algorithm is secret, I can’t project how much less CPC would have been with the better quality score I would have received from the more relevant impressions I requested.

Second client is a cable company that only services South Carolina. This does not and cannot serve clients outside of the state, so there are no relevant ad viewers outside SC. Out of 1.139m impressions, only 558k are in my geotargeted area. These (many in content network) get an overall 0.54% CTR. There were 581k from outside where I chose, and these only received a 0.06% CTR. Again, having 51% of my impressions come from outside my geotargeted area and getting 1/8th the CTR on those drags down my quality score and increases the CPC on the clicks from GOOD areas. There were 376 clicks from outside my geotargeted area for $1026.10 spend, which was 13% of the total spend in this time period. Google increased their earnings by 15% in this case on the anti-geotargeted impressions and by an unknown amount on my requested impressions.

The third client is a golf destination, and we targeted 31 states east of the Mississippi. This one turned out as my account rep predicted. For some reason, they showed 0.3% of my impressions in Quebec, which seems more reasonable. But my geotargeting here was much wider than in the other clients. Google may have shown impressions in these areas even if I had geotargeted only to NC. In this case, I have no big complaint, because the CTR for those Quebec clicks was good, and we know we get Canadian golfers wanting to come down to Myrtle Beach.


Despite the third case, the larger problem remains: if I’m smart enough (or have good data from my analytics) to geotarget more specifically for better results or for specific campaign goals, I should be able to do so. Google either thinks their algorithm is smarter – and clearly it’s not – or they care more about making money than about helping me reach my advertising goals, or this is an antiquated approach they need to update.

In everyday life, I drive a stick shift because I like to control the machine. I don’t use automated bid rules or third party software to optimize AdWords. I do it by hand. I do it better and faster that way. I like the control because I know what I’m doing.

What Google is doing here, making query parsing an exception to geotargeting, is worse than turning a manual transmission into an automatic. An automatic would be fine for the convenience or if it got you better gas mileage, right? But in this case, their machine is set to maximize their KPI’s (more clicks and dollars), not mine (more relevant impressions, better CTR, better quality score, lower CPC, better CR, better cost per lead, better ROAS).

They use the rationale that query parsing delivers relevance, but the impressions and clicks are clearly not as relevant in two out of the three cases above. It’s a clever rationale, because we know relevance is the foundation of everything Google does… but it doesn’t make sense when the CTR is so dramatically lower and when they know that lower your CTR increases CPC and thus their earnings- they win either way- they get higher CPC on your relevant clicks, and they may get more clicks overall.

Generally I’m a Google supporter, but this policy goes over the line.

The advertiser loses here, and I think this is a bad approach for Google over the long term. They may be the best and in some ways the only pay per click solution right now, but if they abuse that position, advertisers will jump to the next competitor faster with less loyalty to Google.


In the meantime, the AdWords rep suggested I follow the solution in Dan’s blog. More specifically:

If you think that query parsing does not generate quality leads, then you can follow the steps outlined in the blog article and select the individual regions within the state or country that you are targeting. This would reduce the query parsing (but not eliminate it) because the more granular the targeting the less likely that someone is using that in their search term.

That is, you have to select all the metro areas, not just states. Extra work for us. And as he says, does not completely turn our AdWords system back into a stick shift. How about just a button that turns off geotargeting-oriented query parsing?

Brian Carter is the Director of Search Engine Marketing for Fuel Interactive, an interactive marketing agency in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He is responsible for the SEO, PPC, SMM, and ORM programs at Fuel and its partner traditional agency Brandon Advertising & PR.

Brian Carter
Brian is author of The Like Economy: How Businesses Make Money With Facebook and Facebook Marketing: Leveraging Facebook's Features For Your Marketing Campaigns, How to... Read Full Bio
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  • Kevin

    Interesting article but I have the opposite feelings towards Google Geo-targeting.
    One of my clients was a local car dealership and we targeted the campaign as such but we noticed a trend with the geo-targeting that there was a high interest level from other locations. This lead us to some research that those people were close enough to consider our location as a better deal and worth the 3 to 5 hour drive to get to our dealership. Thus a whole new campaign targeting that area and attracting even more new customers.
    Another consideration is people from your state traveling for business or people moving to your area, looking for the services you are advertising.
    Another good reason is that IP resolution is not 100% for instance the targeting that shows for my computer on Google says Portland Oregon but I am about 500 miles away but my service provider is out of Portland thus I need the looser geo-targeting in order to get the results I want and the ads that may be of some use to me.
    I agree that the targeting needs a bit of refinement but there are lots of instances where this comes in handy as well.

  • David Szetela

    http://www.ppcassurance.enquisite.com/ can detect “incorrect” clicks – ones from outside the geographic target – and semi-automate the process of getting refunds from Google and Yahoo.

  • Brian Carter

    David, you’re telling me you can get Google to refund clicks that come from outside the geotargeting? I thought PPC Assurance was only for click fraud?

  • David Szetela

    ClickForensics is for click fraud; PPC Assurance is for invalid clicks – i.e., when the search engines make mistakes. Best yet, there’s no risk – Enquisite charges 50% of whatever refund the advertiser gets.

  • David Szetela

    Here’s the PPC Assurance link: http://bit.ly/idkRC

  • Robert Brady

    I’m with Brian. When I set geo-targeting I expect my ads to only be shown in the area I selected. So Google, how about the option to turn this off?

  • Kevin

    There is really no possibility that you are targeting the wrong area and you are missing valuable leads and sales? Get real!
    I know there are certain instances where you want to be very selective but setting up reporting to weed out the bad seeds should not limit your ability to attract customers outside your what you determine is your area. It is possible that your hospital has a more regional or national influence than you know. My suggestion start testing and stop blaming Google.
    Obviously your ads are something somebody wants. If not take David up on his suggestion and get the money back.

  • Robert Brady

    @Kevin – Testing is how I determine what locations to geo-target and I’m not saying that Google can’t get me a few good clicks outside my area. I feel that my tests and intimate knowledge of the client and their customers makes me more qualified to determine who sees my ads. Google’s algo may help a lot of people, but I want the option of full control.

  • Michelle

    Not all businesses can benefit from extra impressions outside their geotargeted area – for example, lawyers, debt consolidators, settlement brokers, electricians, anyone who is required to obtain a license for a specific municipality. Those people can’t benefit from a lead generated outside of their authorized area of operation.

    A way to opt out of all of Google’s “mystery relevance” would be welcome for most PPC analysts, so get really sick and tired of that almost useless surey report and its “other” designation…

  • Kevin

    I can see your point where you are stuck being able to only service clients within a specific boundary. So making that function available as an advanced feature could be beneficial. But I am assuming you would not suggest this as a default? Is that correct?

  • Dan London

    Remember…even if you do not want ads shown outside of Boston..if somebody in Guam searches for “boston car dealerships” they will be shown the ad.

  • Brian Carter

    I’d agree that some newer advertisers might need query parsing for geotargeting initially (that’s why it’s there, according to my rep), and that advanced advertisers should have the option to turn it off. The latter is the change we need to see from AdWords.

  • Janet Driscoll Miller

    Brian, so are you saying here that you feel those queries that include the city name keyword (in your example, “Myrtle Beach”) that are physically located in the geotargeted area are not valid clicks for you?

    I can see where there is a possibility for problems with geotargeting and broad match, which in turn automatically creates expanded broad match. For instance, if you geotarget Boston and advertise for broad match “bars” but Google thinks it’s a misspelling of cars — and they’re searching from NYC, that’s completely untargeted. I’d definitely be suspicious of expanded broad match with geotargeting now that you wrote this article… that could be part of the problem.

  • Victoria Dunmire

    I am with Brian on this one. Especially as the web grows, I think more and more people are going to be reaching out to local businesses and people in their communities through geo-targeting. If you take the time to put together and track a campaign for a very specific area, you obviously don’t want clicks from other areas.

    Kevin-We have several campaigns, one of which is for the entire US so we can still capture people from other areas that may be interested. This article is about having a local campaign for just that specific reason-targeting local, making the web more personl, etc.

  • Jen

    Unfortunately, if the name of one of the regions is what’s tripping you up, there is no solution. I had targeted a list of cities in CA including Orange County, and the client got a contact through Adwords from Orange County New Jersey. I switched to a targeted radius, and I am still seeing results for “orange county keyword” out of CA. I am attempting to put the other 49 states in my negative KW list. If that doesn’t work, I don’t know what to do.

  • Jordan McClements

    You think you have it bad in the Sates?

    You should try the UK.

    To add to our problems, our IP addresses bear little relevance to our location a lot of the time.

    As an example, I am in Northern Ireland, and have an ‘English’ IP address!

  • Twitter.com/GoogleGirl

    I have seen this over the years and Google thinks its pretty smart. And many times it is. However, I recently launched a new account. And it transferred its learnings to my new account. For my domain name as a Keyword it served to a huge number of general keywords. I placed a bid high for my long tail keyword domain.. and it began to show me for 25k of impressions. Ridiculous! I wasnt even using geotargeting.. this was for a national campaign.

    The short of it is.. someone in “adwords engineering” thinks they are really smart and that they tried to put AI into the ad display algorithm.

    Thank God for daily budgets.. watch out if you just want to place a few branded words up and you have ever in the past bid on something generic.

    Oh and Thank God for the Search Query Report. At least they report these actions.

    • Kevin Gamache

      Were you using Broad matching or did you use phrase or exact match? Using phrase or exact match should have eliminated showing for general terms that are located in your domain-as-keyword phrase.