Google Ads Targeting Expansion: Why you need to turn it off

Brian Bojan Dordevic
About The Author

Brian Decoded

President at Alpha Efficiency

Join me at the forefront of web design and digital marketing innovation. I am obsessed with web design, business philosophy and marketing performance.
I write Conversion Insider newsletter.

Targeting expansion is a feature of Google Ads that tries to resemble the “similar audiences” feature from Facebook. Google Ads uses a pay-per-click (PPC) pricing model for online advertisers to display brief advertisements, service offerings, product listings, and videos. It can place ads in the results of its search engine (Google Search) as well as on non-search focused pages such as those on mobile apps and videos. Experienced PPC marketers use Google Ads as one of their main channels to get new leads and increase revenue. However many advertisers fall prey to Google’s algorithmic targeting expansion, especially if they are a small to medium business.

The Google Ads system uses cookies and keywords that are pre-determined by advertisers to place an ad copy where they know they will be relevant. Each time a user diverts their browsing by clicking on an advertising copy, Google generates income which is defined by the keyword the advertiser bids on and an overall Google Ads Quality Score carried by the ad. 

Google Ads Targeting Expansion: Why you need to turn it off

How Google Ads affect your business?

Every second 2.3 million users are browsing Google and the majority of search result pages include Google Ads. This shows that Google Ads can be a very effective way of driving relevant, qualified traffic to your website when people are searching for the types of products or services that your business has to offer.

One of the bigger advantages of the Google Ads platform is its enormous reach. Google holds 90% of the search market and processes over 3.5 billion searches a day. It’s the perfect avenue to build awareness for your brand and business. 

This is extremely important if you are a small business running a low-budget Google Ads campaign. Indeed, studies show that 45% of small businesses use PPC advertising. The PPC platform offers excellent flexibility in terms of the control it gives you over where your budget goes. You can continually change parameters to satisfy your needs. For example, if your strategy focuses on clicks, then this is the only thing you have to pay for, and all the brand awareness and recognition comes for free. If you do your optimization right, your Google Ads budget can be equally effective no matter how big or small your business is.

What is the Google Ads Targeting Expansion Option?

The targeting expansion option is one of the most efficient ways to get better performance from Google Display Ads by automatically expanding your targeting reach. This allows Google to find more high-value traffic that can help you drive conversions more efficiently. It offers better forecasting and control which makes it easy for you to predict the performance of your ads. If you use the default setting, automatic targeting will expand the reach of your Google Display ads to more relevant customers. By maximizing your settings, your reach will increase and give you more control over how widely your Display ads are served. This option is very similar to Google’s lookalike audience with one key difference – the lookalike audience is based on the list of people who have already expressed an interest in your business by visiting your site, or giving you their email address while Targeting Expansion is based on interests. No one outside of Google knows how Google determines which interests are a good fit for your ads. We can only assume that they evaluate the interests of people who interact with your ads along with those of other similar businesses in your industry and change your targeting to focus on the mix of these interests.

Most PPC marketers begin their Display campaigns by enabling automatic targeting and setting it to the least amount of expansion. However, if you want to focus on reach or performance, you can maximize both by increasing the reach setting to the maximum. Marketers use this option by increasing the rate of expansion, which ultimately increases your targeting to bring more potential customers. They also check their weekly reach estimates based on their settings, which reflect the additional traffic inventory available as well as the potential impressions. 

This expansion works across most display targeting tactics, such as:

  • For content keywords, the expansion is based on the keywords that you are currently targeting. Each keyword is expanded to additional, semantically relevant keywords or topics if there is data that suggests that those keywords will lead to conversions.
  • For remarketing and similar audiences targeting, Google will use the audience in your customer list to utilize this expansion. If your similar audience list is made of people who have already purchased on your site, Google may expand targeting to include additional, highly relevant audiences. With the settings maximized, targeting might go even further based on your performance and available audiences.

Although automatic targeting is available for all Display ad groups, it is not yet possible for specific targeting types such as Demographics and Placement.

How to set up targeting expansion?

Using the targeting expansion option on Google Ads seems like a good way to reach more people with your ads. In theory, all you need to do is click a button, and Google will expand its targeting to reach a bigger audience. Targeting expansion allows Google to add or remove interests to reach more people who may convert, but wouldn’t otherwise have been in your targeting audience, increasing the number of conversions at a lower cost per conversion. With this setting enabled, Google takes a portion of your existing budget and splits it between your selected audience and your broader audience. During the campaign, they will shift the budget to the audience that is getting better results at a lower cost.

To use Google ads targeting expansion, go to your ad set and select Audiences. Find the Detailed Targeting section and check the box next to the “Expand Detailed Targeting” option. Keep in mind that new audiences are opted in by default when it comes to Conversions and App Install campaigns.

The default setting offers limited expansion. If you wish to increase your reach at the same target ROI, you need to choose the highest level of automation by following these steps:

  • Click Display campaigns in the navigation panel.
  • Find your campaign and click on it.
  • Click on the ad group you would like to adjust targeting for.
  • Click Audiences in the navigation menu.
  • Click the pencil icon and select Edit ad group targeting.
  • Drag the slider to the right to increase audience expansion.
  • Click Save.

If you wish to review the performance of your automatic targeted ads, you can do so by clicking on Display campaigns in the left-hand navigation menu or click into the campaign or ad group for which you would like to review performance and scroll to the summary rows at the bottom. “Display automatic targeting” row contains all traffic from automatic targeting.

If you have different ad groups using different kinds of targeting, you may wish to compare the results of their performance. To do so, select Display campaigns in the left-hand navigation menu and Ad groups on the page menu. Here you can find data on clicks, impressions, and conversions by ad group.

Why should you disable targeting expansion?

As we have already said, Automatic targeting helps you optimize your targeting across the Display Network letting you reach people your targeting wouldn’t otherwise reach, at around the same cost. This option is available as “conservative” or “aggressive”. When it comes to retargeting, Google states that ads will be served to other users who are interested in similar products. Now, let’s review the performance and see if this setting works. 

If you want to review the automatic targeting performance before disabling it, go to the Audience tab for your desired group. At the bottom, with the performance summary data, you can see a line for Automatic Targeting. As you can probably deduct, this kind of approach generates little to no conversions, despite the money spent on the campaign, so it follows that it would be in your best interest to disable it.

  • Create your marketing campaign and adjust the settings as needed until you get to the group setting portion. This portion is where you want to disable automation.
  • As you scroll down, expand the small box called “Automated Targeting”.
  • “Conservative Automation” should be checked by default. This is where you need to select “No automated targeting”, so the targeting you have already set up should be the only one in use.
  • Set your bids, create at least one, and save.

Now let’s make sure that this setting is toggled off for all of your existing Display campaigns. Since this setting is present at the campaign set up, you will have to review each group individually.

  • Navigate to the ad group settings page.
  • Click “edit ad group targeting” and find an automated targeting option.
  • Make sure you toggle the slider to the left so no additional impressions will be served to users outside of your indicated audiences.
  • Save and repeat this for all of your ad groups.

Although the Targeting Expansion Option has probably helped some businesses pump up the results they were seeing, we at the Chicago digital marketing agency have had quite the opposite experience. We gave the expand targeting option a try and saw bad results with our normal campaigns outperforming the expanded interest campaigns.

As an experienced PPC agency from Chicago, we would like to share a piece of advice with all of you running low-budget Google Ads campaigns – don’t waste your time and money with underperforming campaigns as Google advertising costs continue to get more and more expensive. The option of Targeting Expansion may show to be useful for businesses that can dedicate a high budget and pay a higher cost, to begin with, while focusing on the long term CPA, but it’s not for everyone. 


Fresh inspiration is a fingertip away,
Download Our Portfolio.

Download Our Portfolio