Remarketing Traffic is Not Made Equal

Working in an agency setting we speak with many marketers across the spectrum of business. One of the most interesting things we get to do is review and audit existing Google Ads accounts to see if we’d be a good fit and if we’d be able to provide value as a digital marketing agency partner.

Through this practice, we get to see how advertisers across industries set up accounts and see how they perform against one another; what tactics are common, which innovations are working and for whom? 

Over the last few years one of the biggest blemishes to appear again and again are campaigns that claim to be remarketing, but which are not achieving that end.  

Remarketing Mistakes We See in Google Ads

The basic strategy behind any remarketing campaign is to add the tag across a business’s website and serve ads to people once they leave the website. 

However, there are mistakes that appear again and again and there are missed opportunities that businesses of every size could benefit from understanding. These are blemishes that appear across accounts built by agencies, owner-operators, and in-house teams. 

Below, I’ll explore these common error-prone scenarios and provide tips on how to better approach remarketing — who we should remarket to, and what role our unique situations play — as we make remarketing decisions.

Common remarketing errors we see every day

  • Audience sizes below the threshold (100 unique active users for Google Display, higher for other ad options – such as 1K for YouTube)
  • Campaigns that don’t work because the remarketing tag stopped collecting an audience (typically being accidentally removed from the website)
  • Remarketing progress halted in the face of disapproved ads

 While these types of mistakes come up all the time as we audit clients’ Google Ads accounts, they’re not as glaring as the one that’s troublesome enough to warrant its own blog post…

The Critical Mistake You’re Making with Remarketing

A rose by any other name… but the converse is also true – simply calling a pile of garbage “rose” doesn’t make that pile smell any better as you walk by on a hot summer day. Similarly, simply adding “Remarketing” to a campaign name does not make it an effective (or actual, in some cases) remarketing campaign. 

True, effective remarketing involves setting up an appropriate audience and targeting your display (or YouTube, etc.) campaign to serve ads exclusively to this target audience.

Sounds simple enough, but in fairness to agencies and in-house teams, Google has changed the process over the years, at times making it more challenging than it should be. 

One of the most common errors we encounter in account audits is campaigns labeled “remarketing” where most of the budget is not actually spent on remarketing audiences. 

In our experience, this occurs for three main reasons.

#1.  Optimized Targeting / Audience Expansion

In 2023, Google began to remove Similar Audiences from Google Ads targeting and replaced this targeting option with Optimized Targeting. To use Optimized Targeting, a first party audience (email lists, web remarketing) audience is added to a campaign and audience expansion is turned on.

For whatever reason (don’t ask me – I wasn’t there), we see a surprising number of campaigns labeled “remarketing” that have opted into optimized targeting. When this happens, nearly all the budget and exposure is eaten away by the “Expansion and optimized targeting” bucket. In the example below, you can see what this looks like:

While this campaign was called a remarketing campaign, less than 1% of the display ad impressions were seen by the desired remarketing audience of potential customers. 

  • Were this set up correctly, all the data would be in the “Total: Segments” row with a bunch of goose eggs in “expansion and optimized targeting”. 
  • What’s worse: in the case of this screenshot, the conversions were just page views and with a deeper dive, had little to no business value

To find this setting, go to an ad group, find ad group settings, and then find “edit ad group targeting”. 

It is easier to use this setting in Google Ads editor, (image below), by selecting which ad group you’d like to see. Google Ads Editor provides an easier layout and workflow vs. walkthrough these steps in the UI for campaigns that are already in motion.

If the Optimized Targeting setting is selected, you are likely to find that most of the campaign traffic is coming through from the “expansion and optimized targeting” as there is typically much more expansion inventory than what an average remarketing list is likely to pick up.

Something similar can also occur on YouTube through the selection of “Audience Expansion”. 

This setting is found in your ad group audiences tab below where audience selections are made if your campaign is set for either “product and brand consideration” or “brand awareness and reach”. 

#2. Observation vs. Targeting:

While the language used to name these settings has improved greatly over the last few years – observation/targeting appear to make more intuitive sense to many vs. the old language of bid only / bid and target. 

  • Observation means you’ll be able to see detailed reports on your audience. 
  • Targeting means Google will restrict this campaign strictly to the audiences defined as targeting. 

Again this setting is easiest to find in Google Ads Editor at the ad group level under “Targeting Settings” > “Flexible Reach”.

In the UI, this option is found under “Audiences” > “Audience Segments” > “Edit Audience Segments”.  

Google has added some “recommended” flair to targeting, but it doesn’t stop you if you wish to change it. While we’ve seen this be less and less of an issue over time it still pops up periodically.

#3. Adding audiences outside of your remarketing audience to your remarketing campaign

If you’re using “targeting” for your remarketing campaign (as you should be), adding any other audiences will expand your audience to include the additional segments. 

Meaning, in the screenshot below, this ad group would be targeting all visitors based on the Google Ads tag *and* the Google Life Events Audience of “Business Creation”. Most of the ready-made Google Audiences  are significantly larger than any remarketing list, and thus my guess is that more than 90% of your budget would end up funding the broader and larger Google audience instead of serving ads to your prospects.

Perhaps this setup could work well if this targeting worked with an “and” statement. There would be great value for many companies if further refining their remarketing audiences through additional audience criteria. Alas, this setup will work as an “or” statement and ultimately will target both our remarketing list and the Google ready made audience of “Business Creation”.

This might be an excellent way to filter an audience further if Google gave us the option of an “and” statement – meaning we’d be targeting our remarketing list of people who are also interested in “Business Creation”. 

The problem is that Google treats all audiences selected here as “or” statements and any additions at this level will increase your campaign’s reach.

Missed Opportunities with Remarketing Campaigns in Google Ads (a.k.a Remarketing Tips You Don’t Want to Miss)

While the issues we just reviewed will lead to most of an advertiser’s budget being pushed into prospecting audiences instead of reengaging a known audience, there are also several missed opportunities in remarketing strategies that get their core audience selection right.

#1. Not excluding key visitors/audiences:

If someone comes to your website & your goal is to get them to “convert”, should you continue paying to reach them? 

For example, on our website, we’d like our visitors to complete a lead form. For DTC’s own remarketing efforts, we exclude anyone who does this. That allows us to focus our remarketing message around our goal and ensure we’re not spending our limited ad dollars on a redundant ask.

This is not a one size-fits-all solution, however… 

With ecommerce websites, for instance, we may want to continue to stay top of mind to encourage additional shopping & purchases. Moreover, we all know that not all “conversions” are made equal. Therefore we wouldn’t necessarily want to exclude all converters if we’re supporting a mixed conversion ecosystem. 

Perhaps we have set up conversions around webinars, newsletter sign ups and lead forms. Only one of these is our main business goal, so in this case we’d only want to exclude lead form conversions from our remarketing audience (since this audience has already completed the objective – with lead gen, there is typically no additional value in getting the same information again. The game changes in ecommerce where each additional interaction can create additional value).

#2. Targeting all website users:

This one can be tricky, as every website will be in a different situation. One of the first things I like to do is review Google Analytics so I can get a sense of visitor quality. 

If 90% of website visitors come in from a blog and do not engage with the website further, is there really a commercial intent to this visit? The answer – well sometimes, and this is why you need to better understand how your blog traffic works toward your business objective.

  • If your blog answers commercially relevant questions, then keeping this traffic as part of your remarketing funnel might make sense. 
  • However, if you comb through history and find that your blog has mostly one and done type visits to your site, or if your blog content is not hyper related to  purchase discovery or consideration, then you may want to leave this traffic out of your targeted remarketing audience. 

The size of your total audience, the brand, and your budget should also play into this decision as well. If you’re not sure, you can create two separate remarketing audiences and place both into a remarketing campaign. 

To do this audience 1 contains your “commercial intent” pages and audience 2 contains your blog pages or other non-commercial content. By doing so, you can easily see how each performs for your use-case.

Note: Creating a blog-only audience is easy if you’re using a directory structure that is easy to target, such as /blog/, but these methods take a lot more ongoing effort to ensure they are current. Websites often add pages – and an “all visitors” audience is by far the easiest way to go.

For many B2B and SMB companies, it makes sense to only remarket to visitors of your commercially relevant webpages, but it’s not a great idea to completely exclude blog pages, even if the blog content you’re dealing with is irrelevant to your objective. People interested in services can easily kick around on blogs (so we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater).

Screenshot of GA4 analytics of landing pages and sessions.

Both ideas here apply to most marketing channels that allow for remarketing or retargeting ads. We’ve seen these missed opportunities across Google Ads, Meta and LinkedIn.

Where to Take Your Remarketing Campaigns From Here:

In summary – it’s not always straightforward or simple to achieve real remarketing and there is a surprising number of accounts that we run into that have every intention of running a remarketing campaign but are missing the mark due the reasons detailed above. 

Ad platforms are more than happy to let such mistakes happen and at least Google even seems to encourage these mistakes through their campaign set up wizards and ongoing account recommendations. But at the end of the day, it’s up to us platform users to ensure we’re getting what we need out of an advertising platform. 

Step one is knowing what we want to achieve, step two is knowing how to do it, and step three verifying that what we set up is working as intended. 

Hopefully this post will help you achieve what you’re looking to do with your next remarketing campaign.  

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