Are You Making These Costly Retargeting Mistakes?

retargeting mistakes

When I audit Adwords accounts, I often see accounts where there are still no remarketing campaigns. For others, I see an old remarketing campaign that somebody “tested” at some point and was then turned off due to poor success metrics or very low volume. Most commonly, I see accounts running remarketing, and though the metrics are “okay”, they are not nearly as good as they could be and the activity is very small relative to the advertisers search spend.  

The problem with mediocre remarketing campaigns  is that people complacently tend to discount the “remarketing channel” when, in fact many remarketing campaigns are suffering from poor execution and are not producing volume or results like they could with a few best practices applied.
Here are the 6 biggest mistakes you should avoid (or correct) for your remarketing campaigns:

Not Everything is Tagged

Make sure that your remarketing pixel is on every page of your site. This includes the “logged in” portion of your site (we’ll get to why later) , your mobile site (If the pages are different than your desktop), the thank you page and if you have a blog or content area of your site, tag that too. If you have a YouTube channel, connect your account to your Adwords account to collect your subscriber and video views as remarketing audiences.YT_audience Got an app? You can collect your download and user audience as well. Note that the code snippet is different than the website one. Forget about whether you are going to target these audiences any time soon. Google only begins collecting them once the pixels are in place and there is value in having these audiences mature and at hand when you decide to target them. In addition, Google automatically develops “Similar Users” audiences (lookalike targets) for qualified remarketing audiences.  So even if you decide not to directly target a user list in Adwords, you may decide you want to test the similar audiences and generating them requires placing the pixel. 

If you are a retailer, make sure to update your remarketing code to facilitate dynamic remarketing. This can be a bit more “heavy lifting”,  but product-level dynamic remarketing ads pay off for most ecommerce sites. 

Not sure what pages are actually tagged? To see what pages are generating your remarketing audiences, on your audience tab click “View Tab Details” on the top right 

Then click on “Your Adword Tag is Active” in the details tab and you’ll be able to see a list of the top 10 URLs that are tagged with your remarketing pixel. 


Scroll down to the bottom and you can download a list of your top 500 URLs. Use this to verify that important pages are not missing the remarketing pixel. Orphaned landing pages (where much search traffic is sent) often are pages where somebody forgot to put the remarketing pixel. You may find the mobile site isn’t tagged. Often, low impressions or lackluster remarketing performance is simply due to the fact that the pixel isn’t actually collecting all the users that it should.

No Audience Exclusions

This is where tagging the logged-in part of your site is handy. If you have already “acquired” a user, you probably want to exclude them from new acquisitions remarketing. Create audiences for your converted users and exclude them from your remarketing campaigns.

If you are in lead gen, you want to exclude people who have been to your thank you page and are in your nurturing funnel.In ecommerce, you may want to target your converted purchasers with an accessory product or offer seasonal discounts down the road, however, for some period of time after conversion, most retailers should probably leave the customer alone for a little while. The audience you exclude from your remarketing will vary by business but almost all businesses have some visitors that don’t belong in your remarketing audience. The campaign exclusions section can be found on your display tab, Interests and remarketing sub tab, down at the bottom left.audience_exclusions Also close by on the bottom right, you can exclude site categories from your campaign. Consider eliminating content  that you don’t want associated with your brand. Ad placement near sensitive content can give users a bad sense of the brand. The metrics are also typically not so great  – very few people jump from reading tragic news to buying a pair of shoes. So unless your product aligns with sensitive content, you should probably exclude it.


Additionally, exclude your “all visitors” audience from your non-remarketing GDN campaigns. This will keep your reporting “clean” for performance on both segments of users and ensure your impression caps are adhered to on both as well. The efforts here will  likely increase your CTR by eliminating less valuable impressions. In turn, Google will begin serving more impressions on your campaigns with a lower CPC.

No Impression Caps

Speaking of limiting less-valuable impressions, most people neglect to put an impression cap on their remarketing campaigns. I recently created a remarketing group for an audience of 35,000 – Google shows this has potential reach of 15M-20M impression per week. At 15M impressions I’d be serving each person 428 times. Think they might get annoyed? large_impression_target So, impression caps insure you don’t bombard people with too many ads, which can be a real turn-off to your brand. Second, too many impressions will drive your CTR down which can have a negative impact on your eCPM and eventually keep google from serving impressions or cause your CPCs to go up. Start with something reasonable, the shorter period of time my audience cookie is, the more impressions I will serve daily, longer cookie lengths and I’ll serve less. You can optimize your impression cap down the road by analyzing your reach and frequency reports but I typically end up with between 3 a day and 3 a week.

The Wrong Type of Ads

I’m not even talking about the messaging in the ads, although that can be a big key to success. For this purpose, I’m simply talking about the type of ad.  Many people only use banner ads in their remarketing, but text ads can be very effective too. You should separate your ad groups for each type of ad as performance and placements on which they appear tend to be different. Then, you can optimize to the performance of each ad type.


Another ad type problem I see is flash ads. There must have been some article at some time that encouraged people to use flash-based remarketing ads because I’ve audited several accounts that only had flash ads in their remarketing campaigns. Testing flash ads is great. However, Google allows large publishers to opt-out of showing flash ads, so you could severely be limiting your reach unless you also have static ads to serve.  Here’s what happened to a campaign with just flash ads when we added static ads to their remarketing campaigns as well. remarketing_w_static_ads

The Bids Are Too Low

Because Google prices on eCPM reason, getting traction and impressions for a small audience (most remarketing campaigns are) can be difficult. Lots of deep-pocket advertisers are vying for those same eyeballs in a myriad of ways.

If you start with high bids, the algorithm will see quickly that your CTR and overall performance is high relative to others competing for the impressions (almost always true with remarketing campaigns).Then, you can step down your bid while retaining a nice impression share after the campaign has gathered some data.

Alternately, once you push through 15 conversions, you can switch to CPA bidding to control your costs.If you never give the system a high enough bid to start giving you your premium remarketing impressions, you’ll only get the trickle of less competitive impressions on non-premium placements.

It’s Not Actually Remarketing

There are several “gotchas” when setting up remarketing campaigns that can mean that you aren’t exactly targeting your remarketing audience.

One is that when setting up a remarketing campaign, Google defaults to having the “Conservative Targeting Optimization “ button checked. You need to uncheck this or Google may be serving ads to users that that haven’t actually been to your site. targeting_optimizationAnother gotcha is “Similar Users” audiences. These are audiences Google creates that look like your remarketing audiences. The people however have not been to your site; in fact when using these targets Google automatically excludes people who have been to your site from that ad group. Because they live in the remarketing audiences section of Google, many people mistakenly include them in their remarketing campaigns.

You should absolutely test similar users audiences, but do so in a separate campaign with its own budgets and creative and let your remarketing campaign be true remarketing. 

I’ve also seen several accounts where a remarketing campaign was set up, then never gets a single impression. This is typically because the “flexible reach” settings for the adgroups are set to “bid only” for interests and remarketing. You need it set to “bid and target” for the system to view your selected audience as a targeting type. This can be switched easily in Adwords Editor on the ad group tab in the “flexible reach” section.

Remarketing is a powerful tool and can be a source of significant conversion volume with metrics as good as, or better than, your search campaigns. Make sure you set your campaigns up to succeed and do not discount the channel until you are certain that you are actually reaching the right audience, not getting on their nerves and eliminating impressions that are unlikely to lead to clicks and conversions. Once your targeting is “tight”,  bid high enough to get the engine humming and let the algorithmic benefits of high CTR on this pre-qualified audience lead to high quality impression volume and high-quality conversions at scale for your business.

From there, enjoy the success, but remember that even if the metrics are good,  just like any other GDN effort, they can be optimized and made better. Scheduling, placement exclusions, new creative, bid modifiers on device, age, gender and parental status; all the things you do to optimize your “regular” GDN campaigns, should also be regularly executed on your remarketing campaigns to drive continuous improvement.

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Susan Waldes

SVP Client Services at Five Mill Marketing
Susan Waldes has worked in the search engine marketing industry since 1999; she joined Five Mill Marketing as SVP of Client Services in April 2014 after serving as Director of Client Services at 3Q Digital Susan has handled strategy for a multitude of high-profile eCommerce, Lead generation and start-up acquisition clients at her recent firms as well as in previous roles at ROI Revolution, Rockett Interactive and as an independent SEM consultant. Susan has a BFA from Savannah College of Art and Design. Susan has contributed insights about SEM and client relationships many highly regarded outlets including Search Engine Land, Certified Knowledge and Search Engine Watch. She has spoken on SEM, advanced retargeting practices and Enhanced Campaigns at several SMX conferences, Digital East and Leadscon. Next speaking at: SMX East