Warning: Google Ads Location Targeting Is A Dark Pattern

With Google’s ad revenue growth slowing while their traffic acquisition costs continue to increase, we see them pulling more and more dirty tricks to keep investors happy. No wonder they dropped their “Don’t Be Evil” motto years ago!

Remember when sponsored links in search used to be very clearly labeled with a different background color? Now every year like clockwork they reduce the difference between sponsored and organic results and they are now nearly indistinguishable. On mobile, where they struggle with lower CPCs, they keep increasing the number of sponsored results and they now completely fill the first two screens of even the largest phone displays.

And despite increasing antitrust investigations from both the EU and US, Google shows no signs of stopping questionable behavior as long as it results in more ad revenue.

This is a story of just another evil way that Google is trying to squeeze every last cent from advertisers with ridiculous defaults behind hidden settings and misleading reports.

Oh right, I totally wanted to target Tanzania

When I wanted to drive traffic to my new service, I started with a Google Ad campaign. Facebook doesn’t have a targeting option for “independent app developers”, but on Google you can target any set of keywords that is relevant for your target audience. Because I don’t have a large ad budget and my service is mostly relevant for people in the United States, I set up a very modest campaign with a low daily limit, a max CPC limit, and set targeting for the US only.

When the clicks started rolling in, I was a bit confused. I was seeing users from Tanzania, Albania, Kosovo, and some countries I had never even heard of. I went to check the settings on my campaign and confirmed that I was targeting only the US. I checked the Google Ads targeting report and sure enough, only the United States was lit up in blue, despite what my website analytics were reporting as the source of clicks from Google.

After a few more days of seeing traffic from Google ads come in from every country but the United States, I decided to double check the country reported in my website’s analytics. I downloaded the raw logs from the web server and looked them up and confirmed that they were all coming from foreign countries I wasn’t targeting.

So I contacted Google Ads support to ask them why I was seeing traffic from non-US countries, despite my targeting. After a day or so, I received a response helpfully letting me know that I wasn’t targeting only people in the US, but by default I was targeting anyone who had ever shown any interest in the United States. 🤔The support response showed me how I could click on the “Location Options” link to bring up further detail where I can change the option to only target people located or usually located within the US.

While I was digging into other hidden sections of the Google Ads dashboard, I was able to finally find a report that told me what I already knew: none of my ad clicks were coming from the United States as I had intended. It turns out that the default Targeted map that they show (see above) is just showing you that the clicks are within the targeting parameters defined, which inexplicably target pretty much everyone in the world who has ever had a thought about the United States. If you want to see what countries the traffic is actually coming from, you have to look at the User Location Report. There I found confirmation that most of my purchased traffic originated in Tanzania and Myanmar. Not exactly the qualified referrals I was looking for.

No, it’s not PEBKAC, it is a dark pattern

I can hear the Google defenders now. I just didn’t know what I was doing when configuring my targeting options, so this was actually my own fault. However, on the Google Ads support page for location targeting, they mention selecting the country you want to target, but make no mention what that entails or that there are more advanced options hidden behind the Location Options link.

How does the default setting of targeting anyone who has ever been interested in the United States make any sense? Any way you slice it, this is nothing more than a way for Google to take advantage of less diligent/savvy advertisers who aren’t double checking the location of the traffic that ends up on their site. This is a dark pattern.

I’m sure that Google’s argument for this being the default location targeting setting is that there are two different kinds of location targeting that advertisers might be interested in, so they helpfully combined them into one default, hidden setting. A pizza parlor owner in New York City might be interested in advertising only to people currently located in or near the Big Apple. But they might also want to show their ads to people outside of New York but are visiting there soon and searching Google for “Pizza in New York City”. Presumably this default targeting would helpfully handle both of these cases. But that’s not how it works, so this argument is invalid.

I took a look at the keywords that were driving users to my site. None of them had “United States” or anything vaguely geographic related in them at all. If pressed, all Google would have to say is that these users were somehow “interested in the United States” at some time in the past to qualify for the targeting I had set. What are the chances that that is exactly what an advertiser is looking for when they create a country targeted ad campaign?

So to summarize my argument, here is the full list of everything that Google is doing here that is questionable, and when it is all added up, I claim it to be a dark pattern, designed to trick advertisers:

  • By default, when you target a country, you actually target everyone who has ever shown any interest in that country in the history of their web searches, not just people in that country or people specifically targeting that country in their search terms. I would argue that no advertiser is actually interested in targeting that is this broad, at least not by default.
  • The option to change this default setting is specifically hidden behind an advanced options panel that almost no one ever clicks on. And it’s not like this hidden part is so large that is reasonable for it to be hidden. It is hidden because most advertisers would choose the more specific targeting given the option and Google would miss out on showing ads to irrelevant users.
  • The default map that you look at to confirm that your targeting is working properly makes it look like all of the traffic is coming from the country that you targeted. This is completely misleading and you have to dig around to separate tabs to get a list of the actual physical location of the traffic by country. I don’t think it is an accident that the first map you see in the Targeted section is the misleading one. If you think about it, the Targeted map doesn’t tell you anything useful at all, other than your misconfigured targeting is working as Google intended it to work.

Conclusion

In my case I was testing Google Ads with a very small budget, so the amount of money I lost was not very meaningful. Also, because my service was new, it didn’t have much organic traffic at all, so the traffic from non targeted countries was easy to spot. But what about advertisers with huge ad budgets and millions of visitors a month? Those are the victims that Google is taking advantage of by sprinkling in some traffic from unintended sources that likely gets lost in all of the noise.

So if you are a Google Ads advertiser and you have campaigns with location targeting enabled, it would be well worth double checking your settings to make sure you are getting the targeting you intended. Otherwise you may be losing serious money thanks to Google’s dark pattern that is charging you for irrelevant traffic.

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