I have a paid search client who has services in several geos with some geo-specific ad copy (same with their competitors). Recently, when my client located in San Francisco was searching on queries containing Chicago & their core terms, she was served their San Francisco ad.

Why might this be?  Wasn’t Google’s practice to serve ads based on the geo you are searching for? I then tried a couple of searches in their other geos whilst in Chicago (stay with me here). I was able to successfully trigger the ad for the other geo.


Why was this so ambiguous?  What was the deciding factor here?  Search history?  Location?  Bid?  Ad rank?  Was this a recent change?

I reached out to a Google rep (who shall remain nameless). Yes, this was, indeed, a change in policy, originated late last year.  It has not received good feedback, so, fingers crossed, it might not be here to stay. It used to be that a user’s location typed in the query would supercede the physical location.  Now, le sigh, a handful of factors (some of the ones listed above) impact which ad you are served.

How does this impact you and your clients?  It mostly is a factor if you have a client with several major geo concentrations and geo-specific ad copy, plus it depends on your client’s business.  Let’s say your client is a hotel chain.  I’m here in Chicago, I’m planning on traveling to Seattle, and I search “Seattle hotels”. I’m served Seattle ads for your competitors, and a Chicago ad on your client. Not. Awesome.

How do you control this?  Two options.  One is at the campaign level, under settings.

You can choose to only serve to people in your targeted location, or people searching for your targeted location (depending on your business) – however, I was advised against choosing option 3 by a Google rep, seeing if someone searches on a non-brand term but doesn’t include a specific geo-modifier at all, you could compromise your ability to show.

The second (and preferred) option – good old-fashioned negative keywords.  You have a client with campaigns specific to a couple different geos?  Just put the other geos as negatives against the campaign.  Make sure to hit up variations (New York, NYC, the big apple, etc.).  As a Chicagoan, if I put New York as a negative against Chicago, then search on ‘New York Hotels’ – the Chicago campaign can’t serve.  Voila!


  1. Jordan McClements May 16th, 2014


    Location targeting in AdWords is the most vexing issue for me.

    I’ve thought about it long and hard on a number of occasions, and to summarise, it’s definitely not as good as it could be.

    Lists of negative locations (negative keywords) seem to be the way to go in most situations.

    I’ll have to do another blog post about this at some point.

    Google’s own definition of how they determine location is very vague. They use a number of factors as they see fit and get it wrong pretty often.

    Here’s how I understand it…

    In your example there are a couple of things which might have shown the Chicago ads when you searched for Seattle.

    1.Session based broad match – can show users ads targeted to previous searches (if you previously searched for Chicago hotels at some point in the same browser). Try the Seattle search again on a different browser with no search history. Negative keywords do affect session based broad match so if you add -Chicago this will stop the Chicago ad showing in this case (and the most relevant Seattle ad *should* show).

    2.Google guessing your location based on a previous search (which showed location intent) (this is particularly stupid if they are doing this when it comes to hotels). – Again a negative will stop the wrong ad showing *if* the user specifies the location in their search – but it won’t stop the ad showing if the user doesn’t specify the location (most people will I think in the hotel scenario but not in other scenarios). So if Google decides the searcher is in a location that they are actually not in (and this happens *a lot* in the UK with IP addresses), there is not a lot you can do about this if people do not specify their location in the search term.

    The other thing to bear in mind is that you also have to add misspellings of all your negative location keywords. e.g. I added “Manchester” in a UK campaign (which already explicitly excluded Manchester in the campaign location settings as well) and after that, a search for “..Menchester” showed ads and got (a very expensive) click. Good luck with that one!

    The other thing to bear in mind if you don’t want to build a million keywords long negatives list is that the Exclude “People in, searching for or viewing pages about my excluded location (recommended)” – is handy but cannot be relied on. Recently I had a campaign in the UK which had Scotland excluded and it got a (very expensive) click from someone searching for “..Edinburgh”. I contacted support about this and they said my targeting options were correct (OK I wasn’t going mad at least) but this one had “slipped through the net”.

    NB – I *think* the change in policy last year is a red herring, as this only affected international searches. e.g. English Language “Paris Hotels, France” ads can now show to you now even if the advertiser is only targeting France which wasn’t the case before. Of course this makes things even more complicated. If you are doing a campaign targeting USA searchers looking for hotels in Paris, France, can you reliably exclude people looking for hotels in Paris, Texas? I don’t think so….

  2. David May 16th, 2014

    I am aware of the change Google made back in November regarding how Geo modified searches were handled. My understanding was they opened it (search intent) globally opposed to what previously was typically limited to the country the targeted area was in. Your example highlights a different consideration. However you totally lost me with your recommendations. You listed two options then advised against option 3, which you then state and recommend. Perhaps it was a typo and you intended to type 2, which is my assumption. However modifying my targeting settings to people in my targeted area was actually my chosen course of action. I then ran brand terms in a separate campaign (as usual) with either a larger targeted area or the other setting to allow search intent for Geo modifiers. Adding negatives for Geos would be rather challenging and extensive. This may be very different in my vertical considering I do not frequently target for multiple physical business addresses nationally or globally. However after the change Google made I opted to prevent serving globally by changing to only people in my targeted area because I also felt that I could have much cleaner data to work with by reducing opportunities to serve ads in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and a slew of other unintended markets I found in user location reports. Every vertical and strategy are different so I am interested in hearing more about strategies around selecting the tactics you proposed to combat unintended impressions and ensure the right audience is exposed to the right ad. I have found large volumes of impressions globally for those large market Geo terms such ad New York and Los Angeles when only targeting within the US. This is understandable with search intent and Geo modified queries, but IMHO if the option is to endlessly add targeting exclusions and negatives I would opt to change my setting instead. In the case of the hotel I certainly see the case for not following that approach. Perhaps just the opposite would work, do not target locally with any Geo modifiers if that is a current practice. But after rereading your post I am going to guess this was more a search history influencing that ad to be served. With that situation there is not much you can do unless you have a different account and URL for each location.

  3. Jaime May 16th, 2014

    In regards to the 2-3 issue David brings up – this is a typo (facepalm). The three options are:
    1) People in or searching for
    2) People in
    3) People searching for
    (under location settings – advanced)
    I was told, per a google rep, that just searching for is not optimal cause it could throw off queries without any geo modifier (in the example stated, a query like ‘hotels’ runs a risk of not triggering anything, to my understanding from the googs).

    I should call out that for my client in this example – there’s a handful of large scale geo concentrations (with customized ads & landing pages), so this was much more manageable. If this is a client with 100+ geo concentrations, I agree, this could become a nightmare.

    Re:negative misspellings – good call. I hit up a couple, but as we all know, the creative misspellings of the typer can, at times, be endless.

Leave a Comment

Jaime Sikora
Jaime Sikora is a PPC & Display Specialist at Nadex. Jaime graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a degree in Advertising. Prior to joining 3Q Digital, she worked in the newspaper industry at the Chicago Sun-Times. In her spare time, Jaime enjoys reading, cooking, traveling, and spending time at the Chicago lakefront.