Google Display Network very rarely works

My experience after five years and US $500,000 “invested”

Let me be clear right from the beginning: This is based on my experience and not an extensive study or research, so I’m sure it is not applicable to all industries nor markets across the board. My only purpose is to share what I’ve done and seen with GDN so others can take what’s useful. With that in mind, let me formally state it again: Google Display Network didn’t work for us, and the return-on-investment was never justified nor positive.

I’ve worked in the digital marketing industry for almost a decade now. I’ve designed, created and managed digital marketing campaigns in the US, Europe, and Latin-America.

In the last five years my team and I have worked with GDN, Search Ads, Social Networks, Email Marketing, Analytics, Landing Page Optimization and Analysis, SEO… etc. We’ve done it in house, and we’ve also outsourced it to agencies. I’m not going to say we’ve done it all, but as you can see we’ve done a lot, and experience and lessons have certainly accumulated.

Since I know all marketing campaigns depend on many variables, such as industry, market, product, and audience, I’m going to give you an overview of the general characteristics of our GDN campaigns. I repeat, GDN could be a success for a certain market/audience/purpose combination, but for me, under the circumstances outlined below, it has been a total failure:

  • Industries: I’ve designed and implemented campaigns in various industries, such as: e-learning, automotive, dietary supplements, professional education, language learning, professional services
  • Investment & Budget: Across most GDN campaigns, I’ve “invested” an accumulated of US$ 500K over 5 years.
  • Geo-targeting: I’ve ran campaigns in the US, Latin-America and Europe. 80% of my GDN campaigns and budget has been invested in Latin-America.
  • Language-targeting: 30% of campaigns targeting an English-speaking audience. 70% targeting Spanish speaking demographics.

How about optimization?

Optimizing Google Display Network campaigns can be very time consuming. We’ve implemented a lot of techniques, some helping interestingly, others not even moving the needle:

  • Keyword, Interest, Topics, Demographics, and Placement targeting. All ran and analyzed separately
  • Deep integration with conversion tracking and analytics, and constant analysis
  • A/B testing for text ads and banner ads; Mobile Vs. Desktop
  • Ran campaigns per geo-location Vs. running one campaign and controlling bids based on geo-targeting
  • Direct response Vs. Brand awareness
  • Campaigns targeted towards lead generation Vs. Sales.
  • Landing page optimization, running a/b tests, sending traffic to only-one-CTA-landing-pages Vs. more general pages
  • Constantly excluding bad performing placements, monitoring spammers
  • Analyzing the effects/benefits of not-so-good-performing GDN campaigns on Search traffic (paid & organic)
  • … The list could go on, but this gives you the idea of how much work we’ve put into making GDN work.


  • Very low CTR
  • Low quality traffic
  • High, volatile, unpredictable cost-per-conversion
  • Negative ROI (even adding in benefits and incremental conversions to Search)

So what’s the problem?

After running so many GDN campaign, after investing more than $500K, and after trying so hard to make them work, what have we identified as the main causes for it not to work?

Interesting question, and here’s what we’ve found: fake traffic. Google Display Network has one big problem, which we believe is the main cause of the bad performance of the network: SPAMMERS.

More than 65% of our lead conversions were useless.

Bots, fake clicks, or real clicks by fake leads/clients is a real and growing problem not only in GDN but also in other networks, and I don’t think Google is doing enough to prevent it.

Unless you are a worldwide-known brand (i.e.: Coca-Cola) with deep pockets, I don’t think investing in GDN makes any sense from an ROI stand-point. Actually, I’m pretty sure even big brands have a hard time to prove a real, measurable and repeatable return on investment for this channel.

With the growing popularity of ad-blockers, and the proliferation of fake traffic among these not-well supervised ad networks, the future of paid digital traffic looks unfavorable, which is why making organic traffic and proper lead & community management a priority is now mandatory.