Google AdWords: Caveat Emptor

As nearly all of you doubtless know, AdWords is Google’s flagship advertising product and main source of revenue (to the tune of $22.9 billion in 2009 alone). What you almost certainly don’t know is that advertisers doing geo targeting using this advertising product are often (usually!) not getting what they think they are.

First, some background.

When we’re not busy writing articles for this blog, one of the things the team do to make ends meet and keep body and soul together is to run PPC advertising campaigns on Google AdWords. We’d been running a geo-targeted campaign for a few years on an offer that targets  people living in France when earlier this year, we decided to start doing our own geo tracking on the traffic Google AdWords was sending to the campaign.

Now, just to back up a little bit here. Within AdWords’ management interface, when you start a campaign and choose to geo target it to a country or countries (in our example, France), here’s what it looks like on your screen when you select your targets:

Now, wouldn’t you think when you were selecting geo-targeted traffic from “France (Country)” there, and Google AdWords was showing you a big-ass map of France, that the traffic you were going to get to the campaign was going to be, you know, from France? We think you would. We sure did. But guess what? That’s not what it means. At all.

After tracking the traffic that Google AdWords was sending to our France-targeted campaign for a little while and doing our own geo-checking on it (using MaxMind’s excellent GeoIP software) we discovered something downright sinister. Here’s a breakdown by country of traffic to our “France” traffic AdWords campaign for March 2009.

| country            | cnt  |
| France             | 4422 |
| Algeria            |  941 |
| Morocco            |  668 |
| Tunisia            |  540 |
| Belgium            |   49 |
| Senegal            |   43 |
| Switzerland        |   24 |
| Côte D’Ivoire      |   18 |
| Réunion            |   15 |
| Satellite Provider |   11 |

As you can see, AdWords had been sending our “France” campaign traffic from a variety of French-speaking countries. This non-France French-speaking traffic was about 35% of the total. And Google were cheerfully charging us for it as though it were premium, first-world French traffic. From FRANCE. Perhaps the following map might be of assistance to Google?

Once we discovered we’d actually been spending years pissing money down the drain buying traffic from the likes of Senegal and Tunisia, we freaked.

We tried opting out of the countries we didn’t want, but discovered that you can’t opt-out of geo targeted countries you haven’t opted INto in the first place (though apparently opting into countries you haven’t opted into is no problem!) We tried opting into the third-world countries just to see if opting out of them later would stop the traffic flow from those countries, but no such luck.

In the end we did figure out a (kind of hacky) solution to ensure that we only got traffic from France, which we’ll explain in detail a bit later on.  But we had a pressing problem to deal with now. Google had been taking our money for what we thought was 3-Michelin-star French traffic for a few years now (to the tune of $93,885), and delivering us McDonalds takeaways traffic in a trash bag. It was surprising in retrospect that we were making any profit on the campaign at all.

And now we were mad. Mad enough to let Google AdWords know how we felt. And so we embarked upon a long and ultimately infuriating exchange of emails, which after numerous attempts at blaming us, evasion, and obfuscation finally ended with AdWords support saying, essentially, “Yeah, that’s how it works. Selecting traffic from ‘France’ actually means you’re selecting traffic from, whatever the source of the traffic may be.”

That’s right, kids. ANY geo-targeted traffic purchased through AdWords meant “traffic that runs through the google site using that country’s ccTLD (,, google. mx, etc.) and NOT “traffic from this country I just selected”.

And that was that. After responding to their final “come clean” email, we never heard from AdWords again. No response, and certainly no materialization of the promised “credit [applied] to [our] account for the inconvenience caused”.

We later discovered that all of our geo-targeted campaigns had similar issues. The France one was the worst, but (for example) our geo targeted “UK” campaign included plenty of traffic from India, Pakistan, Turkey, etcetera.

We considered fighting on and taking it further, but in the end decided to just forget about it and chalk it up to a (very expensive and painful lesson) learned. But we thought we’d at least share the whole sad saga on this blog so that, hopefully, other AdWords users can find out about Google’s  “rook the suckers and bury the truth” policy and avoid having the same thing happen to them.

What we think about Google AdWords’ Behaviour

To be completely fair, Google do have documentation in existence that explains that this is how their geo targeting system works, such as the below, which can be found buried deep within the GAP study material.

* UPDATE: Google have pulled the above paragraph from the GAP documentation, but you can see that it was once there by hitting this search.

But in our opinion this buried information exists mostly to create an “out” for them; something they can point to with a knowing smirk when they’re called out on their essentially deceptive practice.

The fact is that unless an AdWords user has studied diligently to become a GAP (and the overwhelming majority of AdWords users don’t, as Google well knows) he is not likely to ever uncover the truth. And Google takes pains to supply plenty of information elsewhere that contradicts the information presented in the GAP documentation (or at least strongly implies that the truth is otherwise, like the selection interface shown earlier.)

Here’s one example:

Really, Google? Geo-targeted ads will appear ONLY to users located in the selected areas AND who have selected one of those languages as their preferences? Sounds great; it’s a shame that it’s a GIGANTIC LIE. A lie which Google doesn’t seem to have any qualms about leaving in the AdWords help documentation.

What we think is really happening here is that Google knowingly, sneakily, and dishonestly is attempting to monetize third-world clicked traffic by passing it off as first-world traffic. The technology is readily available for them to provide traffic only to the geographic locations that their advertisers are selecting, and they’re not doing it.

What they do do, instead, is erect a confusing maze of smoke and mirrors around the functioning of their geo targeting, as much as accuse their advertisers of lying when they call them on their bullshit, and do a deflective tapdance of misdirection, stonewalling, and shoulder-shrugging when presented with the unpleasant consequences of their devious enterprise. And we think that makes it a scam. And we think it sucks balls.

How many AdWords advertisers out there right now are paying for traffic from “France” that’s actually from Senegal? Traffic from the United Kingdom that’s actually from Turkey? I’d guess thousands. And Google knows it, and they know that most of their advertisers don’t.

Solution: how to avoid Google’s scam

As promised, here’s how to avoid getting “French” traffic from Algeria and Morocco and whereverthefuck. Apologies in advance: it’s hacky and tedious, but it does work. And it’s the only way to do actual geo targeting with Google AdWords.

1. Go to the section of your AdWords campaign interface where you choose your geo targeted location:

2. Select the “Custom” interface.

3.  Select “Custom shape”.

4. Draw polygons over France (or whatever country.)
Make sure you completely cover it and don’t select any other countries. You’ll usually have to create multiple polygons, as AdWords limits your polygons to a side length of “no greater than 400km”.

5. Save your campaign and exit.

And that’s it. That’s how you do it. Hacky, ugly, and a huge time-consuming nightmare if you have a lot of geo targeted campaigns, but  the only way you can get actual geo targeted traffic from Google AdWords.

What do you think about this practice?  Would you have felt deceived if it had been your campaign? Particularly keen to hear from any AdWords advertisers who didn’t know that this was how it worked:  we’re sure there are plenty of you out there!

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