Google AdWords’ Dirty Little Secret: U.S. Zip Code Targeting Sucks

adwords zip code geotargetingBack in April Google made the announcement that it would finally be possible to geo-target your PPC campaigns by zip code in the U.S. The lack of zip code targeting has been a glaring omission for AdWords for years. So, it was greeted with the “oohs” and “ahhs” and sighs of relief that typically accompany AdWords announcements. The problem is that Google has been particularly quiet about the unfortunate details and limitations that make U.S. zip code targeting suck.

You Only Get 73% Coverage

There are approximately 43,000 zip codes in the U.S. Google will only let you target 31,596 of them. Yes, you read that correctly. There are about 11,404 zip codes that are off limits in your AdWords campaigns. In other words, 27% of the U.S. is unavailable via zip code targeting.

That sucks. The appeal of zip code targeting is a grand vision of super-segmented geo-targeting. The ugly truth is that this vision is disrupted when large pockets of the country are flat-out rejected by Google AdWords.

Of course, Google has their reasons. It is all based on the availability of IP data. Simply put, if they don’t have the data, they can’t provide the targeting. I data geotargeting adwordscan’t fault Google for that. But I can fault Google for not making all of this information readily available. In the announcement post they slyly stated the “ability to target more than 30,000 zip codes…” And the list of rejected zip codes? I had to ask my Google representative for it.

Just because you can’t target all of the U.S. with zip codes doesn’t mean that Google has a blind spot. You can still target those areas through the other geo-targeting methods: city, state, radius or metro areas. But this is counter to the aforementioned vision of super-segmented geo-targeting. And what’s worse, zip code targeting might actually be limiting your ad reach anyways. And that brings me to my next point…

Some Zip Codes Have Limited Targeting

When you set up geo-targeting in AdWords, you are given the promise that your ads will be displayed based on physical location through IP data (assuming that you have your campaigns set up that way). Zip code targeting offers no such promise.

adwords badgesAll of the 31,596 available zip codes have been assigned a “Limited Targeting Badge” which is based on the availability of IP data. If a zip code is labeled as “NoBadge” you are good to go. Your ads are eligible to display based on physical location. If a zip code is labeled as “HasBadge” then you may have a problem.

The “HasBadge” zip codes are unlikely to receive traffic from IP addresses. The only traffic you will receive comes from Google Maps, searches from GPS enabled smart phones or search queries that actually state the zip code. This means that your ad delivery will be severely restricted.

How do you know if a zip code is labeled as “NoBadge” or “HasBadge”? Ask your Google representative and they will send you the same spreadsheet that they sent me. And it will make you cry as I did.

So, there. I said it. AdWords’ U.S. zip code targeting sucks. It can still provide advertisers with the tools to create super-segmented campaigns with laser focused geo-targeting. But ONLY if approached with caution and the understanding that you may end up targeting cities and zip codes or worse, that your ad delivery may be severely restricted.

About John Lee

John is an internet marketing jack-of-all-trades with expertise in PPC, SEO, and social media marketing. Working in the search marketing industry since 2006, John has perfected his PPC and analytics skills for his role at Clix Marketing. John is also an avid blogger, and has been featured on the Clix Marketing blog, Search Engine Watch, Wordstream Blog, PPC Hero, SEO Boy and Website Magazine. Before Clix, John was the PPC Manager for Wordstream and a Search Marketing Consultant for Hanapin Marketing.
His favorite part of the Acquisio platform is automated reporting.

Comments

  1. Jordon Meyer says:

    First off – Amazing images!

    Google has told me that we are one of the most prolific users of zipcode targeting. We target 1000′s, in many different configurations to meet business needs. While we use it extensively, we also see the downfalls, including big gaps between zips we are trying to target.

    I found that using a mix of zip and radius works well. It’s more work than pasting our list of specific zips and calling it a day, but I have seen some good results from covering the gaps with radius targeting.

    Good write-up. Hopefully they make it suck less as they get more data.

  2. Robert Brady says:

    Google needs this kind of feedback to improve their targeting. And with their stock price plummeting, Facebook might be wise to look into doing this. They might be able to get more location data because Facebook users are much more apt to give location data.

  3. We have this idea that the location settings target things exactly the way we see them, but it’s just not the case. If you set a radius that comes to the border of a city and it just touches that city…you’ve targeted the whole place even if it’s not covered by your radius setting. I have to assume then, that their “specific” targeting has some of this flaw itself. Basically, I agree with you and think the best advice is this “…ONLY if approached with caution and the understanding…” Caution and understanding that it’s not perfect is the way to go with anything online marketing.

  4. James Harris says:

    I would like to point out that there are currently (as of this month) 41,855 ZIP Codes. Of that, only 29,832 of them are what you consider “regular” ZIP Codes that are assigned fro residential purposes.

    9,365 are for P.O. Boxes and would not be associated with a persons physical location. 539 are Military ZIP Codes, and 2,119 are Unique or Business specific ZIP Codes. For reference: http://www.zip-codes.com/zip-code-statistics.asp

    Just to test the waters, if you would like to send me your list of targeted ZIP Codes, I will check to see how many of them are within each assignment and even how many no longer exist. It surprises most people, but ZIP Codes change quite frequently.

  5. Kyle Brigham says:

    I ran a zip code targeted campaign for a client that had over 100 campaigns (geographically targeted by cities across the US). It was actually very difficult to target and didn’t actually make sense for that particular client. It would take a very special type of targeting to actually need this zip code. My client wanted to try it out to maybe leave out some of the less efficient zip codes in certain cities, but found that he was actually limiting his targeting. Haven’t really had much success with it since.

  6. don b says:

    does anybody here even understand how a user is targeted to a zip code or radius? i am not an expert, but my IP comes from a location that is 20 miles from my physical address. unless google has a better database for IP’s than the actual isp’s do, they are limited by the ability to assign ip’s to locations, which is approximate at best. i am at least 15 zip codes from the location of the wire center where my IP is coming out of. everybody is splitting hairs on geo location and i think they are missing the bigger point. it is very approximate based on the source data.

  7. John Rob says:

    James Harris in an earlier thread broke out the 539 military zip codes. I am guessing they are excluded?
    Aside from radius targeting, is there a way to use those 539 zip codes for special keywords searches?
    We offer a product for the military and would want to market using their location.

  8. AdWords does allow us zip code targeting however I’m not too sure whether it’s actually benefitting us or not? I mean, this is true that, by using the feature, marketer/advertiser could have better control over their target audience however not sure, how Google is determining the searchers location? Does they calculating on IP addresses or depending on private browsing data?

    I’m curious, since my ISP may or may not be close to my physical address. Another interesting point is how the other two features – “People in my targeted location” and “People searching for viewing about my targeted location” will be accommodate?

    On top of that, i heard about the fact that, US zip codes are keep changing frequently (at least true for some cases). And Google till date do not offering this feature outside of US. Why so? If this feature has so many potential then why not for other around the world? Or Google still evaluating the pros and cons of the feature. Also, is this correct they are not covering all the zip codes? Do we need to use nearby option then?

    No body wishes to have any sudden adverse effect on their respective campaigns. Having said so, I suppose, this feature is all-in-all not as ugly as it looks like at first impression. Otherwise why Google keep continuing with the feature?

    \m/

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