Mystery Traffic from AdWords – North Korea, Syria, Iran, Oh My!

Ryan MootHart, PPC Architect
Mystery Traffic from Banned Countries in AdWords

It’s like lions, and tigers, and bears, but with tyranny and oppression. But I’m not here to discuss international politics today. The reason for my witty extremely unclever title is because of location targeting. Or, more specifically, the lack of certain negative targets which I never knew I needed until a few months ago.

But, first, a little backstory: one of our clients wanted to launch a new global remarketing initiative to increase lead volume through Google’s display network. In an attempt to maximize impression and click volume in yet-untapped markets, we used Google Analytics to build audiences off of on-site usage metrics in combination with specific URLs which indicated interest in our client’s service offering.

Based on the client’s potential appeal in international markets, including the occasional client in parts-unknown, we chose not to add any location targets within the AdWords campaigns in which these audiences would be used. Instead, we planned to methodically exclude countries which ended up providing poor-quality traffic over time.

This strategy goes according to plan for the first couple of months; we systematically excluded countries with poor-quality traffic and saw slow and steady improvements in our campaigns’ performance.

But about 3 months after launching these campaigns, I came across some very peculiar line-items in the geographic report through the Dimensions tab:

International AdWords Traffic from banned countries
banned countries

Traffic from overtly banned countries in AdWords

As you can imagine, I was a bit perplexed when I saw these countries not only register in AdWords’ reporting but had also accrued impressions, clicks, and spend. For those not in the know: you’re not supposed to be able to serve ads in these countries at all, let alone being charged for that traffic. They are completely off the menu of AdWords targeting possibilities.

I thought to myself, “That’s odd. But, I’ll just go exclude these countries. Problem solved!”


It turns out Google doesn’t allow these countries to register as a possible location target even for exclusions. They simply do not show up as an option, even when searched directly:

You can't select banned countries in AdWords for exclusion
banned countries search

Curioser and curioser.

So, I called Google to get an explanation of why my client’s ads were showing up in countries which were never supposed to have been available for ad impressions in the first place. Their response was a resounding:

We don't yet know how banned international traffic is getting into AdWords campaigns

We were never able to get to the bottom of why these countries showed up.

However, they did recommend a work-around to prevent this from happening again, which I wouldn’t have initially considered for broad international reach: Adding positive location targets onto these remarketing campaigns.

While this tactic did decrease our impression volume, it also prevented ad impressions from showing up in countries that we needed or wanted to exclude entirely.

Tip of the cap: Google did credit us for all clicks accrued in these locations. So credit where credit is due.

Bottom line, if you’re thinking of running a global remarketing effort through the display network, make sure you use both positive and negative location targets to prevent something like this from happening to your business or your clients. Ad impressions may be slightly limited this way, or the manual geo-targeting setup will be longer, but you should get better quality traffic that’s actually worth buying.

Have you run into this or a similar situation of an unexpected inclusion in your targeting recently? We’d love to hear about it. Post your comment below.

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  1. So weird. I wonder if maybe their IP geolocation just messed up and returned the wrong locations for those clicks? Either way, clearly they weren’t clicks you would want to be paying for so it’s nice that Google actually reimbursed you for them 🙂

  2. Thanks, so glad I’m not alone with this! I constantly have this happening to my clients’ remarketing campaigns as well, and not just on AdWords, also on Facebook. Worth mentioning that users should set their location targeting for positive locations to “People in my targeted location” (which mysteriously isn’t available in the new interface unless I’m just blind…)

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