It’s nearly impossible to escape the world’s biggest online advertiser: Google. In addition to the ads Google shows on its popular products, like Search, Google Maps, YouTube, and Gmail, Google also runs a network of millions of websites that show its ads. These ads are often personalized, thanks to data Google collects about its users for ad targeting and retargeting.
For any given ad you see on a website, there’s a decent chance that Google has something to do with it. Fortunately, there are some strategies for depersonalizing and reducing the volume of Google ads you see.
What are Google ads?
When you think of Google ads, what first comes to mind are those ads that appear at the top of the search engine results page (SERP) whenever you Google something. Search ads were Google’s first foray into online advertising, and they are the biggest and most important part of Google’s ad-supported business strategy, which keeps its search engine free for users.
But search ads are not the whole story. Google serves ads on its other free products, and it also manages a network of over 2 million websites that serve display ads from Google’s partners, called the Google Display Network.
Types of Google ads
Google’s advertising can be broken into two categories: Ads on Google properties and ads on the Google Display Network.
5 Types of ads on Google properties
1. Search ads
These text-based ads appear at the top of the search engine results page when you conduct a Google search. Search ads are based on your search keywords and additional information that Google knows about you, such as your location. These ads are formatted exactly like organic results, with only the word “Ad” to the left of the URL to differentiate them. Consequently, about 58 percent of users can’t tell the difference between the two, according to a 2019 survey by Varn.
2. Shopping ads
Shopping ads show an image of a product and its price, and they appear whenever you search for a specific item. For example, if you search “cotton robe” on Google’s search engine, you’ll see shopping ads in the following places:
On the main results page, you’ll see a row of bathrobe listings underneath a header that reads “Shop Cotton Robes,” with a small “Ads” to the left of the header.
On the Images tab, you’ll also see a row of Shopping ads at the top of the page, above organic results. The word “Ads” appears to the left of “Shop cotton robe,” just like on the main search results page.
On the Shopping tab, the header will read “See Cotton Robes” and the “Ads” will be omitted. Instead, the word “sponsored” will appear on the right hand side of the page.
3. Google Maps ads
Google Maps ads function similarly to search ads, but they only provide local results. Maps ads appear when you search for something like “hardware store near me” on the Google search engine or in the Google Maps app. You’ll see a list of nearby hardware stores, with paid results at the top of the list.
On Google search, location-based ads are formatted just like organic results, with the word “Ad” to the left of the link. On the Google maps app, ads are denoted with a purple ad label, and may appear on the map as a purple pin.
As the most popular mapping app in the U.S., Google Maps’ ads have the potential to reach over 150 million users in this country alone. (The next most popular mapping app is Google-owned Waze, which counts just 25.6 million monthly users.)
4. YouTube ads
Advertisers can choose to target specific YouTube channels or videos, or their ads can appear throughout YouTube. Ads may appear:
In the form of 6- or 15-second videos that play right before you watch a YouTube video.
As a text or image overlay that appears over the bottom 20 percent of the video player.
In the space around the video player.
According to a 2020 survey by Google, users are twice as likely to buy products they see on YouTube.
5. Gmail Ads
Gmail ads appear in your inbox, under the Promotions and Social tabs of your Gmail account. They have a small box to the left of the subject line that reads “Ad,” but otherwise, Gmail ads look like regular emails. When you open the ad, you may be shown images, text, and/or video, or you’ll be taken directly to the advertiser’s site. Gmail Ads are very unusual in that they are not targeted using the content of your emails, but use your search, browsing and video watching history.
Ads on the Google Display Network
Outside of its own properties, Google serves display, text, video, and app ads on websites all over the internet. These ads can appear anywhere in the Google Display Network, a collection of websites estimated to reach 90 percent of the world’s internet users. Although these ads aren’t matched to search history in the same way that ads on Google properties are, they can still be highly personalized, and effective at creating brand recognition.
Advertisers have a lot of options when it comes to showing ads on the Google Display Network, such as:
Placement. Advertisers can choose to show their ads only on certain sites and/or apps in the Google Display Network. This allows businesses to target the specific sites their customers visit. Google also offers automatic placement.
Topic targeting. For advertisers who want to target a general topic rather than a specific website, there’s topic targeting. Google groups sites on the Display Network into categories like “Music” or “Camping and Hiking,” and advertisers can simply select the topics that are relevant to their products.
Video placement. Many sites in the Google Display Network have video content, and advertisers can choose to show ads (such as video ads or text or image overlays) through Google’s video publishing partners. Video placement allows advertisers to choose specific sites or videos where they want their ads to play.
How do Google ads work?
Depending on the type of ad, Google ads function in different ways. Here’s roughly how it works.
How ads on Google properties work
Businesses that want to show their ads on Google properties sign up with Google Ads.
Google serves targeted ads based on your search history and other info such as location and search history. When you’re on a Google property, Google can store this information using first-party cookies. If you have ad personalization turned on, Google will use more personal information—such as your browsing history, past purchases, and demographic predictions—to serve personalized ads.
Whenever a user clicks on an ad, the advertiser pays Google. This model is called pay per click (PPC).
How ads on the Google Display Network work
Websites that want to make money by serving ads sign up with Google AdSense to become part of the Google Display Network. The website owners then add a small amount of code known as a pixel tag (or pixel for short) to their site.
Every time you visit a site in the display network, the pixel leaves a cookie on your browser. This is considered a third-party cookie, since it shares information with an outside party (in this case, Google). For example, you might look at camping gear on a website that is part of the Google Display Network.
Advertisers, like the camping gear manufacturer, bid for space on a website, say, a popular media site, and the highest bidder gets to show a display ad on the site. When you visit the media site, it will see the cookie that the camping site left on your browser, and show you the ad for camping gear. In the advertising world, this technique is called retargeting.
If you have ad personalization turned on, Google will use more personal information, such as your browsing history, past purchases, and demographic predictions, to serve personalized ads. For example, Google will see (from that third-party cookie) that you looked at camping gear, and then add “Camping and Hiking” to your ad personalization profile. You’ll then start to see all kinds of ads related to this topic.
Whenever a user clicks on an ad, the advertiser pays the host website, and Google takes a cut.
What is the difference between Google ads and other types of online ads?
Google isn’t the only online advertiser. So when it comes to reducing your ad exposure, why do so many people focus on Google? Here’s what sets Google ads apart.
Google is bigger than other advertisers. Google’s Display Network is the largest of its kind, and its search engine is the most popular in the world. Together, these factors give Google the widest audience of any online advertiser. Google’s other products, like Google Maps and YouTube, further extend its reach, to the point where Google ads form an undistinguishable backdrop to most users’ digital lives.
Google doesn’t use third-party cookies on its own properties. While Google makes liberal use of third-party cookies across its extensive Display Network, it doesn’t allow other advertisers anywhere on its own websites. Facebook, the world’s second-biggest online advertiser, follows a similar practice. This means that blocking third-party cookies won’t stop you from seeing targeted ads on Google properties.
Google has vast personalization capabilities. The two branches of Google’s advertising machine give it targeting capabilities beyond that of other advertisers. Google’s huge Display Network supplies Google vast amounts of information about your browsing and shopping habits through third-party cookies. Combine that with the power of its own search-oriented products, which give Google a direct view into your deepest questions and desires, and you have a recipe for precision targeting.
4 ways to see fewer ads from Google
It’s almost impossible to escape Google ads entirely, but there are definitely ways to limit your exposure.
Use a private search engine. Use an ad-free, private search engine. People who want to continue using Google (or another ad-supported search engine) sometimes use an ad blocker, but using a private search engine is the only way to guarantee your search terms are not being used to serve ads.
Pay for services. The best way to remove ads is to ditch “free” services that make money off advertising. For videos, upgrade to YouTube Premium or use an ad-free video platform like Vimeo.
Use fewer (free) Google products. Switch from Google Chrome to another browser—because the more Google products you use, the more likely you are to see Google ads, and the more personalized they will be. Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox are two of the biggest browsers other than Chrome, and they both block third-party cookies by default.
Use an ad blocker or “content blocker.” These typically exist as browser extensions that remove ads from ad-supported sites. According to a 2019 survey by eMarketer, about 26 percent of people in the U.S. use an ad blocking extension.
How to stop Google ad personalization
The ability to personalize ads based on your online behavior creates unrivaled value for advertisers—but also an increasing sense of unease and frustration among users. “The advertising industry has hijacked the words personalization and relevance,” says Neeva cofounder Sridhar Ramaswamy. “Personalized ads and relevant ads sound better, but the reality is that I want a personalized ad like I want a personalized headache.”
Luckily, Google offers a way to turn off personalization—at least partially. Google admits that even if you opt out of ads personalization, it will still use your IP address, your browser type, and your search terms to serve targeted ads.
To turn off ad personalization on Google sites, follow these steps:
Go to your Google Account > Data & personalization.
Under the Ad personalization panel, click Go to ad settings.
Toggle the button from “Ad personalization is on” to “off.”
To opt out of ads personalization on sites that partner with Google, follow these steps:
Go to your Google Account > Data & personalization.
Under the Ad personalization panel, click Go to ad settings.
Go to “Advanced” and uncheck the box that says “Also use your activity & information from Google services to personalize ads on websites and apps that partner with Google to show ads. This stores data from websites and apps that partner with Google in your Google Account.”
Visit YourAdChoices.com to opt out of personalized ads from some of Google’s partners.
To manage the way cookies are used to track your behavior, use a private search engine with a tracking prevention extension, like Neeva, or an extension like Privacy Badger. These prevent third parties from using your data to build a profile about you which can be sold off or used to target you with ads.
Sick of ads cluttering your search results page? Try a private, ad-free search engine like Neeva, and see the difference for yourself. We will never sell or share your data with anyone, especially advertisers, and we are committed to showing you the best results for every search. Try Neeva for yourself, at neeva.com.