Accuracy of geographically targeted internet advertisements on Google AdWords for recruitment in a randomized trial

Ray B Jones, Lesley Goldsmith, Christopher J Williams, Maged N Kamel Boulos

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)


BACKGROUND: Google AdWords are increasingly used to recruit people into research studies and clinical services. They offer the potential to recruit from targeted control areas in cluster randomized controlled trials (RCTs), but little is known about the feasibility of accurately targeting ads by location and comparing with control areas.

OBJECTIVE: To examine the accuracy and contamination of control areas by a location-targeted online intervention using Google AdWords in a pilot cluster RCT.

METHODS: Based on previous use of online cognitive behavioral therapy for depression and population size, we purposively selected 16 of the 121 British postcode areas and randomized them to three intervention and one (do-nothing) control arms. Two intervention arms included use of location-targeted AdWords, and we compared these with the do-nothing control arm. We did not raise the visibility of our research website to normal Web searches. Users who clicked on the ad were directed to our project website, which collected the computer Internet protocol (IP) address, date, and time. Visitors were asked for their postcode area and to complete the Patient Health Questionnaire (depression). They were then offered links to several online depression resources. Google Analytics largely uses IP methods to estimate location, but AdWords uses additional information. We compared locations assessed by (1) Analytics, and (2) as self-identified by users.

RESULTS: Ads were shown 300,523 times with 4207 click-throughs. There were few site visits except through AdWord click-throughs. Both methods of location assessment agreed there was little contamination of control areas. According to Analytics, 69.75% (2617/3752) of participants were in intervention areas, only 0% (8/3752) in control areas, but 30.04% (1127/3752) in other areas. However, according to user-stated postcodes, only 20.7% (463/2237) were in intervention areas, 1% (22/2236) in control areas, but 78.31% (1751/2236) in other areas. Both location assessments suggested most leakage from the intervention arms was to nearby postcode areas. Analytics data differed from postcodes reported by participants. Analysis of a subset of 200/2236 records over 10 days comparing IP-estimated location with stated postcode suggested that Google AdWords targeted correctly in just half the cases. Analytics agreed with our assessment that, overall, one-third were wrongly targeted by AdWords. There appeared little evidence that people who bothered to give their postcode did not answer truthfully.

CONCLUSIONS: Although there is likely to be substantial leakage from the targeted areas, if intervention and control areas are a sufficient distance apart, it is feasible to conduct a cluster RCT using online ads to target British postcode areas without significant contamination.

TRIAL REGISTRATION: NCT01469689; (Archived by WebCite at

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)e84
JournalJournal of Medical Internet Research
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 20 Jun 2012


  • Advertising as Topic
  • Geography
  • Great Britain
  • Humans
  • Internet
  • Patient Selection
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic


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