Machine Learning and Google Smart Campaigns—The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

September 16, 2020
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12 min
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Machine learning in PPC has become mainstream, and there is no going around it. Artificial intelligence and ML have found their place within many industries and have infiltrated our lives far more than you can imagine. Did someone just say "Okay Google"?

Machine Learning and its Relationship with Digital Marketing, PPC, & Google Ads.

Here’s an intriguing question—do you really understand what’s going on behind the scenes of machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) well enough to make informed decisions about it?  Or do you just go into it blindly, hoping it will do its thing and bring you great results along the way?

2 different types of Marketers, one trusts machine learning the other wants the data and insights

Advancements in Machine Learning and AI have sparked a sentiment of fresh optimism for many marketers who believe that these are precisely the tools they need to run PPC ad campaigns, or smart campaigns, where they could simply “set it and forget it.”

Machine learning is all about leveraging algorithms to process data, learning from it, and predicting how the data will behave next. Google asks you to trust their algorithms blindly. Thousands of marketers do.

After all, Google’s smart campaigns automate everything including bidding, rules, reports, and alerts with very little effort on your part, right? Smart campaigns are awesome because they free up your time to run multiple campaigns at the same time and let you dedicate more time to higher-level marketing strategies.

But, there’s more than meets the eye. Read on to find out what you don’t know about Google Smart campaigns.

The Role of Machine Learning PPC in the 21st Century

In recent years, the structure of PPC ads has evolved in many positive ways. Algorithms are useful because they provide a lot of new data that was formerly hidden from marketers. More accurate data allows you to customize campaigns with the right information to make it easier to reach your target markets.

Bidding and the bid adjustment process give you a competitive advantage because they provide you with the means to elevate your digital marketing efforts to higher levels than have been possible for decades.  Google Smart campaigns also provide you with valuable information like impressions, clicks and search phrases.

Maybe google smart campaigns aren't as great as they seem

Have you ever wondered if it all seems too good to be true? I ask you to consider if there’s a piece of the puzzle that you may be missing when it comes to running  Smart campaigns.

Let’s take a deeper dive into what Smart campaigns are, why marketers depend on them so heavily, and why they may not be as effective as you give them credit for. I mean, Google calls them “Smart” for a reason, right?

I mean, Google calls them “Smart” for a reason, right?

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What Are Google’s Famous Smart Campaigns?

Smart campaigns are a relatively new feature on the Google Ads platform, which was formerly known as Google Adwords. However, they’re not new to Google advertising, in general. Smart campaigns replaced the Google Adwords Express platform and they’re built on the same technology.  

To a large degree, Google Ads Smart campaign automation was designed with small, local businesses in mind—those that had a very little budget available for digital marketing. To that end, they’re fairly easy to set up and they’re even easier for busy companies to maintain, even if you don’t have the advantage of having expertise in running online ads. Google Ads Smart campaigns seem to be the answer for businesses that can’t afford an inside or outside marketer or spare the time away from the business to study up on the latest digital marketing strategies.

Google Smart campaigns open the door for small businesses to enter the world of PPC ads with little effort. Here’s a clue to that missing puzzle piece—Are you setting up your Google Smart campaigns wisely from the beginning and do they work as well as they could be?

The Good: Why Do Some Marketers Blindly Depend on Machine Learning?

The reason that digital marketers rely so heavily on Google Smart campaigns is fairly obvious. The good thing is that they’re intuitive and easy to set up, even for a novice. You merely have to choose your topic keywords, set your budget, and the campaign is off to the races using its own steam. As a business owner, you can put the marketing aspect of building your business to rest and go about taking care of other important tasks.

Google Smart campaigns help small businesses reach target audiences that were difficult to reach in the past. Now, you can set an average daily budget and a total campaign budget, which makes ad campaigns even simpler. Google makes it possible to run ads without the stress of hiring a marketing agency or managing the campaign yourself.

But How Do Smart Campaigns Really Work?

The philosophy behind Google Smart campaigns is that they target and optimize themselves automatically. As easy as Google makes it to run a paid ad campaign, you have to wonder exactly what the machine is learning and how it decides how to set up algorithms to optimize your ads. Right?

When it comes to geo-targeting, Google draws information from your website and your Google My Business profile and displays ads for you. The program continually tweaks and optimizes your ads automatically, according to best practices and based on your business data. Google will even select the best online placements for your business, industry, and location. You get the advantage of laser-focused targeting audiences in your local area and having your ads appear directly on Google Maps listings.  

With Google Smart campaigns, you don’t have the trouble of managing multiple tools and reports or continually modifying your campaigns to get the best results. As good as all this sounds, the bad news is that Google Smart campaigns have several downsides.

Let's take a look at what the Machine Learning of Google Smart Campaigns can do:

Smart campaigns and machine learning

The Bad: What Are the Downsides of Google Ads Smart Campaigns?

The missing piece of the puzzle to Google Smart campaigns, and how machine learning affects Google Smart campaigns, is that for machine learning to do its job effectively, it has to start with the right data.

That begs the question of, “How is this possible when the Ads platform has limited knowledge of your business model, industry and customer?”

I challenge you to think about 5 important things before you jump headfirst into setting up your Google Smart campaigns.

1. You have no control over where your ads display online and it limits your effectiveness and individual campaign-level reporting.

Your Smart ads will display on the Google Search Network and also on the Google Display Network. That means that people will see your ads when they’re putting the keywords that Google thinks are the right keywords into the search box. Here’s what Google isn’t telling you. Your ads are also appearing in front of people that aren’t searching for your business and couldn’t care less about it. Smart campaigns give you the “privilege” of paying for those unqualified leads. For small businesses with tight marketing budgets, it’s not the best use of your financial resources.

2. Smart campaigns limit your ad copy and range.

Smart ads limit you to one set of ads and they’ll display that one set across the entire ad network. That rule gives you less flexibility to highlight all the best features your business offers.

3. Google decides what triggers your ads.

You don’t get any control over the keywords or search phrases that will trigger your ads. The words they choose will be broadly based on your business, but they’ll also be fairly vague, and Google doesn’t give you any say in which one’s should be prioritized or not.

Depending on your specific industry, the words they choose may be pretty generic—too generic to drive the sort of traffic you’re looking for to your site. The problem with this is that you have no control over the level of intent of each keyword, that will ultimately lead to more conversions, as you explore better performing words at high conversion rates.

Broad terms yield a broad audience and they’ll prevent you from narrowing your target audience as successfully as you need to. You’ll get a much better return on your ad spend when you get to choose the specific search terms that accurately reflect your products and services to buyer persona.

4. Google Smart ads don’t let you opt-out of negative keywords.

While the right words are essential for success with PPC campaigns, don’t overlook the importance of weeding out negative keywords that have no potential for directing people to your website. Getting rid of negative keywords could make the difference between the browsers and the buyers. If you’re putting time and money into a Google Smart campaign, you don’t want to have to pay for views that amount to little more than curiosity.

5. You lose control over how your money gets spent on ads.

While it’s true that Google Smart ads let you set your budget, the program doesn’t ask your permission about how they can spend it.

Not having the ability to set the maximum cost per click may set you up for going through your budget quickly and not even having the benefit of using the right keywords. This is a huge disadvantage for smaller businesses with minimal marketing budgets. 

This also leads me to the point that a/b testing is virtually impossible when it comes to Smart Campaigns. With no metrics to compare, no variations to try and limited capability to test the engagement of your audience limits your ability to well-invest your precious resources. 

Overall, the real appeal of Google Smart ads is that they’re simple and easy to manage. But, it’s wise to consider what you might be giving up in exchange for keeping things simple.  

Ultimately, what you’re sacrificing is transparency and accountability. Using Google Smart ads is like putting your market dollars into a big black box and forgetting about them. In doing so, you’re relinquishing total control over whether you’re spending your marketing budget wisely and efficiently.

It’s fair to ask yourself whether your money would be better spent if you had control and if there was some way to account for your results. Would a data-heavy approach give you different results?

Good data yields good results. When you put AI and Machine Learning to work on the right data, they can build on that data and use it for other valuable applications. In order to make a Google Smart campaign work beautifully, we will need to hack the Google Algorithm and feed it with profiles of people that converted organically. Then, Google will keep serving ads to look like users and only then Google smart campaigns can be successful. But, in reality, a common marketer doesn't know how to hack the Google algorithm. Only a few people know how to do it.

The Ugly:  The Hidden Dangers of Depending on Machine Learning

Every time you set up a Google Smart ad, you’re making a costly trade-off. Essentially, you’re trading transparency and accountability for keeping things simple and easy.

Here’s what happens when your data is strategically hidden out of your sight:

  •  You lack insights to evaluate the campaign
  •  You don’t have data to apply to other marketing channels
  •  You don’t have control over data input
  •  There’s no accountability if it doesn’t work
Goofle ads smart campaigns machine learning

As a business person, you demand transparency and accountability in every other facet of your business, so why should you look at digital marketing any differently?

That question brings yet another question to the forefront. If you don’t know who is behind your clicks, how can you know that they’re coming from a real prospect? Is it possible that large numbers of your clicks are being generated as a result of click fraud?

It’s essential for digital marketers to have complete control over ad campaigns. When you run Google Smart Campaigns you don't have any control. That means that you’re risking leaving some of your marketing funds on the table and that’s a costly mistake.

Digital marketers only prove their worth when they can be transparent. It’s vital to take full control over every aspect of every campaign to get the maximum return on your ad spend. To prevent click fraud reliably, marketers need to customize ad campaigns, provide insight into each click, and monitor all clicks in campaigns. 

AI and Machine Learning aren’t the bad guys. They can actually become your friends when you choose to use them in conjunction with control and transparency. 

To wrap this up, a sensible approach to PPC ads is to redirect your marketing dollars to a place where they’ll yield far better results. Smart campaigns are not the best choice because they lack transparency. It is always better to run a regular PPC campaign and to hold accountable a marketer. Taking the easy path will only result in losses and frustration. If Google Smart Campaigns work as well as they claim to work, then ask yourself why most of the marketers don't use them.

It goes without saying that appearances can be deceiving. On the surface, Google Smart ads appear to be a quick, inexpensive solution for running ads, but the reality is they don’t allow you to stretch your marketing dollars effectively. 

Jason is a passionate data-driven specialist with extensive PPC & SEO experience. When not writing about SEM he can be found surfboarding the wildest ocean waves of the Argentinian coast.