How I learnt Not to Trust Google Smart Campaigns and the Machine Learning of the Largest PPC Network in the World.

September 30, 2020
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18 min
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Do you blindly trust Google Smart campaigns that make you believe they’re the fast-track to marketing success? Let me share with you my story that might make you think twice.

Google has been on a mission to be the “end all” and “be all” of digital marketing for businesses that are looking for a simple, easy, and inexpensive way to put their ads on the internet. They’re all too happy to take the reins of your digital marketing campaigns away from you under the guise of making your life easy.

In my opinion, whenever a company gives you blind promises, it’s wise to question what’s going on behind the scenes. Sure, they promise that you’ll get more customers, but how many is “more”? And, exactly how are they bringing customers to me? How do I know that there’s not a more effective way to set up PPC campaigns? Exactly what am I getting for my money anyway?

These are all valid questions. What goes on behind Google’s curtain amounts to little more than a black box. There’s no transparency. Allow me to shed some light into that black box. I can help you understand how smart campaigns work, the role that AI and machine learning play in PPC campaigns, and why Google Smart campaigns are overrated.  

Out of the box google smart campaigns

The History Behind Google’s “smart” Campaigns

Before we dig into all that, let’s take a step back in time at an earlier Google ad campaign platform. Back in 2011, Google launched an automated ad campaign program with its AdWords Express platform.

Google promised small business owners that Adwords Express was the answer to putting them into the driver’s seat of their digital marketing campaigns. As I remember it, AdWords Express was billed as an automated service that helped businesses get more customers with ad campaigns that were not only effective but easy and fast to set up too.

Google mostly targeted small businesses with their Adwords Express platform and they spread the word far and wide to fulfill their goal of bringing as many businesses as possible on board. The design of the platform was intended to meet the needs of businesses in any industry.  

In my experience, most of the people that used Google Adwords Express were sorely disappointed. It didn’t usually deliver on the promise of getting more customers (whatever “more” means), and it wasn’t as quick to set up as they promised. Google tried to make some improvements, but they fell far short of being awesome.

Realizing that businesses were losing faith in the platform, Google finally did away with it and replaced it with Smart campaigns, which they launched in 2018.

Historical data on Google Smart Campaigns

It's funny how they called them “Smart” - what's actually Smart about them?

The reality is that digital marketing is complicated, and it takes time and expertise to do it right. For most business owners to do it on their own is a lot to handle. Who has time for that when you’re trying to run a business?

Don’t let all that discourage you. Algorithms are a good thing when you know how to work with them.

Understanding Google Smart Campaigns

What are Google Ads Smart campaigns?

Smart campaigns were built on the Adwords Express technology. They’re fully automated and simple to use. Smart campaigns rely on AI and machine learning to create your Google ads complete with text and images.

Here’s how Smart campaigns work. All you have to do is answer a few easy questions and leave the rest into Google’s capable hands. You get to choose some keyword themes and you can expect them to be fairly broad.

And don’t forget that you get to pay them for all that simplicity.

What you will get are ads that will automatically display on Google’s search engine, Google Maps, YouTube, Gmail, and Google’s partner website’s. Google promises that your ad will show up for people that are in your geographical area and outside your area if they include terms that are related to your business as long as you have it set up that way.

Some business owners like the flexibility that Google Smart campaigns offer. You can run many campaigns at the same time, or you can run them one at a time. Multiple campaigns give you the option of running ads for several products or services at a time.

It sounds almost too good to be true, right? Before you invest any more of your money in digital ad campaigns that don’t deliver the best return on your investment, I ask you to keep a few things in mind.

As an expert marketer, Google Smart campaigns have an inherent flaw. When you design a digital marketing campaign platform that works for businesses of all sizes and all industries, the design for the parameters has to be broad. That means that your options for what you can input are sorely limited. Small landscaping businesses get exactly the same options as large multi-facility insurance companies.

When it comes to being able to tweak various factors, so they really work for you, Google doesn’t give you any options for that. Without having granular control over your ads, it’s nearly impossible to target your audience as narrowly as necessary to get the best results.

I suppose the saving grace with Google Smart campaigns for small businesses is that you can get them set up quickly unlike their predecessor, Google Adwords Express.

I urge you to think about Google’s true motivation behind Smart campaigns, why do you think they want to take away your input to optimize the intent of each click?

Google’s Main Business Is to Sell Clicks

PPC obviously gets its name from pay-per-click. Essentially, every time someone clicks on your ad, Google collects money from you, short and simple. Bear in mind that you don’t get paid until a lead actually goes through your entire sales funnel and turns into a sale.

Google smart campaigns are in the business of selling you clicks

Here’s where the rubber meets the road. I encourage you to think about the types of terms that you use when you’re shopping for something on the internet. If you’re shopping for a treadmill, you might start by putting “exercise equipment” in the search box. It’s a great start that will yield you thousands of results that range from hand weights to exercise mats to a maxed-out home gym system.

Let’s flip the switch for a minute and say that you’re the business owner, and you were sure you knew how to run Smart campaigns in Google ads. After all, they walked you through the process of creating your ad step-by-step. If you ran a Google Smart campaign to target customers looking for a fantastic sale on a treadmill, people that used the search term “exercise equipment” are also seeing your ad.

Those customers might be looking for resistance tubes, kettlebell weights, or an elliptical. When they see your amazing sale on the treadmill, they’re just going to move on. Unfortunately, you still have to pay for their click.

Now, we’re getting back to the inherent flaws in the design of Google Smart campaigns. They’re so simple and so automated that they operate with a will of their own. They can only operate using the information that you plugged into the algorithm, except that the algorithm limits the parameters you can give it.

There’s no question that you’ll get more clicks with Google Smart campaigns, but it’s hit or miss whether those leads will actually turn into sales.

I’ll let you in on another big trade secret from expert digital marketers like me. There are three major reasons that data-driven marketers don’t use Google Smart campaigns:

  1. You have zero control over where your ads will appear.
  2. Because you don’t have control over ad placement, it limits your click-through-rate capability.
  3. They limit your ability to create an exclusion list that weeds out unqualified leads.
Why you shouldn't chose Google smart campaigns

Here’s something else you should know. Google will display your Smart ads on the Google Search Network and the Google Display Network but, don’t get too excited. The Search Network will reach people that are searching for specific products and services; however, the Display Network will reach people that aren’t even looking for any products or services of any kind.

Google will charge you for all those clicks and you’ll end up with nothing but a bunch of unqualified leads.

Does targeting Depend on AI and Machine Learning

Even if you have just a little knowledge about digital marketing, you know that you need to segment your audience and develop personas based on your target audience.

AI and machine learning algorithms use those personas (also called avatars) to target your customers. As you learn more about how to get started with Google Smart campaigns, I can assure you that Smart ads depend on a certain amount of data to run their machine learning algorithms appropriately.

Machines can only learn based on the information they have. Just like with people, it takes time for them to learn, and the more they learn, the smarter they become. The lesson here is that your campaign won’t yield great results right away.

In fact, Google limits your budget to $200 for your Smart Display account until you get 50 conversions within the last 30 days. That’s a rule that will limit how much money you’re apt to lose in the beginning while the algorithms start working.

Google smart campaigns limit your ad spend for the first days

I’d also ask you to consider how much you could be paying out once you get past the threshold. Let’s say that you’re paying $2 on average click cost for 1000 clicks, you could end up paying over $2000 every month for digital ads. That’s a larger budget than most small businesses can afford and it’s even harder to maintain such a steep budget. Of course, you also have to consider how much of that is converting to know whether you’re even making a profit. At the same time, they’re leaving you blind to where your ads are appearing.

Why “Smart”?

 

Google named the platform “smart” because it uses AI and machine learning to automatically locate leads according to the initial questions you answered. While Google is as “smart” as it can be using the very broad search terms they asked you to choose, they won’t give you any idea which search words led to your ad being shown or which websites displayed your ads.

You might be wondering, what exactly is an algorithm and why should I care if Google is doing all the hard stuff? By definition, an algorithm is a set of rules that need to be followed to do calculations or solve problems. As algorithms apply to computers, algorithms also respond to images and clicks in deciding their next move.  

Now, can you see why Google Smart campaigns make me uneasy?

  • You can’t put in narrow search terms.
  • You don’t know where the ads are appearing.
  • You can’t get insight from each location where ads appear.
Why do marketers consider Google Smart Campaigns so easy?

It’s impossible to give or get accurate data. Those are valid reasons why I don’t trust the process. Without a paper trail, the information in the black box remains hidden. I don’t have the right data to ask the right questions. Personally, I’m a big fan of accountability and I demand that of myself and the processes I use.

My personal philosophy about digital marketing is that PPC campaigns should be transparent and provide proof that they’re working (or not), so I can make adjustments that truly give better results.

In the end, it’s fair to ask yourself, “Are Google Smart campaigns the best place to put your marketing dollars, given what you know now?”

The Inability of A/B Testing

To get the best results, effective digital marketing campaigns demand regular experimenting and tweaking. That’s perhaps the greatest downfall of Google Smart campaigns. Smart campaigns assume that you, in the role of a digital marketer, aren’t smart enough to do A/B testing, so they take that ability away from you under the shadow of “helping you.”

data driven marketers look to measure specific marketing metrics

The reality is that by not being able to A/B testing on your own, you are forever limiting your ability to know what’s truly working and not working.

What you do get with Google Smart campaigns is one set of ad copy that automatically gets displayed across the entire network. That approach doesn’t give two similar ads the chance to compete for the same audience, so you’re once again flying in the dark to know which type of ad appeals to your target audience.

As for data, it won’t give you the metrics for click-through-rate (CTR), quality score, or any other metrics for that matter. Any opportunities for doing A/B testing are completely lost.

Metrics are a staple of good digital marketing practices. Useless data is as good as no data. With the right data, I can analyze the metrics, tweak the areas that aren’t performing as robustly as I’d like them to, and build on those insights.

Overall, without having access to the right metrics and without being able to test that data, your only recourse is to blindly trust your money and your results with Google Smart campaigns.

Why Do Marketers Need Data?

The algorithms that Google uses depend on extracting data from your online properties and the competitive landscape to make decisions. The reality is that Google has access to massive amounts of data to draw from.

To the unknowing population, to blindly hand your ad budget over to Google Smart campaigns seems like a good approach for how to run smart campaigns in Google ads. Essentially, they’re giving you an opportunity to “set it and forget it.”

In taking such an approach, I’d ask you to think, just for a moment, about the conversion goals that you set for your business. The reality is that it’s nearly impossible to even set attainable conversion goals when you use Google Smart campaigns, let alone evaluate which methods will help you reach them.

In my opinion, that’s just not reflective of good digital marketing. I believe that any amount of time and money you spend on digital marketing efforts should produce results and that your results should demonstrate transparency and accountability.

In sharing my expertise with you, I want to be careful not to downplay the benefits of automation for digital marketing purposes. Automation certainly has its place in the marketing field as long as you don’t trust it to completely run on its own steam.

Brad Geddes is a Google ads expert and well-known internet marketing consultant and he encourages marketers to be thoughtful about their approach to automation. Geddes has been widely quoted as saying, “I don’t actually want to automate everything.” I wholeheartedly agree with that statement!

The truth is that industry leaders in the field of digital marketing don’t use Google Smart campaigns.

To crack the black box open a bit more, the top digital marketers are looking for measurable values that show a campaign’s true performance. They’re collecting numbers like:

  • Visitors to a site
  • Conversion ratios to measure ROAS 
  • Lead Form Registrations
  • Email addresses 
  • Click-to-calls 

This is the type of data that I (and other top digital marketers) use to support marketing objectives.

what type of data do marketing profesionals look for

The right data tells me exactly who the ads are reaching and whether they’re the people that are inclined to convert. To develop effective ads, you have to know your customers’ intent which tells you the type of content that moves them from passive observers to action.

Have you been noticing that numerous restaurants and retailers offer mobile rewards programs? That’s not a happy accident. When you give them your email address, it gives them the ability to learn a lot about what motivates you to stop at the drive-through or leaves you waiting outside their entrance doors at opening time.

Here are some of the things they stand to learn about customers in their reward programs:

  • Peak buying times
  • Seasonal trends
  • Customer preferences
  • Inventory needs
  • Customer habits

From personal experience, I can tell you this is only the tip of the iceberg of useful data that you can get from algorithms.

My Experience with Google Ads Smart Campaigns

As a PPC marketer with over 10 years’ experience working in the trenches of the SEM and SEO marketing scene, I’ve gained valuable insight into this industry.

I can assure you that I, and dedicated digital marketers like me, do our magic when we have full control and data-driven insights into our PPC campaigns.

I get desired results because I don’t blindly trust anything that I can’t see or account for or back it up with proof. I’m acutely familiar with the competitive landscape of my personas and campaigns—much more so than Google ever could be. AI and machine learning won’t give me the data that I need to do my job alone, but with the right data, I can easily take those same tools and use them to increase conversions.

I tried using Google Smart campaigns out of sheer curiosity and because I felt I needed to satisfy due diligence. The lack of control made me feel more like a mere manager and a bad one, at that. Expert digital marketers give you something that Google Smart campaigns can’t—granular control over your campaigns and accurate results.

I believe that your business is too important, and your marketing dollars are too precious, to put blind faith into anything. When it comes to Google Smart campaigns, there are just too many unnecessary negative trade-offs.

As a business owner, you’ve probably learned that anything worthwhile takes time, effort, and perhaps a little money. It goes without saying that you need to be efficient about your investments whenever you can so you can focus on the most important aspects of your business.

Google would like you to believe that Smart campaigns are the quick and easy answer to your digital marketing needs. They might lead customers to your website—eventually, and in smaller numbers.

If you’re ready to get better results and know that you can trust them, you have to open your eyes to a digital marketing strategy that gives you true insight, transparency, and accountability that you can only get when you put yourself in the driver’s seat of your digital marketing campaigns.

I get desired results because I don’t blindly trust anything that I can’t see or account for or back it up with proof. I’m acutely familiar with the competitive landscape of my personas and campaigns—much more so than Google ever could be. AI and machine learning won’t give me the data that I need to do my job alone, but with the right data, I can easily take those same tools and use them to increase conversions.

I tried using Google Smart campaigns out of sheer curiosity and because I felt I needed to satisfy due diligence. The lack of control made me feel more like a mere manager and a bad one, at that. Expert digital marketers give you something that Google Smart campaigns can’t—granular control over your campaigns and accurate results.

I believe that your business is too important, and your marketing dollars are too precious, to put blind faith into anything. When it comes to Google Smart campaigns, there are just too many unnecessary negative trade-offs.

As a business owner, you’ve probably learned that anything worthwhile takes time, effort, and perhaps a little money. It goes without saying that you need to be efficient about your investments whenever you can so you can focus on the most important aspects of your business.

Google would like you to believe that Smart campaigns are the quick and easy answer to your digital marketing needs. They might lead customers to your website—eventually, and in smaller numbers.

If you’re ready to get better results and know that you can trust them, you have to open your eyes to a digital marketing strategy that gives you true insight, transparency, and accountability that you can only get when you put yourself in the driver’s seat of your digital marketing campaigns.

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.