Why Running a Google Ads Smart Campaign Is Not Always A Wise Choice

Why Running a Google Ads Smart Campaign Is Not Always A Wise Choice

Why Running a Google Ads Smart Campaign Is Not Always A Wise Choice

Why Running a Google Ads Smart Campaign Is Not Always A Wise Choice
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We decided to see run a Google Ads Smart Display Campaign to see if it made using Google Ads any easier.

More to the point, we wanted to see if it actually generated quality conversions.

Now for many businesses the idea of a smart campaign may seem the logical choice for many reasons:

  • The company doesn’t have a marketing department
  • The company has a small marketing budget
  • The company finds Google Ads hard to use

For those who don’t know, Google Ads smart campaigns used to be AdWords Express.  But then Google killed off AdWords Express.  It put smart campaigns into the main Google Ads instead.

They are available as part of a display campaign or a search campaign.

For our experiment, we used it on a display campaign, that was set to maximize conversions.

At the same time, we also ran a standard display campaign.  This display campaign targeting was set up by us.

Using targeted audiences, demographics, keywords and audiences relevant to our services.

For the standard campaign, we had the ability to tune our campaign more for ad targeting and make it count.

For a smart campaign you don’t get this choice

This article will discuss and sum up what we learnt.

Smart Campaigns vs Standard Campaigns

Think of a smart campaign as an ad campaign automated.

You set up the campaign, the creatives and your bid.  Then Google does the rest.

There’s no way to target where your ads show, or what devices they appear on.

Google does all that for you.

And that’s where problems start.

For many companies, a smart campaign, as it did with us, will generate a vast amount of junk leads.

This is because it targets mobile devices the most.

A smart campaign also decides where your display ads appear for you.  Based on machine learning.  Considering:

  • Similar audiences
  • Remarketing 
  • Keywords (your ads appear on sites with content that matches)
  • Topics (your ads appear on sites with content that matches)
  • Demographics
  • Interest categories

It’s A Big Black Unknown

A Smart Display campaign may sound like a good idea, and for some companies it may be, your experience may differ.

We found that you have zero control over where our display ads appeared.

We looked at the mobile apps.  The YouTube channels and the sites that our business services ad appeared on.

It was shocking.

But not surprising.

Dating sites, Android APK download sites, gaming sites, gold websites.

These kinds of websites are what Google thinks our ads should appear on to get conversions.

And yes, we got clicks.

And yes, we got conversions.

But it was all junk, and spam.

There is also no way to tell Google that you don’t want your ads on any of the sites, channels or apps either.

Google doesn’t let you do that.

This is ads on autopilot, remember?  Google thinks it knows best.

It’s meant to take two weeks for the machine learning to completely optimize the campaign.

We can see many businesses giving up before then, based on the quality of conversions.

What’s more, the whole benefit of a smart campaign is having less stuff to do.  Google takes care of automatic bidding, automatic targeting and automatic creatives.

Here’s What You Can’t Control

You can’t control the bids.

You set the target amount to bid for and the strategy (e.g. maximize conversions).

The Google machine does the rest.

You can’t control the where your ads target.

It uses the elements mentioned above to test for the best combinations.

These combinations lead to getting the most conversions.

You can’t control your creatives.

By this, you supply the images, headlines, descriptions and logos.

The Google machine does the rest and will combine it all to create ad variations.

It monitors the performance of the ads and shows what is most effective.

Here’s What You Can Control

But you do have some control to try and get better quality conversions.

You can refine your creatives, images and text.

You can also change or exclude demographics or audiences.

You can also change your budget.

But apart from that, you’re at the mercy of Google.

Actually, we’ll let you in on a secret.

You can actually exclude placements in a smart campaign.

Here’s how:

  • For your smart display campaign, go your Ad Group and under Placements click Where Ads Showed.
  • Download that as a CSV file and open it in Excel.
  • In the Placement URL column, select all the URLs you want to exclude.
  • In Google Ads, select the main account of your smart display campaign.
  • Click Placements > Exclusions.
  • Click Edit.
  • Set Account for Exclude From.
  • Click Enter Multiple Placements
  • Paste in all the URLs
  • Click Add, then click Save.

You have to keep repeating this process for what you want to exclude.

Doing this narrow down your targeting so that your ads appear on more relevant sites.

This, in theory, should also help increase your lead quality.

For us, our display campaigns were now excluding the same sites, channels and apps.

But did that mean that we got a better quality of leads?

For starters, our targeted display campaign was slow to get any clicks.

We increased our max CPM bid to see if it made a difference.

After all, the more targeted your campaign is the more you pay for CPM.

Which Campaign Won?

To determine the winner, it wasn’t about the number of conversions.

It was more about the quality of those conversions.

As we expected from the start.  The smart campaign got us more conversions than the smart display campaign.

The trouble was that the quality of the conversions was low.

That meant that none of the leads qualified.

There were several factors that could have attributed to this:

  • Targeting and demographic settings
  • Devices targeted
  • Bid strategy and budget
  • Keywords and topics
  • Ad placements

So, we decided to pause our standard display campaign and create a new one instead.   It ran with the following parameters:

  • 100% targeting desktop only
  • Using a custom in-market audience for our product services, set to observation
  • Using refreshed creative banners, with more enticing CTAs
  • Exclusions from topics not related to our product services
  • Added negative keywords
  • Using demographics that match the in-market audience stats
  • Set the audience to targeted, recommended for display campaigns
  • Excluded from all content and content types not related to our product services
  • Added a call extension to the standard display ad

We set this new standard display campaign to run for eight days.

We let the smart display campaign run as normal.

Each day we would review the ad placements for the smart campaign, download the data and comb through it.

We ended up adding 99.9% of the placements as exclusions at the account level.

That meant the smart campaign and the standard display campaign used these exclusions.

We immediately noticed for both campaigns are that the number of impressions dropped.  This was because we were only targeting desktop.

Less impressions meant fewer clicks.

We hoped that the clicks we got now would be more targeted and higher quality.

We were using our own in-market audience, under observation, not targeting.

That meant that we were showing ads to any audience.  Then, based on this data, we can use bid adjustments to focus on high converting segments.

Unfortunately, our hypothesis was completely wrong.

For you see, using our custom in-market audience narrowed down impressions and clicked.

It was like someone having a tap running, and then turning it off.

Back to the drawing board then, and no campaign won.

You Pay for The Person, Not the Placement

So, we started to think about what we were doing wrong.

We came up with the obvious conclusion.

We weren’t thinking like Google Ads.

Instead of thinking about people, we were thinking about placements.  But we weren’t paying to display on websites.

This meant that we were excluding 99.9% of placements. This was because the website didn’t match our product services.

We thought ‘let’s exclude this because it isn’t relevant’.

And that’s the wrong way to think.

You aren’t paying to be on that website.  You are paying for the people who go there and what they search for or have an interest in.

Here’s an example:

You sell men’s shoes.

You set up a standard display campaign.  You find that your ads are appearing on websites related to PC gaming.

Immediately you start to exclude them all.

After all, shouldn’t your ads appear on shoe websites because people are more likely to click?

You then notice after a while a massive drop off in clicks, impressions. and conversions

When you think about it, that makes sense.

Let’s imagine now that there is an avid PC gamer (they have an affinity for it).  Based on what they search for and ads they click.

They are also in the market for men’s shoes based on ads they click and pages they visit on gaming sites.

Had your ad appeared on that gaming website that person may have clicked your ad and converted.

But, because you weren’t thinking the right way, you end up limiting yourself too much.  This is because you excluded that PC gaming site for showing your ads.

You have to start thinking like Google, and it’s not easy.

Thinking Differently

When you set up targeting Google shows the estimated weekly estimates for impressions.

It’s too easy to get carried away and think ‘more is better because if more people see it the more chance of a conversion’.

But that’s not the right way to think.

Yes, more people will see your ad, but are these the people you want to target?

Will they give you quality conversions?

Chances are the answer is no.

There’s a definite art to setting up targeting for Google Ads.

In our research, we have found that for a display campaign, the weekly impressions numbers are from:

  • Demographics
  • Topics to target for
  • Keywords (not negative ones)
  • Audiences
  • Placement Exclusions

Your weekly impression estimates come from combining the above together.

When deciding how to target, think about your customer profile.

Think about how many impressions you want per week.

It’s too easy to keep making targeting more and more precise before you let the campaign even run a full day.

Not only do you need to rethink how to target, you need to also be more patient.

Start Broad, Then Focus

If you are unsure, start off by running your ads with no targeting.

Run it for a week or a month and then, based on the data, start to optimize.

Things you can optimize for:

  • Change bid adjustments for low performing devices
  • Add placement exclusions
  • Add specific topics to target
  • Narrow your demographic
  • Start layering audiences
  • Change daily bid amount and bid strategy

Don’t do all this at once!

Change a little bit at a time.

And always make notes.

Google Ads lets you add notes to your charts.  So, whenever you make changes to a campaign, mark it as a note.

That way you can see when you made changes and what effect it has later on.

Let’s go through what we did, one by one.

Doing this let us create a layered audience.

A layered audience considers:

  • Demographics
  • Topics to target for
  • Keywords (not negative)
  • Audiences
  • Placement Exclusions

It is all this data that Google uses to generate their estimated Weekly Estimates values.

These values are what you use when you set up targeting for a Google Ads campaign.

Let’s go through what we did in our newest display campaign.

With the focus being, better targeting = more impressions = more clicks = more conversions.

Change bid adjustments for low performing devices

We only wanted our ads to appear on desktop.  So, we adjusted our device bids accordingly.

Add placement exclusions

We went through our exclusions data for sites, YouTube channels and apps.  We removed any sites that we thought looked legitimate.  But we excluded all YouTube channels and apps.

Add specific topics to target

We added topics related to our product services.

Narrow your demographic

We actually kept most of the default demographic settings.  Except for removing a few age categories not related to our product service.

Start layering audiences

This goes back to what we said about you need to think like Google.

Think about the person, not only the placement.

But layering audiences is quite complex, and you can do it wrong.

How do you make sure you target the right people?

We decided to not be so laser focused and focus only on people who were in the market for our product services.

We also targeted other audiences whose buying habits aligned with our services.

This gave us a wider area to cast our net in, so to speak.

Then we targeted those whose interests and passions matched our product services.

To that mix we also added some relevant life events.   These were ones we thought tied with our product services.

So, all in all we targeted people who:

  • Had an interest in our product services
  • Are likely to buy our product services based on past intent 
  • Are within the demographic range that meets our customer profile

We also set the audience targeting method to targeted.  This means we target only those we care about and ignore the rest.

If you set it to Observed, you target all other audiences as well.

You can change your bid adjustments to focus on which audiences convert and target them more.

Or you can add them as an audience to target, and exclude the rest, once you start to see positive performance.

Now add on top topics, exclusions and demographics and you start to get targeted.

But don’t do it all at once, like we already said.

Take time to let your campaign run, analyze the results, then tweak your targeting.

Our Understanding of How Audience Layering Works

From what we have seen, it’s like pouring sand into a container.

You start off with an empty container.  The empty space is the highest amounts of impressions you can get (in the billions).

Then you add in your audiences. This is one layer.

The amount of empty space decreases.  So does your largest number of impressions.

Next, on top, you add keywords.

This is an extra layer, like layers of sand at the beach.  Again, your number of impressions decreases.

You then might want to add topics or demographics or placements.

More extra layers get added, your largest number of impressions decreases further.

So, you don’t want to fill your container completely and get no impressions.

Because that means you are laser targeted and your impressions will plummet.

As we discovered.

You have to be careful adding and removing layers until you get the perfect combination.

This allows you to make sure that you will be targeting the right people for your product or service with your ads.

But how do you find the right layers to target?

Think like your audience.

  • What things are they interested in (affinity/custom affinity)?
  • What might they be searching for or intend to do (in-market/custom intent)?
  • What is their age range, gender, household income (demographic)?
  • What life changes are they going through (life events)?
  • What websites or YouTube channels or videos would they visit (placements)?

Once you have this profile built-up you can target your campaigns better.

More Impressions, More Clicks, More Conversions = More Targeted

We made our targeted campaign changes on a Thursday.

By the following Monday we noticed more clicks, and impressions and conversions.  This was true for the entire five-day period.

What we noticed in particular was that:

  • Our new targeted campaign started getting more conversions than the smart campaign.
  • The targeted campaign got more impressions than our smart campaign.
  • Both campaigns, over the space of five days, had a very similar ad spend.
  • The smart campaign got a large reduction in clicks, the targeted campaign saw an increase.  This led to both campaigns having a similar number of clicks.
  • The targeted campaign had a higher conversion rate than the smart campaign.

So far then our new targeted settings seemed to at least get us conversions.

As a final test in this little experiment we decided to limit the number of times someone sees an ad.

We can only do this for the targeted campaign, not the smart one.

We set it for ten impressions per day, per user, for the campaign.

How we will determine the ‘winner’ of this latest experiment comes from two things:

  • The number of total conversions and conversion value.
  • Based on the above, the campaign that then had the most quality leads, not the total number of leads.

What did we expect to happen after limiting the amount of times a user sees our ad per day?

We imagined that there would be a drop in pretty much everything.

Less impressions.

Less clicks.

Less conversions.

In fact, we had a massive drop in the number of impressions from the day we limited impressions and the next.

More than a 50% drop.

When both campaigns reached their end date, it was time to review the performance and see which one was best.

What Did We Learn?

Measuring from the day we changed our targeting, to the campaign end date, we looked at data over five days.

This was for both campaigns, and here’s what we discovered.

  • The targeted display campaign had the highest conversion rate.
  • The targeted campaign had the most impressions.
  • The targeted campaign had a lower cost per conversion.
  • The smart campaign had the most clicks. 
  • The smart campaign had the most conversions
  • The smart campaign had the highest CTR.
  • The smart campaign had the highest cost.

Based on the number of conversions, the smart campaign seems the winner

For the smart campaign, all the campaign cost led to three conversions.

We paid less for a conversion using a smart campaign than a targeted one.

The smart campaign also got the most clicks.  But remember that clicks aren’t everything.

So, the more placements a smart campaign ad has, the more likely it will get clicked, if it gets enough impressions.

We also learned a lot about who our target demographic is who converted.

  • Female
  • Aged between 25 – 44 
  • Not a parent
  • In a lower income bracket

But don’t forget, it isn’t only conversions that determine which campaign performed better.

It’s the quality of the conversions that matters most.

Unfortunately, both campaigns yielded no high-quality conversions.

So, there was no real winner!

Investigating where the conversions came from for the display campaign led us to find out that one of targeted audiences converted, and that another conversion came from the target expansion feature of Google Ads.

You set this option at the ad group level when creating a campaign.  The more reach you decide to target the harder Google looks for more customers based on your existing targeting settings.  It also identifies the best targeting to reach most likely customers, as well as increasing reach without increasing the overall bid or cost per customer.

What that meant for us was that using this feature Google targeted additional semantically relevant keywords based on what we were already targeted.  That increases our overall reach and that in turn lets us reach more customers.

But we also learnt more about how to set up a targeted display campaign in relation to how targeting works.

This was valuable to us because navigating audiences and demographics and placements inside Google Ads isn’t easy.

You have to do experiments like these to learn how your ads perform and how any of your campaign or ad group changes affect your overall performance.

This led us to think about other ways we can try to promote higher quality conversions.

This could be for a future experiment.

Future expansion to this experiment could include the following tasks:

  • Reviewing the creatives of the ad to create ads with a different message and images.
  • Reviewing the headlines and descriptions used in the ads.
  • Review the landing page to make its content match the ad.
  • Review the information asked for on the landing page form to reduce junk leads.

But for now, we have to conclude that at face value, the smart campaign was the better performing.

Our targeted campaign did see massive traction after we did some targeting changes after reviewing the data.

And that’s what you need to do.

Always make sure you review your Google Ads data and tweak, tweak, tweak.

Because you can’t do that with a smart campaign it’s better that you choose to do a display campaign.

And that’s the campaign of choice for us now that this experiment is over.

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