• John Walker

Google Ads is Like a Self-Driving Car, but don't take your hands off the wheel!



Google Ads is over 20 years old and what was an incredible innovation in the early days of the web- catalog the web and then runs ads on the searches- is now one of the established digital businesses that we take for granted. For users, it’s part of a utility they use constantly. For advertisers it’s a standard way of gaining bottom-of-the funnel traffic in the most efficient way possible.


I think of Google Ads as a twenty year old car that has been gradually rebuilt from a relatively simple, manual sedan into a highly automated, semi-autonomous vehicle that’s constantly getting new features written into its software. I’ve been driving it for years but every time I get behind the wheel, there’s a new feature to understand.


Google Ads is Complex and Multi-Layered

If you're looking for a blog post that boils down Google Ads into a few simple cheats, I can't offer that. This platform is a beast that's challenging to master and it changes all the time. To show all its components, Search Engine Land has created the Periodic Table of PPC. This fascinating chart shows all the "elements" of the platform- one took tells you that its complicated.


I use Google Ads every day to run search campaigns and it feels like I've just begun to understand how it really works. Part of that is because increasingly the platform is operated by machine learning and artificial intelligence so users like me can't see what's happening behind the scenes.


Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence

The Periodic Table of PPC (linked above) is color coded to show the level of control users have with different features. Some are largely still manual, like how a campaign is structured- a user determines campaign goals and how ad group structures are configured.


What else is manual? Geography is, bidding can be, but doesn’t have to be. Creation of text ads used to be manual but they are being replaced by responsive search ads. And keyword selection can be manual.


But many, if not most, of the features of Google Ads are now automated or driven by machine learning. The bottom line is that the platform is moving away from manual control because what it does is simply too complex for a person to manage- there’s too much data to crunch and too many decisions being made based on those insights. But for a user like me, it feels like the machine is going through a weird transition that leaves me uncertain about when to rely on automation and when to use common sense.


A Car That Drives Itself- Sort Of

Managing campaigns in Google Ads is like driving a car that sort of drives itself. You can relax a little, but don’t take your hands off the wheel because you can still crash. Here’s what I mean.


Google Ads will regularly recommend keywords to add to your campaigns. They’re being recommended because they’re going to drive up clicks. Some are helpful and some just aren’t. That’s because the recommendations include lots of widely- targeted, informational keywords that get lots of clicks but aren’t going to attract quality traffic. So you have to sort through the recommendations carefully to determine which ones will actually help you meet your campaign objectives.


Next, Google wants you to spend more. Period. So the system will often push for greater and greater ad spending and that’s true whether it's automated advice or via conversations with a Google Advisor. So it's up to you to keep your campaigns within budgets you’ve set.


Which takes us to the topic of Google Advisors. These are the Google staff members who are available to assist you with campaign optimization. In principle, having them is a good idea. In practice, the advice offered by this army of assistants is only moderately helpful at best, and at its worst, it can derail your campaign. That’s because conversations with these folks are tightly scripted affairs often focused on increasing your spend. To be fair, these calls are meant to improve your performance too, but I often find them pushing me toward tactics that I don’t completely understand (many have just been released by Google) and implementing strategies that don’t exactly align with my clients’ goals. So beware.


My Recommendation: Test, Measure, Evolve

When I first get behind the wheel of a new car, I move slowly making sure I understand all the controls before I take it up to full speed. That’s also how I proceed with new campaigns in Google Ads.


Since every campaign is fully unique with its own goals, audience targeting, keywords, and seasonality I prefer to make small moves and see their impact before I make bigger ones that cost more. This means starting with a small budget, driving traffic, measuring conversions and then optimizing over time. It's like driving around the neighborhood before pulling out onto the highway. It's a smart practice for any machine, but especially for one that might or might not take over the controls when you least expect it!


This post was written by John Walker, Principal at J. Walker Marketing, a marketing consultancy. Contact John directly to discuss your marketing challenges.