We audited Google Ad recommendations: What we learned will surprise you

  •   September 4, 2019

Google rolled out its “Recommendations” page, formerly known as “Opportunities,” in 2018. The page features an optimization score, which measures how well your Google Ads account is set up to perform. The higher the score, the fewer the recommendations Google has to offer.

It may seem appealing to implement recommendations from Google, given the search giant’s huge swath of search behavior data. But often, these recommendations don’t take into account retailers’ unique business goals. In some cases, the advice could increase costs or disrupt a sophisticated strategy.

My fellow analysts and I audited several recommendations appearing in various retailers’ accounts. Some recommendations, particularly those that point out missing ad components or suggest new keywords, were helpful. Other recommendations that change budgets or promote Google’s automated bidding solutions like target ROAS, can cause serious complications.

Be cautious when applying these recommendations. With a single click, you can significantly disrupt performance and lose ground in a highly competitive channel.

Worse, some recommendations are applied automatically. If you see “Auto Apply” on an ad recommendation, Google will apply the change within 14 days if it isn’t rejected. That means a campaign can shift without your explicit consent, and those changes may not always drive positive performance.

Following are a few Google Ad recommendations we uncovered as well as our assessment of their effectiveness.

Automated bidding recommendations

Google frequently suggests applying a smart bidding solution, like target ROAS, target CPA and maximize conversions. While automated bidding can save time and energy if you don’t have enough bandwidth or expertise to manage campaigns, it limits your ability to set granular bids and learn from bid adjustments. Google provides little transparency into how it sets bids when a smart bidding tool is applied.

This recommendation estimates that the retailer can gain 1.3 more conversions a week if it implements target CPA. Losing complete control over bid management nets the retailer one more order. The impact of such a change is minimal, but the strategic cost is high.

In addition, the suggestion provides no explanation of what will happen to traffic if the retailer uses target CPA. If the smart bidding solution sets CPA too low, it could strangle traffic. In a competitive environment like Google Ads, lost opportunity can hamper performance for weeks.

The optimization score gain from this change, 12 percent, is also the highest of any of the recommendations we saw. The high score suggests that implementing smart bidding solutions like target CPA will make the most positive impact on campaigns. This is misleading because smart bidding can have unpredictable outcomes. You may have a negative impact on secondary goals beyond CPA or ROAS. Consider these risks before applying an automated bidding tool.

Ad creative recommendations

Google recommendations are a helpful way to audit paid search ads. Copy improvements that would take a lot of human hours or days to adjust, will take Google a matter of minutes. The search platform can quickly analyze paid search ads and understand if key components of the ad are missing.

In this example, the retailer would benefit from adding sitelinks to its ads. Sitelinks, when featured, help the paid search ad capture more space on the SERP. This attracts more clicks. It also provides relevant information to consumers, which improves quality score. A higher quality score lowers ad costs.

Although all of that makes a big impact on paid search performance, Google says this particular recommendation only increases the retailer’s optimization score by 0.1 percent. In reality, these tweaks can improve performance significantly.

Google provides a helpful tip here, but its optimization score misleads the retailer about the importance of useful, targeted ad copy.

Keyword recommendations

Similar to ad audits, Google analyzes retailers’ keywords and assesses how much traffic certain terms drive. If particular keywords haven’t delivered traffic, Google will suggest eliminating those terms from the campaign, as it does below.

In this instance, Google suggests the retailer remove important trademark terms. While these terms don’t receive a great deal of traffic, they have a very high click-through and conversion rate. And since they appear in the SERP only occasionally, they are not driving up costs for the retailer. It doesn’t hurt to have these terms in the campaign, but rather covers an important base for this retailer.

Google also recommends adding “trending terms” to retailers’ campaigns. In the below example, Google suggests the retailer add the term “gigs in new york” to its paid search campaign. The retailer sells women’s apparel, so the keyword is not related to its products or the consumer demographic it’s trying to reach.

Since this term receives a great deal of traffic, it would drive up costs for the retailer and harm efficiency.

Audience reach recommendations

The final recommendation type Google often supplies attempts to expand retailer reach through account settings. In the example below, Google advises the retailer to implement Google search partners to expand the reach of a campaign. Google search partners are non-Google properties that display Google ads. Retailers pay for these search partner ads in a similar CPC model.

In some instances, applying Google search partners to an account could drive positive results. If you have the necessary budget and have optimized impression share for your shopping and search campaigns, search partners could provide an additional impression and conversion lift. This feature may not appeal to you if you have a limited budget.

It’s important to test this setting on different campaign types to understand its effect on performance. Generally speaking, high-intent or branded campaigns tend to perform better on the search network because consumers are actively searching for your products. Campaigns with general search terms tend to drive up costs at a lower conversion.

Advertising with Google search partners also limits your control over bids. Google automates this aspect, meaning you cannot adjust bids if spend increases beyond a sustainable level. Instead, you simply must turn off search partners.

Ad recommendations are not a quick fix

Ad recommendations may be a helpful tool for improving your Google campaigns, but without careful consideration, these recommendations can easily derail performance. Your retail business has established performance marketing goals and strategies, and you should weigh these recommendations against those tactics. Google’s most common and highly recommended changes – applying smart bidding tools – can potentially disrupt your campaigns the most.

Google’s effort to automate some recommendations can create further confusion and issues for retailers. Closely monitor the ad recommendations page and make sure your campaigns aren’t being changed without your knowledge.

On the surface, ad recommendations seem helpful and easy to apply, but you must be cautious. Although Google is developing more sophisticated automation, ultimately a human-led strategy taking into account unique business goals is still critical for success on Google Ads.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.


About The Author

Steve Costanza is the Senior Analytics Consultant of Enterprise Customer Strategy at Sidecar. He analyzes digital marketing performance and strategic direction for large retailers across verticals, focusing on data visualizations and advanced account segmentation. He is responsible for deriving meaning from numbers and determining how to use those insights to drive marketing decision making. Steve is especially close to Google’s new innovations impacting Shopping and paid search. He has a master’s degree in data analytics and contributes to Search Engine Land as well as Sidecar Discover, the publication by Sidecar that covers research and ideas shaping digital marketing in retail.

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