Pay-per-Click 2022: The Need for Human Intelligence in an AI World
Despite Google’s Algorithmic Wizardry, We Need People to Keep Them Honest – and On Track
By Chris Turner, Director of Paid Search
The advent of automation in paid search is still relatively new, but it has evolved seemingly exponentially just in the past five to seven years. I remember back in 2016 having arguments with my Google reps over their urging that going fully automated with a bid strategy like Target CPA would make me look like a hero and deliver my client untold riches in the form of account growth and improvement.
The fact was, we were dabbling in this “tCPA bid strat,” as the cool folks called it, and it simply was not delivering on our primary KPI, which was CPA.
Sure, did I want to give in to this fully automated strategy and save myself countless hours managing bids across a spectrum of categories and contextual signals? Of course. But for the two or three higher-volume campaigns in which we’d tested tCPA, it was running our CPAs somewhat through the roof. But rather than just keep listening to Google (even the reps waffled about automation at the time, knowing it wasn’t fully baked just yet), I took a variety of actions to mitigate the rising CPAs, ultimately moving the campaigns back to manual.
Fast forward a few years, and oh, how things have changed. Automation generally works quite well and has become the de facto way to manage the majority of accounts. You can still bid manually, but unless you have a small army of folks dedicated to making bid updates 24/7, going with an automated strategy is generally the smart move.
“More than 80% of all Google advertisers are now using automated bidding.”
And it makes sense if we consider the number of signals Google’s algorithm(s) can factor into a single bid decision – from time of day to device to location to the searcher’s gender, age, household income, recent search history, and on and on. These are just some of the basic back-end levers being pulled at any given time when Google decides whether a particular search is more or less likely to result in achieving the goal of the advertiser’s chosen bid strategy.
Add in remarketing audiences, lookalikes, affinity and in-market audiences, and it starts to seem impossible for any account manager to even scratch the surface when trying to effectively bid-manage without going at least partially insane.
But despite how much better automation is now than just a handful of years ago, it is not perfect. No matter how well automation might perform, there is always room for error and wasted spend, and this is why search marketers are still very much required. No matter how powerful Google’s AI gets (or any AI, really), it’s still built and managed by humans, around the oftentimes hard-to-predict behaviors of – you guessed it – other humans!
This is especially true for accounts that drive lower conversion volume, or fewer than 30 conversions in a 30-day period. Automation thrives on data – and lots of it. So when campaigns drive lower volume, especially volume that fluctuates and doesn’t necessarily follow any distinct seasonality patterns, automation can sometimes spit, sputter and struggle to deliver on the goal. But regardless of account size, there are several basic things we can and must do to keep automation in check and give campaigns the best chance at success.
No Matter Your Automated Bid Strategy, Human Input Is Key:
A well-thought-out, properly built search account can be likened to a great meal – it will taste only as good as the ingredients and preparation. A bit of a stretch on the analogy, but automation works best when it has the right signals to work with. From the basics of campaigns, ad groups and their associated keywords and match types to creative, site links, audiences and a few other back-end settings – if all is done well, you’ll be giving the algorithms top-notch ingredients to deliver on your goals. Structure is the foundation of everything in search marketing. And while there are nuances and variations depending on the vertical and advertiser, the basics and best practices are always the same. Before anything else, always make sure you’re auditing, refining and testing to get your foundation as solid as can be.
As a former copywriter, the “Ads” part of Google Ads has always been near and dear to my heart. And though I have a ton to say on this topic, I’ll keep it brief. If I had to distill it down to a word, it would be “testing.” Always be testing. (Bonus points for anyone reminded of Alec Baldwin right now.) The new default ad format is RSA, or Responsive Search Ads. Google recently “sunsetted” Expanded Text Ads, which were static and consisted of just three headlines and two descriptions. With RSAs, Google’s aim is to have many more options – like 15 headlines and four descriptions kinds of options – to mix and match on the SERP, dynamically testing variations to help drive greater CTR and, hopefully, CVR. But Google doesn’t really know how to write ads. At least ads that don’t sound robotic. Only humans know how to appeal to other humans, so we must take advantage of creative as a way to constantly test and see what works. I have seen some RSAs absolutely crush it, but I’ve seen just as many struggle to convert and drive up overall CPA. We must be diligent in writing, re-writing, pausing and testing to ensure our ads don’t become stale – or waste too much money.
Device-Level Bids (if on tCPA)
Most automated bid strategies remove the ability to make bid changes to some back-end categories, like device, daypart, location and audiences. And that’s the point, really. Google says, “We can do this way more effectively than you, silly human.” And in general, yes, they can. But if you’re running target CPA, you can still adjust device-level bids. The updates won’t actually change bids, but for, say, mobile, if you add a negative -20% adjustment, it will apply this to your CPA target for mobile devices. This isn’t perfect, but it can be helpful if your product/service does not convert as well on smartphones – or vice versa with desktops. Oftentimes, Google will allow one device or another to start to wander into the red, so long as the overall campaign CPA is coming in close to target. But regardless, we must monitor this and adjust as necessary. There’s no reason to deliver a $30 CPA against a $28 goal when mobile CPA is $75 and could have been adjusted down. Google might see $30 as a success, but I certainly do not.
Perhaps one of the more underrated tools in our human management arsenal, the campaign daily budget can be a powerful ally in affecting performance. This can be especially true in the higher volume/spend campaigns, where a simple increase in budget can have big ramifications on your numbers. Google takes both increases and decreases fairly seriously – as signals of how aggressive you might want to be with a campaign. It’s also important to ensure the right campaigns get sufficient budget. You pretty much never want to see a top priority campaign, one that drives a high percentage of monthly conversions and lower-than-average CPA, “limited by budget.” Of course, many accounts only have so much to spend, but my point is to make darn sure your best campaigns have the most money. There’s no sense in having equal daily budgets for an all-star campaign and one that barely converts.
Google would have you believe their AI is now near perfect when it comes to the search queries they match your ads to. They would be incorrect. I will admit, I do find fewer and fewer irrelevant queries on the ol’ SQR or search query report (these are the actual things people type into the search bar that then get matched to one of the keywords in your account) than I used to. But until I can run this report and see nothing but perfectly relevant keywords – ones I’d be happy to add to my campaigns and start monitoring and reporting on – I will continue to mine this report for queries I want to set as negatives, meaning, do not match my ads to this term because all they do is cost me money, without the bonus of a conversion!
Audiences have evolved a ton over the years. The options seem nearly endless now when it comes to retargeting, remarketing and prospecting across search, display and YouTube. With automation, Google does all the bidding to your various audiences, which can be a great thing. However, like the other areas I’ve discussed, Google doesn’t always get it right, so we must continually test, monitor and adjust based on performance. You can drive a lot of generally low-CPA conversions from your audiences, but there will almost always be a few that just don’t work – and automation doesn’t always make the proper adjustments. So it’s up to us, again, to monitor audience data and adjust as necessary.
Above All Else, Vigilance!
Even with automated bidding, which does a tremendous amount of work for us, there are still many things we must do to keep control of our accounts and make sure we’re delivering maximum value to our clients. This takes daily review, continual analysis, testing and adjusting.
The bottom line is that we must do all we can to master automation, or it will master us. Just think of me as a modern-day John Conner, sent from the future to deliver the message that, if left unchecked, Google’s automation will ruin your accounts.