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The problem with responsive search ads

I had one of our frequent calls from Google last week with suggestions as to how we can improve one of our clients’ PPC advertising accounts. This service is welcome (we’re only human, we sometimes omit to take advantage of a certain feature, and their monitoring bots usually spot this quickly) …but we’re frequently reminded that Google doesn’t understand the nature of many of our clients’ businesses.

This is illustrated by the constant exhortation to use one of Google’s latest ideas: ‘responsive search ads’.

With these ads, instead of writing a 2- or 3-part headline and a 2-part description section, we’re supposed to give Google multiple alternatives for each part and the let the machine jumble them all up. So if we wrote (say) 6 different headline parts, Google could theoretically give itself 6x5x4 = 120 different headlines to choose from. The idea is that all the different headlines would, in time, be assessed for relative performance, and the system might find a combination that worked better than anything that we mere mortals would be likely to choose ourselves.

You can probably spot the two problems. Firstly, we’d have to go through every possible headline-part combination before letting Google do its thing, and ensure that each one made sense. Ideally, we’d want our clients to see them too, but I haven’t ever come across a client who has that much time. Secondly, Google needs a lot of trials to work out which combination works best, and if an advert is only showing a few times a day, we can’t possibly give it enough data. When I look at tests online, they inevitably come from advertisers who say things like: “We let the advert run for a million times and analysed the results”. Unfortunately for most of us in industrial marketing, that much interest in our adverts is unthinkable.

What worries me a little is what might be happening with the many businesses who manage their Google Ads campaigns in house, but aren’t able to spend too much time on them. If they don’t understand what this new way of advertising really implies (whether they stumble across it or have it pushed on them by Google), they could be getting some ads showing that don’t make much sense. But they’d never see them to know that.

Time and time again over the years, we’re reminded that the clever people at Google might be great programmers and data manipulators, but they really don’t understand how we like to market our businesses – and we should never assume they know much about that.