5 Google Ads Default Settings That Suck

Most of my friends know I’ve been involved in search marketing for a long time, so I’m often asked to look over Google Ads campaigns to see why they aren’t performing well. People even pay me to do this. The very first thing I do when I look over an account is to check for various default configurations that should ALWAYS be changed. Google makes it fairly easy to create an account, but their primary goal is to generate revenue, so most of their default settings are geared towards ensuring that they can spend every penny of an advertiser’s budget.

1. Auto-bidding = Here’s My Wallet, Let Me Know When It’s Empty

I hope whoever came up with this idea got a nice raise, because it has to have made Google a boatload of money. The basic idea of auto bidding is to say to Google, “I’m willing to spend up to $X per day, now you figure out how to spend it for me.” If that sounds like a good idea to you, I’ve got some Alta Vista shares I’ve been hanging on to that I’ll let go of for a steal. When auto bidding is enabled, Google will set your bids uniformly to make sure you are spending your entire budget. The “uniformly” part is the bit that will really screw you. It never makes sense to pay the same for all keywords in a campaign. Some keywords are likely to convert better than others, and at the very least the products or services you sell are not uniformly priced.
The fix: specify bids when you create ad groups. Bidding is a complex topic, but there are two primary considerations:

  1. Bid low enough that you are not hitting your budget cap. I think of the budget cap in Google as a safety net, and control my spending by lowering bids. The reason for this is the fact that Google will blow your budget on a single click if they can. For example, let’s say your budget is $10/day and you bid $10 for a keyword. You could spend your budget with just one click, when you might have been able to get 10 clicks at $1 apiece.
  2. Set bids based on how much revenue ads generate. In simple terms, this means you should pay twice as much per click for keywords that generate twice as much revenue. Here’s the less simple version: Paid Search: Bidding Based on ROI

2. Broad Matching Can Be Very Broad Indeed

I’ve already spent some time explaining match types, so I’ll only provide the short version here. When you add keywords, Google assumes you want to broad match them unless you add brackets or quotation marks. Broad matching means that Google will match your ad to any search phrase they deem similar to the intent of the keyword on which you are bidding. I’m in favor of broad matching, since people search in such weird and varied ways, but it can result in a lot of worthless clicks. For example, if you broad match the term “computer repair”, Google will show the ad when someone searches for “computer repair jobs”. This is a very real example and happens all the time.
The fix: add negative keywords to the ad group or campaign. Negative keywords tell Google not to show the ad when those keywords are present. For example, adding the negative keyword “jobs” would have prevented the issue above. There are two good ways to figure out which negative keywords you should add. One way is to click on See Search Terms on the Campaigns > Keywords tab. That will show you some of the search queries that have triggered your ads. If you see anything that doesn’t make sense, add the offending keyword as a negative. The other way is to enter your keywords in Google’s Keyword Tool and see what comes up. Again, if you see variations on your keyword that don’t make sense, add those as negatives.

3. What Is The Display Network, Anyway?

If you don’t specify otherwise, Google will show your ads on the display network. There are two ways of looking at what that means:

  1. Google will show your ads next to relevant blog posts, articles and the like.
  2. Google will fritter away your budget on every loser webmaster that has the 60 IQ points required to join the AdSense network.

Google emphasizes the first view, but there are a lot of haters out there that strongly believe the second. The truth is somewhere in between. I’ve had campaigns where more conversions came from display than search, and generated better ROI. But I’ve NEVER achieved good results by letting the default settings be. By default, display will be bid the same as search, and ad group organization that makes sense for search may not make sense for display. On the display network, ads are not matched based on specific keywords, they are matched based on topics that Google views as relating to the ad group as  a whole. For example, I once managed a campaign for someone who sold maps of cities and places in New Zealand. I had an ad group with keywords like “Auckland map”, “Christchurch map”, “Wellington map”, etc. I caught Google red-handed serving my ad on a page that had to do with maps, but nothing to do with New Zealand. And if you bid high enough, Google will start showing your ads all over the place, relevant or not.
The fix: set lower bids for the display network. Ideally, you can do this based on ROI, but a rule of thumb I use when I don’t have ROI data is to bid down until I’m getting no more than half my clicks from display. Also, make sure your ads clearly state important qualifying factors like what you are selling, where you are and whether you are selling to businesses or consumers. That helps prevent irrelevant traffic from clicking on your ad. Sometimes, I’ll even create separate campaigns for display, so I can tweak them with display distribution in mind.

4. One Ad Group Only Makes Sense If You Only Sell One Product

And even then, it may not make sense. When you create a campaign in Google, it is not at all obvious that you are also creating an ad group. I know this because I’ve had to field the question, “what is an ad group?” many times. An ad group is a grouping of keywords within a campaign. Ads are associated with an ad group, and a default bid is set for an ad group. Because Google hides the ad group structure in the default campaign setup process, I’ve come across many campaigns that have a wide variety of keywords stuffed in one ad group. There are a few reasons why this is a problem. One is that ads work much better if they are closely related to the products or services you are selling. A one-size-fits-all ad group means your ads have to be very general. Another reason is that clicks convert to sales at a much higher rate if you land visitors on a page specific to their interests. Lastly, as described above, you should set bids based on the revenue generated by keywords and groups of keywords.
The fix: create ad groups for each product or service you sell, and/or each landing page towards which you are driving traffic.

5. Default Geographic Targeting Is Generally Stupid

This is where my ads will show up if my ads are targeted to Denver Metro:

denver metro area map
Um, hello? All of northern Colorado is Denver Metro? I’m pretty sure not too many people are driving the 5 hours from Rangely to Denver to pick up their dry cleaning. If you are targeting a campaign to a state or a country, Google’s targeting works pretty well, but selecting cities or metro areas is usually a bad idea.
The fix: go to the Custom location targeting screen and select a radius around your business. You may find your traffic goes way down, but the traffic that’s left is the traffic you want.

Honorable Mention: How come the Ads user interface sucks so bad when they can create such a beautiful search UI?!?
I have the Ads web interface more or less tattooed on my brain, but even I find it confusing. How do you create a second ad group after you’ve created a new account? Where do I find Ad Extensions (and why do I want to)? How come quality score doesn’t just display like everything else?
The Fix: use Google’s downloadable Ads Editor. It’s not perfect, but it is much better than the web interface.

I admit that I’m being a little hard on Google. In fairness, most of the changes I’ve described add complexity to managing campaigns, and complexity has its downsides as well. On the other hand, there are many cases where Google has erred on the side of spending more of the advertiser’s money, and I can’t tell you how many campaigns I’ve looked at that were driving a lot of traffic and converting to zero sales. Google Ads is a fantastic advertising medium when managed well, but many businesses never get past the crappy defaults I’ve described here. If you’d like help getting things set up or figuring anything out, please let us know.

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13 years ago

Enjoyed and learned from your article. Thanks.

12 years ago

I almost never comment on a blog post, but I think this particular one deserves it. My problem is that Adwords isn’t using my budget to the whole, I’m not getting enough clicks. I’m going to try your suggestions. Thank you.

11 years ago

Very useful article and to the point. I have run into each of these issues (the default for display over search for instance). We are in a service industry (consulting engineering) where is it very difficult to determine how much Adwords helps us. Allowing Google to decide the costs per click (seems to always go up) while at the same time Google controls the traffic, is a great business model – for Google. I do not think we are getting our monies worth. And their customer service is nothing to brag about either.

Some competition is needed!!

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