It’s no secret that Google Ads is aggressively pushing advertisers toward using its machine learning and automated features.
Speak to any Google Rep and you’ll pretty much be told to accept anything and everything on the Recommendations tab (no thanks) and then for good measure, whack on a load of the auto-apply settings (an ever bigger no thanks).
Shifting to automation to reach new customers (AKA increase ad revenue for Google)
In the past few years, under the guise of ‘reaching more potential customers’, we’ve seen expanded text ads be phased out in favour of responsive search ads, the introduction of auto-apply recommendations, a push towards using broad match keywords, targeting options becoming less granular, a switch to smart bidding models, and more dynamic ad features – which is a huge part of Performance Max.
Launched in late 2021, Performance Max campaigns allow advertisers to place ads across Google’s network and channels, including YouTube, Display, Search, Discover, Gmail, and Maps.
When setting up a campaign, advertisers need to provide headlines, descriptions, images, logos, videos (optional), a call to action, and a business name.
Assets (formerly sitelinks and ad extensions) can also be added. When it comes to the URL, advertisers can choose a single final URL, or let Google Ads choose the best page depending on the user search query.
Advertisers then build their audience, which can be made up of remarketing audiences (your data), custom audiences (custom segments), and customer match data.
Performance Max campaigns will use the assets you’ve provided to reach potential customers across all of its networks and channels, and will even dynamically create its own ad combinations to better match user search queries and audience signals.
All sounds pretty great, right?
Well, maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t.
If you’ve experimented with Performance Max campaigns, you might have been pleased with the results. Loads of conversions and a low CPA, perhaps. Everything, at least on the surface, is looking top banana.
Until you dig into the data.
For the purpose of this analysis, I’m looking at data for a client that gives users the option to sign up and try their product for free.
The problem with Performance Max campaigns
Well, for a start, the dynamic nature of Performance Max ads doesn’t give you an awful lot to go on when it comes to analysing how well your ads are doing.
If you select a Performance Max campaign and then head over to the Insights tab, you can switch between a comparison view of 7 or 28 days.
Why these are the only options, I don’t know.
At the top of the page, you’ll see a graph showing the ‘Top insights’ which is actually not very informative.
But once we scroll down to ‘Consumer spotlight’, we get to see some more (albeit fairly vague) information on the search term ‘categories’ your ads were shown for.
Now, I can’t share the list of search terms for this campaign because it will show client data. But let’s just say they didn’t want to be showing for ‘chatGPT’ queries as shown above (sigh).
Let’s look at the settings for this campaign.
- Keywords (added as a custom segment) and previous visits to specific pages on the site make up the audience signals for this campaign
- The ad headlines and descriptions are very focused on those keywords, and align with the landing pages already visited by users previously
- As per Google’s recommendation, we did not select a single final URL so the ‘best’ page can be shown to match a user’s search
So what would you expect the search term categories to look like? A very close match to the keywords, or the copy that appears on the landing pages?
In fact, you’ll probably see a huge list of ‘search categories’ which have very little to do with the products or services you offer.
Oh, and not that you’d know unless you check Google Analytics, but URLs that don’t relate to the targeting (or are those which users visited previously) are being served up too.
And you may then be surprised people are still actually converting.
How could this be?
Well, not only are your ads being shown across all of these different channels and networks, but Google is pulling content from any old landing page on your website it deems to be relevant, which it then uses to create ad combinations all by itself.
You can take a look at the wild and wonderful combinations it’s created by heading on over to Asset groups > View details > Combinations.
And here, you’ll most likely see it’s (apparently) served a relevant URL and used your descriptions, but then just banged in a headline which literally has nothing to do with what you offer, picked from one of the many random terms from the ‘search term category’.
So basically, what is happening here is someone is searching for something not relevant to what you offer, but is seeing the keyword in the headline, clicking the ad, being confused that it doesn’t seem to be what they were looking for, but signs up anyway.
It’s free, so who cares if it’s not for them?
I do. I care. My client cares.
And here’s why.
- The client is paying for clicks, which even if they do convert, are likely to be very low quality, meaning the client has to disqualify a lot of ‘leads’ which is resource intensive
- The only bidding option for Performance Max campaigns focused on lead gen is ‘Maximise Conversions’ so even if the terms and audience segments which convert are garbage it will keep on funnelling budget into that
- By creating dynamic ad combinations, brand reputation and positioning are eroded
- Trying to prevent this from happening is not a fun time (more on this later)
Now here’s the kicker.
The client has admittedly seen some good-quality conversions from Performance Max campaigns.
But we don’t know exactly what it was that worked. We don’t know which ad combination or even channel/network is delivering the higher quality results. Let alone the exact search query.
Let’s look for some more data that could give us a clue.
If we take a look at the ‘Overview’ tab we can view ‘Asset performance’ and ‘Top bidding signals’.
The Asset performance report tells you very little – just which Assets Google deems to be performing best. But no real indication of what ‘Best’ actually means. You have no information about impressions, clicks, or conversions.
Looking at the Top bidding signals report also tells you very little. So little that it’s barely worth having it at all. In fact, when seeing that some of the bidding signals were showing ads most frequently in locations the client didn’t want to target, I added them as excluded locations.
And guess what? Three weeks on and those locations are still ‘top signals’. Even though they are not in the Locations report.
So now we’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that Performance Max campaigns ain’t all they’re cracked up to be, should we bin them off?
Sadly, I’m going to have to say a firm no on this one.
As mentioned at the very start of this post, Google Ads is pushing more and more toward automation and machine learning. And that’s not going to go away. If anything, it’s going to accelerate over the next few years.
There are a few things we can do to try and improve Performance Max campaign results.
Optimising Performance Max campaigns
When it comes to preventing Google Ads from showing random URLs or pulling the copy from said random URLs to create its own ad combinations, that’s a relatively easy fix.
In Settings, if you scroll right down, hidden (because of course it is) under the ‘Advanced settings’ drop-down, you’ll see an option for ‘Final URL expansion’.
Here, you have two options.
Option 1 is easy. Turn it off.
Fine if you’re happy with pointing to a single final URL. But what if you aren’t?
Option 2 is the pain in the arse option and the route you’ll need to take if you have a number of URLs that could be relevant.
Here, you need to perform a crawl of your site, export it into a spreadsheet, remove the pages you DO want your ads to point to, and then add individual URL exclusions or rule-based exclusions.
You may have also assumed you could just simply add negative keywords to your Performance Max campaigns to be rid of the wacky things showing up in the ‘search term category’ report for good.
Hahaha. You fool.
Now technically, you can add negative keywords to Performance Max campaigns.
But get ready to jump through some hoops to do so.
First of all, if you don’t have Owner permission on the account, you can forget about it. Even account Admins can’t make the changes.
Let’s assume you are listed as the Owner of the account.
The first step is to contact Google Ads via their customer support or your Google Rep telling them you want to add negative keywords to Performance Max campaigns.
Eventually, you’ll get confirmation that they will send you an email to make the request.
The request has a template in it which must be filled out exactly as specified, or it will be rejected. And you have to confirm that by adding the negative keywords, it is your fault if it all goes to piddle. Cool.
Then, you wait for approval, and assume it’s doing the job, but you won’t actually know, because you can’t see this data in the account.
And you might think that has fixed most of the problems, but you’d be wrong.
Look at the same ‘Search term category’ report a few days later and I can pretty much guarantee it’s a new batch of irrelevant data. Something else I found out pretty quickly was that broad match negatives don’t appear to stop the ads from showing for all the variations of that irrelevant search term.
Rinse and repeat.
Oh, and by the way, you can only add up to 1,000 negative keywords per Performance Max campaign. So I guess, rinse and repeat, and then… *shrugs*.
And finally, I suppose you can just admit defeat and implement those sweet, sweet recommendations. You know, things like ‘Set a Target CPA’, which will increase the weekly cost by a mere £315 but boost my optimisation score by 22.3%. I think the client would be very pleased by that.
Am I being a little mean about Performance Max? Perhaps.
I’m not saying that Performance Max can’t work. But it’s certainly something that you need to keep a very close eye on.
For a client with a very small website, it works pretty well because in all honesty, Google can pull copy from any of the very few pages to create ad combinations and as it’s a single product, targeting a pretty specific demographic, very little can go wrong there.
Equally, if you’ve got a massive e-commerce site and a whopping budget, we’ve seen Performance Max campaigns work very well, as the ads can reach potential customers across loads of different touchpoints. But again, be aware of the potential of there being a huge amount of wasted spend.
What do you think of Performance Max campaigns? Are they delivering the results you want to achieve? Let me know in the comments.