AI & PPC: To Automate or Not to Automate?13 min read

by Nov 10, 2022Marketing, Strategy, Tech

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Artificial intelligence (AI) and automation may still feel like the shiny new thing in digital marketing, but like any other powerful tool, it all comes down to how you use it.
When used thoughtfully, these advanced tool sets can help people and make their lives easier. Used poorly, AI and automation make it easier to send confusing messages, annoy potential customers, and make the digital world a more frustrating place.

Earlier this year, we wrote about AI and copywriting. We concluded AI can be a useful tool, but having a real human ideate, edit, and act as quality controller will always result in better content.

Note: We felt pretty validated when Google rolled out the “Helpful Content Update” in August 2022. This update made it harder for sites with AI-generated content or content created specifically for search engines to rank well. Basically, Google wants to reward “original, helpful content written by people, for people.”

Now, we’re going to talk about how AI and automation intersect with the world of pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. Get ready to dive into responsive ads, bidding, and auto-applied recommendations.

Responsive Ads

Responsive ads automatically adapt their format and/or message to show the most relevant version to your customer. Advertising platforms offer different flavors of responsive ads, but the most common are text (search) and display.

  • Responsive search ads use multiple headlines and descriptions to create an ad based on a user’s search query. The ad platform, like Google or Microsoft, will test different combinations and learn which ones get the best results. First introduced by Google in 2018.
  • Responsive display ads use a wider variety of assets (images, headlines, logos, videos, descriptions) and generate an ad that adapts to the available space. Google first introduced responsive display ads in 2016.

Pros

A “State of PPC Global Report for 2022” from PPCsurvey.com found that 97% of respondents use Responsive Search Ads—and there’s certainly a lot to like. You still have control over headlines, descriptions, and images, but the ad platform uses machine learning to find the best way to fit the pieces together to reach your goals. Targeting stays relatively simple—creating a keyword list for text ads or specifying the types of people, context, or content your ad relates to.

Cons

Responsive ads have relatively few cons. The most common pitfall is to mismatch your ad format and campaign goals. In general, responsive display ads work better when you want to reach a wide audience and generate a lot of impressions. Responsive search ads are usually more tailored to answering specific queries or offering solutions to specific problems.

Automated Bidding

In the “old days” of online advertising, marketers manually set bids for their ads, or how much they wanted to pay for each click. Usually, you started out with a bid for your entire ad group, but then could use separate bids for individual keywords or placements.

Google began introducing automated bidding in 2010 with “Enhanced Cost-Per-Click” followed by “Smart Bidding” in 2018.

Now, Google offers six types of automated bid strategies to help you achieve specific goals. Briefly, they are:

  • Maximize Clicks to increase site visits
  • Target Impression Share to increase visibility
  • Maximize Conversions to get more conversions while spending your budget
    • Target Cost-Per-Action (tCPA) to set a specific conversion value
  • Maximize Conversion Value to prioritize conversion actions with a higher value assigned to them
    • Target Return on Ad Spend (tROAS) to meet specific conversion values

Pros

Automated bidding saves you from the very manual process of setting individual bids and monitoring keywords for changes. Google says Smart Bidding “takes more factors into consideration when adjusting bids than are available in the interface with manual bidding.” In other words, manual bidding puts you at a disadvantage.

Cons

Figuring out which bid strategy will work best for your campaign can be tricky as some require a more watchful eye than others. The “State of Global PPC Report” found that while 95% of respondents implemented Smart Bidding, only 48% reported being satisfied with tROAS Smart Bidding, and 47% reported being satisfied with tCPA bidding.

We recommend understanding the drawbacks of each bidding strategy and monitoring your campaign closely for the first few weeks after launch so you can correct any unexpected hiccups. Using a “set it and forget it” approach could result in spending way over or under budget and not achieving the results you had in mind.

Auto-Applied Recommendations

Google has this to say about account recommendations: “Recommendations can introduce you to new, relevant features, help you get more out of your budget by improving your bidding, keywords, and ads, and can work to increase the overall performance and efficiency of your campaigns.”

Recommendations are meant to improve your optimization score, which measures how well your account follows Google’s best practices. You might notice your optimization score increases with each recommendation you apply.

There are a few different types of recommendations you might see:

  • Budget
  • Conflicting negative keywords
  • New keywords
  • Adding extensions
  • Adding audience segments
  • Including search partners
  • Improve responsive search ads

Pros

Honestly, we can’t find a lot of good things to say about Google’s Auto-Applied Recommendations. And we aren’t the only ones.

Cons

The “State of Global PPC Report” found that 83% of digital marketers were dissatisfied with Google’s auto-apply recommendations. Common complaints include Google’s “one size fits all” approach, the push for smart bidding, broad match keywords, and budget increases.

Our advice—take Google’s recommendations with a grain of salt. Don’t automatically add new keywords or make budget adjustments without first thinking about the impact it could have on your campaign. Do these keywords make sense for my audience and my ads? Will more budget actually get me more meaningful results (not just more clicks)?

PPC Automation Still Needs a Human Touch

Automation and AI can be great tools for PPC advertisers, but your campaigns still require human oversight to ensure your ads make sense, are served to the right audience, and get meaningful results.

Clicking “apply” on every automated recommendation or using a “set-it-and-forget-it” approach will probably end with you spending more money on less significant results. Plus, automation done poorly means a frustrating experience for your audience.

What tailored recommendations on your PPC strategy? Drop us a line, we’re happy to help!