Automation Without Autocracy: A Google Ads Guide for the Highly Skeptical



Ah, automation — everyone’s favorite buzzword. Along with machine learning, chatbots and General Data Protection Regulation, it’s one of the prevailing themes of marketing trends and predictions for 2020 and beyond.

If you’re like me, you’re in full-on Futurama-face mode, and automation feels like a bunch of slick-talking Google reps trying to take our jobs

For paid media professionals, it’s an inescapable reality. Google introduces new automated campaign formats on a seemingly daily basis and automation continues to replace traditionally manual tasks, leaving us PPCers scrambling to gain a leg up on the competition.

Search marketers generally fall into two camps: the Miles Dysons and the Sarah Connors. I’ll spare the explanation if you don’t get that one, but the main point here is that some people are adopting automated strategies with uncommon zeal, while others are fighting the inevitable as part of an elite, underground resistance force.

Low-hanging Terminator metaphors aside, digital marketing is at a serious crossroads. Automation is here in the form of Smart Bidding, Smart Shopping, Smart Display and App Campaigns (Smart App Campaigns would have been a bit more on-brand, but who am I?), to name a few.

Digital marketing (and, well, the world) has generally been kind to first movers. We’re constantly looking for that new thing that’s going to push our campaigns to the top of some invisible peak.

Automation might be that secret sauce. Computers can evaluate more decision trees in half a second than a human could in a lifetime. That said, it can also be incredibly difficult to convince a client (or yourself, for that matter) to automate any portion of a campaign that is performing well.

If you’re comfortable ceding some control and visibility to a computer, you may be handsomely rewarded. On the other hand, you may accidentally start a world war see a decline in campaign efficiency.

Depending on your industry and objectives, automated strategies may or may not be right for you. Here’s a quick guide to Google Ads automation for a few different use cases.

Brand Awareness

Brand awareness campaigns have an incredible amount of leeway. With few action-based goals, you have a bit more freedom to automate. Nobody knows Google better than, well, Google, so who better to optimize your campaigns for delivery across Google properties to maximize exposure?

Automated bidding strategies are a great place to start. For awareness-focused Search campaigns, start by testing an automated bidding strategy like Target Impression Share. Start by setting an impression share target, using legacy data and projections to identify a reasonable target. Once campaigns have collected a significant amount of data, you can adjust the target up or down depending on how the bidding strategy is performing. Keep in mind that Target Impression Share could lower your Absolute Top Impression Share depending on settings, as advertisers can target the absolute top of page, the top of the page or anywhere on the first page of search results. Additionally, ensure CPC bid limits aren’t too low, as they can restrict ads from showing enough to reach your goal.

In addition to Target Impression Share, Google has added a few other awareness-focused automated bidding strategies. Target Outranking Share is useful for advertisers engaging in competitive conquesting and allows you to outrank ads from another domain. Start by choosing a domain to outrank and a target percentage of auctions to outbid said domain in. Once live, adjust the target share to determine an optimal share of auctions to win. One note here is that, when two advertisers use Target Outranking Share against each other, the auction winner comes down to the advertiser with the highest bid (based on the strategies’ max bid limits) and Quality Score, which mitigates the benefits of the strategy. Additionally, this can only leverage one domain as an outranking target and is not perfect for advertisers with multiple competitive targets.

Target Search Page Location allows advertisers to target the first page or top of the first page of search results and can be extremely useful for branded campaigns to ensure your ads are top of page for branded search queries. Simply choose the target location (top of first page or first page) and set an optional bid cap, then sit back and watch your ads (hopefully) own the coveted first page of search results.

Smart Display may also be a good option for this campaign goal. Simply provide a few creative assets and let Google do the rest. These campaigns can also be extremely useful for smaller brands that lack the resources to manually set up these campaigns. These campaigns need to be closely monitored, though, as bids, targeting and creative are all completely automated.


For ecomm professionals, Smart Shopping is the biggest recent development with a chance to displace skilled digital nomads. Results have been mixed based on Yelp reviews, but they have a fairly compelling value proposition: improved ROAS.

At the end of the day, the main concern for ecomm advertisers is how much return you can generate from a dollar of ad spend. Smart Shopping can help, but it’s important to think critically about your account before making that shift as there are some important considerations regarding its implementation.

 A few things to keep in mind:

  • Smart Shopping interferes with any standard Shopping campaigns that may be running across the account. That means that, if you decide to launch Smart Shopping, you need to pause all other Shopping campaigns. For brands with strong Shopping campaigns, that can be a tall order. Convincing a major ecommerce brand to briefly abandon one of its most vital customer acquisition channels? Very difficult.
  • Smart Shopping campaigns run across the Search & Display Networks and YouTube. This means you need to keep a close eye on your other Google Ads campaigns to make sure they aren’t negatively impacted by Google’s automated wizardry.
  • Smart Shopping works better with more products, meaning you may have to completely overhaul your campaign structure. Very few brands run all products through one Shopping campaign, per Google’s previous recommendations. With these newfangled contraptions, Google is now recommending that all products run through the same campaign, if possible. With more products, the machine-learning algorithm has more data to optimize from and theoretically drives a better return. Unfortunately, that removes any budget control for different product groups, which can be problematic for advertisers that need to selectively adjust budgets for product lines based on sales or availability.

Smart Shopping has worked extremely well for Nebo when we have leveraged it. For one client, it drove a +215% increase in ROAS and a +77% increase in revenue. While these improvements shouldn’t be indicative of typical results, they’re in line with a lot of other internet success stories. Smart Shopping certainly shouldn’t be considered a one-stop shop for eComm advertisers, but it might be worth a test in certain cases.

App Downloads

Google completely changed how to advertise a mobile app with the launch of Universal App Campaigns in 2015. While the name has since changed to simply App Campaigns, the song remains the same. With these campaigns, virtually all of the fun of PPC advertising is gone, replaced by the Play-Doh version of Google Ads.

With App Campaigns, you can:

  • Choose a location
  • Choose a language
  • Set a daily budget
  • Set a target CPA
  • Add a few creative assets

And that’s it! Keyword targeting? No thank you!

Audiences? Obsolete!

Transparency? Absolutely not!

Unfortunately for hands-on app advertisers, bending the knee isn’t optional in this case. What we can control, however, we should exert total control over.

Segment your campaigns by location and language, where applicable, for starters. Control daily budgets tightly and test changing target CPA. Create campaigns that feature different types of assets (images vs. videos, text vs. images, etc.) and test things! Prod at these machines of war until they reveal their secrets.

From my experience, App Campaigns have been quite successful in terms of cost per install, but that number can be a bit misleading if it isn’t also associated with uninstall/post-install usage data. Using a third-party SDK can help bridge the gap between App Campaigns, app usage data and other marketing efforts.


While Google is the clear industry leader, Microsoft is also a crucial part of many digital media strategies and I would be foolish to omit opportunities for automation on Edge’s default search engine.

Microsoft continues to follow in Google’s footsteps in many respects, rolling out a number of similar automation products. Recently, they began offering automated bidding strategies that are suspiciously similar to Google’s automated bid strategies. Regardless, the concept is the same on both platforms, though we have a few notes for advertisers running on Microsoft:

  • Don’t expect to apply the same strategies you’re using on Google to Microsoft campaigns. Microsoft has (thus far) rolled out Maximize Clicks, Maximize Conversions and Target CPA. Google has a clear upper hand when it comes to the variety of choices for automation, so it’s important to think about how your goals translate to Microsoft’s more limited options.
  • If your campaigns are running through a third-party bid management tool (Search Ads 360, Kenshoo, Marin, etc.), you can leverage its automated bidding capabilities to adjust bids across both Microsoft and Google. With data from both platforms, algorithms can bid much more efficiently with regards to your objective.

When it comes to automation, it’s important to think about how we can loan Google our keys without handing them over completely. Automated processes with manual direction can be a beautiful combination.

One obvious way to control the machines who seek to control us is with intelligent budgeting. No matter how automated the campaign is, you still have the ability to control daily budgets. Use that power. Google will spend what you give it, so keep a tight handle on its allowance.

There are also campaign settings that can help you retain control over your campaigns. For example, consider breaking campaigns covering large geographic areas into smaller geos and adjusting budgets for each area, rather than relying on the bid adjustments you’re allowed in a standard campaign.

Automation is a lot like ordering off the adults’ menu at a restaurant. There are a lot of choices and everything has icky tomatoes in it, but this isn’t the time to go back to the kids’ menu. After all, you’re 24 now and your mom said you had to.

Digital marketers are living in an exciting time. There are more ways to reach consumers than ever, and machines have enabled mass-scale, low-effort optimization. While change can be scary, it can also create incredible opportunities for advancement that marketers would be remiss to ignore.

(Carefully) Automate away, my friends.


Written by Oliver Brantley on December 4, 2019


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Written by
Oliver Brantley
Senior Paid Media Strategist