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Google Ads Recommendations - Should We Trust Them?

Table of Contents

For those of you who don’t know, a few years ago, Google started offering recommendations to advertisers to “increase your campaigns' performance.”

For those of you who do know, Google is also notorious for playing an inch-by-inch game of cash grab with ad spend under the guise of “increasing performance.”

Our question for the day: which is it? Are recommendations helpful advice from a trusted friend or another pitch from your MLM aunt?

TL;DR: 

  • Recommendations are intended to improve your account performance across a range of key areas by pushing for increased automation and Google control.
  • Recommendations boost your “Optimization Score,” which grades your account structure and how well you take advantage of Google features.
  • Optimization Score has only gotten more important for individual advertisers and partner agencies, and is likely to play a bigger role in the platform over the coming years. 
  • Recent updates to exact match keywords and the search term report have limited advertiser control in favor of Google-native automation. And most Google recommendations ask advertisers to hand over the reigns with broader keywords and automated strategies.
  • Recommendations don’t understand more nuanced strategies and tactics. They make it easier for marketers to run simple, automated strategies, but some recommendations can dampen performance in complex accounts.
  • In summary: do not accept all recommendations. In fact, don’t accept most recommendations without considering the implications for your account, your strategy, and overall performance. And if you come across a good recommendation for a larger change (i.e. bid strategy, attribution model, new keywords, etc…), roll it out deliberately, not all at once as the “Apply All” button would like you to do.

Google Recommendations: An Overview

For a quick overview, the Google recommendations appear in a designated tab and act as a de-facto grade on your account and your campaigns. They feed into your “Optimization Score,” which is a percentage that, according to Google, indicates, “how well your Google Ads account is set to perform.”

Each recommendation has an associated impact on that score. They include suggested updates and tactics like “add more keywords” or “try bidding more efficiently with an automated bid strategy.” 

I won’t go over all six of the recommendation types, because smarter people than myself have done that for us. Check out this article for an overview of the types of recommendations Google serves. 

An Example of The Optimization Score

On its face that’s not a bad thing. If a higher score will improve performance, then let’s approve all these recommendations and reap the benefits. But in the Google world, nothing is that simple. It’s important to take a critical lens here, rather than risk a complete performance meltdown.

For most advertisers, their exact score isn’t a major concern. You can see good performance at pretty much any level above 50%. However, signals from last year indicate that managing your optimization score might just get more important for partner agencies. And broadly, Google has continued to push advertisers to optimize to a higher score. 

 Cash Grab or Good Advice?

This is digital marketing, so the hot-take summary is, “It depends.” 

Something that we should all remember is that Google has its own set of incentives that do not always directly align with your business or your clients. Yes, there’s the line of reasoning that if you do well, you’ll spend more, and Google will make more as a result. But if Google can find a way to get more from advertisers as a whole, without losing too many people, it’s got every incentive to do that. 

As a case-in-point, let’s look at the loosely interpreted “Exact Match” keywords we all know and tolerate. 

Close Variant Share of Searches Over Time

That chart shows the proportion of searches triggered by an “Exact Match (Close Variant)” keyword, and as you can see, it has steadily increased year-over-year. As another example, see how cost visibility changed following Google’s updates to the search term report this summer.

Cost Visible In Search Term Report Following Late Summer Update

 

As a result of these two changes, advertisers are seeing their keywords show for more searches with less visibility into how that impacts their budgets. 

This article is about the recommendations Google surfaces, but it’s important to consider these in the context of the changing Ads platform. Automation has been the trend of the last few years. Google has sought to consolidate control to its own native automations at the expense of granular visibility for advertisers. And Google’s recommendations exemplify that. They call for broader keywords, more Google control, and often higher budgets.

On its surface, none of those are bad. I can’t stress that part enough. If you’re limited by volume, by all means throw in some broad match terms. If you’re curious about an automated strategy, try it out. And if you’re crushing it with room to spend, definitely increase budgets. 

The problem is that Google suggests these without understanding a few things. They have no insight into your long-term strategy, your client budget, or other relevant limitations. Their recommendations take a shot-gun approach to improving performance, and that isn’t always the best bet. The reality is, you should see these recommendations as inspiration points for your own analyses.

What To Do With Common Google’s Recommendations

A few of the recommendations that can most impact your account performance are keyword suggestions, bid strategies, and budget changes. At a high-level, if you see these come through, be skeptical. It’ll help you make sure you’re implementing the right changes. Below are some of my personal recommendations for dealing with the ones that Google might provide. 

Keyword Recommendations

If Google surfaces a keyword suggestion, do the research yourself. See if it will be relevant to your ads and your specific campaign, and consider if it will negatively impact your overall Expected CTR. Then find the volume, forecast the cost and conversions. If it meets your performance threshold, add it in.

Bidding Recommendations

If you’re looking at a new bid strategy, consider your goals for each campaign. Be sure you plan for a period of tumultuous performance during the learning phase, and talk to your clients about it. A new strategy can be really, really hit-or-miss. And it’s not as easy to undo as pausing a bum keyword. 

Budget Recommendations

Finally, whenever you see a “raise budgets” recommendation, think doubly hard about it. Do not expect an increase in budget to solve all of your limitations -- or to scale performance linearly. More spend can put you in more competitive auctions, which can end up limiting you. If you’ve got the room, and you’re confident in performance, then do it. But make sure you’ll be sending money to the right places, not just to high-spend, budget-eating keywords.

Summary 

Now to answer the burning question: cash grab or good advice? 

I’d say it’s advice from someone with skin in the game. Do not look at these suggestions as a helpful bit of wisdom from a friend. It might be best for you, and your long-term performance, to adopt a trust-but-verify approach when considering any Google-surfaced recommendations. Can they improve performance? Of course, but it’s up to you to determine if they’ll do that in your particular account.

Take a fine-toothed comb through what Google suggests, and make the decision for yourself. And never, please, never hit the “Apply All” button.

John Smith

John Smith

John is a Paid Media Manager at Uproer, where he works to build paid search strategies for clients in the e-commerce and SaaS spaces. He's drawn to the ideas, channels, tactics, and emerging trends that tackle big issues in marketing. And he approaches SEM with a focus on data privacy, incrementality, and social impact. When he's not knee-deep in a spreadsheet, John volunteers with local climate organizations and helps spread their message through search.

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