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Shall we believe in SMART bidding?

Updated: Jul 8, 2023

Shall we believe in SMART bidding?

I am sure I am not the only one here who has had several clients rolling their eyes when I have proposed SMART bidding - here we go, another way Google is trying to get our money -

Although there are more and more PPCers implementing these strategies (some of them forced by Google reps stalking them), there is always that question while we wait to see if our targeted CPA/ROAS is reached - Is this really SMART?

We have asked our PPC community their thoughts; please, welcome to the stage:

Boris Beceric - PPC Specialist

Sofia Akritidou - PPC Specialist

Thuha Wright - PPC Specialist

Dez Calton - Co-founder and Managing Director of Optimyzd

Chris Raines - MD of bullhornmedia

Veronika Höller - Senior SEO Manager in the DMCoE

Ashton Clarke - Paid Media Team Lead at Knucklepuck

Gabriele Benedetti - Digital Marketing Consultant

Is SMART bidding just a way for Google to make more money?

Boris Beceric - It depends. Surely it sometimes feels like it. It can be very opaque sometimes, especially as we don't know everything that goes into determining the price for a click in the auction. The general feeling in the PPC community is (I think) that by pushing advertisers to smart bidding, Google knows it is making more money. The three top tips for implementing a SMART bidding strategy.

Sofia Akritidou - I wouldn't say that SMART bidding is a way for Google to make more money. It might be for some PPC marketers who are only starting in the field and choose to follow every recommendation Google offers. If you have worked with Google Ads and understand the initial manual processes, chances are you can make SMART bidding as profitable for you as it is for Google.

Thuha Wright - If you had asked me 5 years ago, I would have said "Yes!" but in the last 4 years, the increasing amount of data meant that SMART bidding is getting smarter, and the ability to plug in more first-party data means advertisers can help the machine learn.

Dez Calton - Maybe, certainly, a way to have more control.

Chris Raines - I think Smart bidding is a way for Google to help smaller and less sophisticated advertisers reach their goals more reliably. Many of these advertisers don't have the tools or knowledge to analyse their accounts deeply and make data-driven decisions. It's also a way for Google to leverage the massive amount of data they have to predict who the most likely individuals are - for each campaign - to produce the desired result. Even for sophisticated advertisers - Google still knows 100x more about the audience than we do. I have campaigns that were only unlocked fully when we went to Max Conversions bidding. This is a new reality, and Google will not go back. So regardless of whether or not it's a ploy for Google to make more money - we need to adapt and figure out how to make it work for us (at least, we need to as long as people are using Google to search for information and solve problems).

Veronika Höller - No, Smart Bidding can really help improve your account management. However, many make the mistake of not preparing their accounts optimally. Some tips are:

  • Record all relevant / value-adding actions as a conversion

  • Ensure tracking is working correctly (check regularly)

  • Optimize consent banner for opt-ins (first-page view counts)

  • "Protect" cookies from IPT

  • Consider offline conversions

Ashton Clarke - If it's not used carefully and intentionally, yes.

Gabriele Benedetti - No :)

The three top tips for implementing a SMART bidding strategy

Boris Beceric -

1. You must ensure tracking is set up correctly and Google Ads tag is being used!

2. The more conversion data you have, the better.

3. Smart bidding works best with stable data - if you have highly volatile buying cycles or seasonality, it might not work as well.

Sofia Akritidou -

1. Understand what you want to accomplish with your campaigns. Build your campaigns depending on your primary goals.

2. Provide as much data as possible to help the machine learning algorithms while avoiding any bid adjustments (like device, time, location etc) that were required when using manual bidding.

3. Monitor, test and adjust regularly. The fact that you decided to use SMART bidding doesn't mean you set and forget.

Thuha Wright -

1. Don't confuse it with SMART campaigns which are very black-box solutions.

2. Try to plug in as much data about what is good traffic as possible. Look at your first-party data as well as website data

3. Be realistic with the targets you set. You may not necessarily use your business targets but rather what your Google Ads are working to.

Dez Calton -

1. Set CPA's for you/your client, not Google.

2. Use a portfolio bid strategy to set a max CPC.

3. Set one campaign at a time so you can monitor performance closely.

Chris Raines -

1. Do it gradually and as a campaign experiment if possible. Devote 25-50% of your daily budget to a campaign experiment where you change the bidding strategy. That will help you mitigate any potential damage that might be created by changing the bid strategy

2. If you go to Max Conversion, you must also move to broad-match keywords (as much as possible). We've tried multiple times to switch to Max Conv while keeping tight exact match or phrase match keywords, and it hasn't worked. Google wants the latitude of broad match (sometimes called "broad-animation") to fully unlock automated bidding.

3. Max Conversions is goal-based.. so it's essential that your conversion tracking is air-tight and accurate. And remember that whatever you give google is what it will get more of - so if you're frustrated with low-quality tire kicker leads, you need to alter the signals you give google, which might mean you start manually uploading only marketing-qualified leads. Google will optimize for that quality of conversion if you do that. Conversion signal quality is a big part of smart bidding. Give google the very best data you can.

Veronika Höller -

1. Use portfolio strategies

2. Selectively use maximum & minimum bids for bid strategies

3. Evaluate search term and placement reports.

Ashton Clarke -

1. Make sure you have conversion tracking set up (and it's accurate).

2. Start with a manual bidding strategy to set a benchmark for performance. Once you have a baseline, you can implement automated bidding as a more intentional test.

3. Let it run for 6-8 weeks before determining whether it was a success or not.

Gabriele Benedetti -

1. Ensure your conversion tracking is set up correctly.

2. Work with customer's KPI.

3. Assets (including one party data)

Which are the biggest pitfalls of smart bidding?

Boris Beceric - The biggest pitfall I've seen is not providing min and maximum CPC bids when setting up portfolio strategies. It would help if you always did that - otherwise, you might end up with ridiculously high CPCs on certain clicks.

Sofia Akritidou - One of the biggest pitfalls with SMART bidding is the over-segmentation of the campaigns. There are still lots of advertisers that prefer to have as much control as possible on a granular level, creating, for example, different campaigns based on match types, devices, days or time etc., which leads to a restrained amount of data on a campaign level.

Thuha Wright - Seasonality and economic factors that can affect your conversion rates mean that some human input is needed so that the machine can adapt to changes.

Dez Calton - Without controls, you will see high CPC's. You don't have the controls to modify bids manually based on things like time of day or more/less critical signals such as audiences.

Chris Raines - Doing it without setting up high-quality conversion signals and doing it without using broad-match keywords. About broad match, you have to "unlearn" a lot of the stuff you learned years ago about proper campaign management.

Veronika Höller -

1. Incorrect conversion data

2. Missing data due to consent banners and offline sales not counted as conversions

3. Using the right strategy at the right time.

Ashton Clarke -

1. "Setting and forgetting" – check in on performance like you would with a campaign using manual bidding.

2. Assuming it will work for every business, some accounts simply don't have the search or conversion volume level for smart bidding to work effectively.

3. Need for accurate conversion tracking or optimizing towards the wrong conversion action (ex: optimizing for pageviews instead of form submissions in a bottom-funnel lead gen campaign).

Gabriele Benedetti -

1. Loose keyword control in broad without str.

2. It can be problematic for short-term campaigns and SMB.

How long is the learning phase for SMART bidding?

Boris Beceric - It depends on how much conversion data you have and your conversion lag. Generally, it is around 7 - 10 days but could take longer or shorter, depending on your conversion volume.

Sofia Akritidou - As far as I know, this has decreased. Typically it's around 5 days. However, this depends on the account's history as it might be longer for newer accounts.

Dez Calton - How long is a piece of string? It depends mostly on volume; 7-30 days.

Chris Raines - I always give it 30 days. I have heard that 6-8 weeks is more common for Performance Max.

Veronika Höller - For maximize Conversions Max: 7-14 days; Target ROAS: min. 7 days with enough Conversion data. My advice is always min. 7 days.

Ashton Clarke - 3-5 weeks.

Gabriele Benedetti - Depends on budget, conversions and market.

I have just launched new campaigns, shall I use SMART bidding if there isn't previous data?

Boris Beceric - You can use smart bidding without prior conversion data. The only exception is tROAS, where it is recommended to have at least 15 conversions.

Sofia Akritidou - I tend to start a new campaign on Maximise Clicks. As soon I receive enough traffic and conversions I switch to a smart bidding strategy.

Dez Calton - No

Chris Raines - I do not recommend this. Start with manual, enhanced CPC, or MAYBE Max Clicks. Get your conversion tracking and measurement airtight and correct from the jump. Let it collect data for 2-3 weeks, 4-5 weeks if your conversions are infrequent (less than 4 per week). After that learning period, consider switching over directly or creating a campaign experiment where you devote 50% of the budget to smart bidding.

Veronika Höller - Sure, you can use maximize clicks, for example.

Ashton Clarke - No, I recommend starting with Manual (or Enhanced) CPC bidding.

Gabriele Benedetti - Sometimes is the only way (in eg. Discovery). Max click or max conversions may do the trick.

Is SMART bidding for everyone? When should I consider manual bidding/another solution instead?

Boris Beceric - Small accounts with a budget between 1 - 2k per month and exact match keywords can happily live on manual CPC.

Thuha Wright - For the majority of cases, yes. I generally use smart bidding now but I am always open to whether manual bidding is a better option.

Dez Calton - No. We have found that brand and competitor campaigns run better/more efficiently on manual bidding.

Chris Raines - Not for everyone. There are some accounts where I continually try smart bidding, and it never works. One, in particular, is a commercial janitorial account. The challenge is fielding and screening residential cleaning leads vs commercial leads. When we go to Max Conversions, the system goes into overdrive, and we wind up paying $20/click for residential leads.

Veronika Höller - Go with time; SMART Bidding is not your enemy. There are some clear benefits: Increased data collection and “faster” learning of the algorithm; the set budget is better used by Google.

Ashton Clarke - No, some accounts simply don't have the level of search or conversion volume for smart bidding to work effectively. If you have very niche keywords, a long sales cycle, and a low amount of monthly conversions, Manual or Enhanced CPC bidding may perform better.

Gabriele Benedetti - With extremely low budgets start with manual.

What has been your biggest mistake when implementing SMART bidding?

Boris Beceric - My biggest mistake has been providing the wrong goals for smart bidding. For example, a tROAS was wildly too high so the campaign never gained any traction and didn't scale because it only focused on existing customers.

Sofia Akritidou - My biggest mistake is needing more patience to allow the smart bidding to stabilise. If I see a campaign not performing as well as I want I make changes more often than I should.

Dez Calton - When we first trialled it, it all looked good until we realised a lot of traffic/conversions shifted to times outside the higher priority office hours for our client.

Chris Raines - Doing it without also deploying broad match keywords. With Max Conversions, those 2 go hand in hand.

Veronika Höller - The setup of the SMART Bidding account can only work if all data can be recorded correctly. This means checking the tracking and all signals are used optimally. Ask yourself - Do I have primary and secondary goals? are they correctly implemented? is the correct attribute model activated? Which SMART Bidding strategy is the right one for which campaign?

Ashton Clarke - Not having accurate conversion tracking in place before launching.

Gabriele Benedetti - Using Target CPA without enough budget.

Your best advice on SMART bidding

Boris Beceric - Structure your account for success! It would help if you had enough data in each campaign and the ad groups need to be logically structured with relevant ad copy and great landing pages. Also, optimize your shopping feed. Using smart bidding is no excuse to skip the "boring" fundamentals. Tactics get you nowhere if you don't have the basics first.

Sofia Akritidou - Test everything and decide what works best for each business, as there is no one-size-fits-all with smart bidding.

Thuha Wright - If you are worried about spend running wild, set MAX CPCs, Target CPAs and Target ROAS, which is relevant for whichever automated bidding strategy you use. But be mindful of too much restriction else you won't allow the machine to learn.

Dez Calton - Test it but apply the controls you want with ad schedules and portfolio bid strategy settings.

Chris Raines - It's the future, and google will not return to manual bidding. Indeed manual bidding may go away in 3-4 years. Please don't complain about it. Embrace it and figure out how to make it work for you. And if you can't do that, find another channel/method that gets you results. We can't control what Google does, but we can learn how to harness what they do for our benefit.

Veronika Höller - Smart Bidding is a good boost if: the target group can be separated using the diverse contextual features of Google Ads. All value-driving actions can be reliably and completely recorded as conversion data. Keep in mind that testing will tell you the best strategy and don't forget that campaigns need regular checks and optimisations. Ensure that the goals are not set too high /far in the customer journey: If necessary, break down the purchasing process into sub-steps and track them with soft-conversions.

Ashton Clarke - Give it time before determining whether or not it was a success. Learning periods take a while to get through.

Gabriele Benedetti - Check if conversions are set up correctly.

About our experts:

About you: Boris is a freelancer specializing in Google Ads.


About you: A PPC specialist helping B2C and B2B brands scale their business with paid search and display ads.

About you: PPC Specialist in Travel

Name: Dez Calton

About you: Dez is the co-founder and Managing Director of Optimyzd, which is part of The Maze Group. He is very passionate about paid search/display/video, but with a real focus on looking beyond platform metrics, and focussing on how online campaigns can make a real difference to bottom line ROI for a business.

About you: Chris is husband, dad, and digital advertising nerd. He runs a small agency out of Chattanooga, TN, focusing on Google ads and Facebook ads.

About you: Hi my name is Veronika I´m a passoniate Digital Marketing Manager since over 14 years.

Name: Ashton Clarke

About you: I am the Paid Media Team Lead at Knucklepuck, with ~5 years of industry experience across all major PPC platforms (but a core focus on Search).

About you: Working with Google ads since 2010

If you want to meet some of these experts and discuss your thoughts about SMART bidding or any other PPC topic, join our PPC Live UK events, run on the last Thursday of every other month at the low price of £16. For our next event on the 2nd of February, we have four brilliant speakers: Maddie Crawford, Azeem Ahmad, Tiffany Shears and Sophie Logan. Get your ticket before it is too late!


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