The Growing Problem of Ad Self-Serving on Google
Last week I noticed a strange ad running on Google for one of my clients. It was an ad that was nowhere to be found in my account. What I saw was an ad with a familiar looking headline followed by a pipe character (“|”), then my client’s destination URL in lowercase. The display URL for this ad was www.clientsite.com.
I've done quite a bit of testing for this particular client and found that ads appear to perform marginally better if the display URL is Clientsite.com. As a result, nowhere in our account was there an ad that included "www" in the display URL. Naturally, I assumed there was another account running concurrently with ours and crowding out our ad copy.
I was wrong.
When I investigated, I found out that it's indeed my ad copy. Google had opted the account into a beta that would make modifications to the ad copy — e.g., add www to the display URL, make it lowercase and add it to the headline delimited by the pipe character. When I asked Google about this, the response I received was: “experimental tests have shown this to increase clickthrough rates.”
But my client’s goal isn't to increase the clickthrough rate, it's to increase profits. Just because a feature increases clickthroughs doesn't mean it's beneficial to an advertiser’s bottom line. There are plenty of features of Google’s AdWords platform that increase clickthroughs but actually harm conversion rates. Dynamic keyword insertion can do this, as can position preferences that are too high.
However, I have direct control over these two features. I can choose to use them if it's in the client’s best interest and I can report on the performance to determine whether it's beneficial. For the ad copy I saw, there was no opt-out and no reporting. Marketers can't control and report on this beta feature. This serves no one’s interest but Google’s.
Any time an ad behaves in unexpected ways or is modified, I need to know what impact the changes are having on my campaign. Maybe placing the display URL in the headline does increase conversion enough to offset any higher costs a boost in clickthroughs would cause. Maybe it doesn’t. I have no idea because there aren't reports I can pull to determine how useful this change has been to my client.
I simply don't optimize my accounts on clickthrough rates; I optimize them on conversion metrics. It's upsetting to learn that Google was functionally optimizing my account for higher clickthrough rates without my knowledge, regardless of whether it improved my conversion metrics.
I've written about Google’s lack of transparency in its AdWords system before. This includes its obfuscated search partner network and its woefully incomplete search query reporting. This beta went a step beyond merely obfuscating data; it made material changes to the text of ads without the advertiser or agency's knowledge or consent.
A troubling pattern is developing whereby Google expects its advertisers to simply accept it when it says, "Trust us that this is for your benefit, we’re Google." It seems to me that failure to provide complete visibility into advertisers’ campaigns isn't doing the best job of “organizing the world's information and making it universally accessible and useful.”