4 Terrible Things Nobody Tells You About Google Ads (But You Need to Know)

by | Jun 17, 2024 | Marketing, Promotion

I’m not even going to bother writing an intro to this article. Let’s just get into the terrible truth about Google Ads. This is why you’re probably spending multiple times more than you should be to acquire customers.

1. Many—or possibly most—of the clicks you’re paying for are kids accidentally clicking Google Ads in games

Google definitely doesn’t want people knowing about this one because mobile ads account for a majority of Google’s overall revenue.

Anyone who’s played a mobile game with ads knows they make it intentionally difficult to avoid clicking on the ads. Obviously, they want the revenue from those clicks, so accidental clicks in mobile games are super common.

Also, it’s common for parents to hand their phone to a child who’s likely to click those ads.

Google doesn’t want to broadcast this information, obviously, but you can find it if you know where to look. Go to Campaigns > Insights and reports > When and where ads showed > Where ads showed. You’ll see a report of the sites or apps where your ads were displayed.

I’m betting it won’t be pretty. Most likely, it’ll look something like this:

Google Ads placements

Those are the top sites where ads were displayed for an account I recently started working with. I’m guessing those clicks aren’t the parents (the ones we’re actually targeting). Instead, it’s their kids playing games on the parents’ computer.

How to fix it: Exclude placements for the game sites that show up most frequently in your results. Consider adding “G-rated content” and “Content suitable for families” exclusions. Create topic exclusions related to games and children’s content. In mobile app placements, exclude categories like “Games” and “Kids & Family.” Under Audiences, use demographic targeting to exclude age groups under 18. Lower the bids for mobile and tablet placement to minimize junk traffic.

2. Your Google Ads probably aren’t limited to a specific location the way you think they are

When you create a new campaign, you see a very simple location targeting option that looks like this:

Google Ads geographic targeting

If you have a region-specific business, you can choose “Enter another location” and narrow it down even further:

Google Ads geographic targeting

However, Google pulls a nasty trick to try to get you to spend more money.

Hidden under “Location options” (where most people click) is a super-important setting that drastically changes how your geographical targeting works:

By default, they include not just everyone in the region, but anyone who has shown interest in that region.

So when you’re trying to serve ads to, say, homeowners in Texas (the region you serve), you’re also getting:

  • Dallas Cowboys fans
  • SXSW attendees who came for a week two years ago
  • Grill masters looking up Texas BBQ techniques.
  • Fans of a popular influencer who lives in Texas
  • etc.

Why do they do this? Because it maximizes their potential profit by increasing the potential audience for your ads. It drives less-relevant traffic to your site at your own expense.

Here’s a real-world example:

I was targeting the United States and forgot (just for one day!) to switch from “Presence or interest” to “Presence.”

Even though it looked like I was targeting the U.S., here’s what my actual stats looked like:

(And I had to create a custom report in Google Ads to see that because they intentionally make it difficult to find that information.)

How to fix it: make sure to always open the hidden location options and select “Presence” instead of “Presence or interest” (unless there’s a specific reason you want to target both).

3. Google is probably showing your ads for irrelevant search phrases

Unless you change it when setting up a search campaign, Google automatically defaults to “broad match” keywords.

So, instead of just showing your ads based on the keywords you give it, it’s going to “helpfully” expand that list to anything it thinks might be related—whether it actually is or not.

For example, if you sell baseball caps, and you want to target people specifically searching for baseball caps, the broad match setting is also going to put you in front of people looking for:

  • cowboy hats
  • top hats
  • beanies
  • fedoras
  • hard hats
  • sombreros
  • witch hats
  • etc.

None of those are really your target customers, and those clicks you get from the broad match keywords aren’t likely to get you any sales.

From Google’s perspective, they want to spread your ad as widely as possible so that when nobody’s bidding for “marketing content automation mexico,” they can at least throw my ad in there. Maybe someone accidentally clicks on it and they make an additional 22 cents or whatever.

This can happen even when broad matching is turned off

In fact, they love this feature so much that even when you have it turned off there’s a certain amount of fuzzy logic they use to match against your keywords.

Here’s a real world example of this: I was running my own ads targeting searches for “marketing agencies in Arizona” and variations of that phrase. I turned broad matching off. Well, I just checked, and here are the top search phrases by number of clicks:

  • “marketing content automation mexico”
  • “ecommerce business management software bahamas”
  • “intelligent marketing automation mexico”
  • “marketing automation tool mexico”
  • “social media marketing training in mexico”
  • “crm software in mexico”
  • “digital commerce experiences analytics platform nassau”

None of those clicks were potential customers for me and didn’t fit the keywords I entered, but I got to pay for all those ads anyway.

Thanks, Google.

There is a scenario where it sometimes makes sense to start with broad match keywords and then use negative keywords to remove the phrases you don’t want to target, but this kind of calibration requires dedicated time and attention.

How to fix it: Turn broad match keywords to “off” unless you’re certain it’s the right fit for your business (which it probably isn’t).

4. Most Google Ads “recommendations” are intended to make more money for them, not for you

When you log into Google Ads, it’ll be full of urgent-sounding recommendations with a handy “Apply” button that will make sweeping changes to your account in a single click.

You might be thinking, “Wow, so nice of them to look out for me! And so convenient!”

Unaware business owners often hop into Google Ads and reflexively apply all these recommendations, destroying their ad campaigns while thinking they’re optimizing them.

You’ll find that almost all of their recommendations are about expanding your potential target audience as widely as possible or just make them more money. Add more keywords, switch to broad matching, add more regions, let them manage your bids, etc.

And you’ll have account managers calling you all the time, offering “important” advice to improve your campaign performance. Surprise! It’s all going to come back to letting Google make more money off you.

(And if you’re working with a “Google-certified” digital marketing consultant or agency, you should be aware that this is exactly the stuff they’ve been trained on as the “right” way to do Google ads.)

How to fix it: Never hit the “Apply” button without carefully reading exactly what actions will be taking and making sure you fully agree with them. If you don’t know, dismiss the recommendation. And don’t hesitate to block calls from Google. You won’t miss anything important.

And those aren’t even the worst of it

The worst part about Google Ads is that nobody’s really incentivized to tell you the truth.

As you saw above, Google intentionally hides this bad news in their interface so you have to go digging to find out what’s really happening.

If you’re working with a digital agency, there’s not much reason for them to fix this stuff because all those junk impressions and clicks make it look like their campaigns are actually successful. And if the question arises about why those clicks aren’t turning into leads, they can easily blame it on your website or your sales team or your product.

Unfortunately, the relationship dynamics of digital marketing just don’t incentivize agencies to work especially hard because their clients don’t know the difference anyway. Why bend over backwards when you can phone it in and get paid the same?

And I know this all sounds overly cynical, but the truth is that I’ve taken over Google Ads campaigns from some large and well-respected agencies, and all of them had at least some of the major issues I described above. I was once able to reduce the customer acquisition cost to 1/40th of what it was before just by fixing those issues.

The best way to avoid this situation is to have a trusted marketing consultant or fractional CMO specifically hunt this stuff down for you, someone who’s rabidly focused on optimizing—not maximizing—your ad spend. In particular, this is the kind of thing a fractional CMO is good for because they’re more of an insider than an outsider, so your budget is also their budget to protect.

It’s certainly doable if you can find someone who really knows what they’re doing to be on your side, and if you can hold them accountable to run a genuinely optimized campaign.

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