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Kirk Williams

Listen: Managing Shopping Ads in an Automated World - BrightonSEO Search Show Talk

Listen: Managing Shopping Ads in an Automated World - BrightonSEO Search Show Talk

10/25/19 UPDATE: Hello Facebook Agency Visitor Person!  We’re delighted to have you visit this awesome post. About a year ago, ZATO stopped offering Facebook Ads solutions so we could focus solely on what we do best: Google Ads. Because of this, we’re always interested in partnerships with great Social Advertising agencies (like yourself, wink wink!) and we offer referral fees for signed clients!  Anyway, back to it, and happy reading…

Post Summary

In September 2019, I had the privilege of speaking on Shopping Ads at the world renown, massive search conference in Brighton, UK: BrightonSEO. While this was an honor in itself, I secretly enjoyed my time at the Search Advertising Show the day before even more!

The Search Advertising Show is a precursor event (to the main BrightonSEO show) put on by Kelvin Newman and the BrightonSEO crew and was really a fabulous environment. Great attendees, speakers and location. I hope to be back someday!At the Search Ad Show I spoke on Google Shopping (shocker there huh 😉) and you can hear the recording here, plus follow along with the slides below if you like. It's as good as being there!

Listen to PPCKirk on Shopping Ads:

View PPCKirk's Shopping Ads Slides:

Did you know: ZATO can manage just Shopping Ads for your Brand or company alongside your in-house/agency Paid Search team.  Learn more about this offering here: Google Shopping Agency.

Audio Transcript

This talk was recorded at the Search Advertising Show, one of the fringe conferences that takes place the day before Brighton SEO. The conference covered paid search, pay-per-click, and all of the related advertising formats out there.

So our next speaker, Kirk, is someone that I feel like I've known on Twitter for the best part of the decade, but never actually met in person till last night, which was kind of weird, like when you meet your Twitter friends in real life.

And all our conversations so far have revolved around food.

I'm discovering that he'd never had a Magnum, had no idea what a Magnum ice cream was, which we rectified by marching him to Sainsbury's last night, buying a multipack of Magnum flavors and forcing him to eat two on the way back to the hotel.

So Kirk lives in Billings, Montana, runs his own micro agency called ZATO Marketing. And is it four years in a row you've been on the PPC hero's Most Influential PPCers List? So he knows what he's on about. And when it comes to talking about shopping campaigns, he's probably the GoTo person out there.

So we're really lucky to have him here with us today talking about everything you need to know for shopping.

And so yeah, feel free to hit him up and talk to him about food things afterwards. We had a whole conversation about biscuits. I need to stand him in the biscuit aisle and explain like what a cookie is versus a biscuit and how we have Maryland cookies and the big bakery cookies and why they're different.

But that's for after this when we're a few drinks in. So, please welcome Kirk.

Thank you so much. It is great to be here. I've been in the UK a few times, never been to Brighton, so I'm very, very excited to be here.

Make sure I get the right buttons.

So ironically, literally the very first slide I have is about the biscuit cookie thing.

One of my favorite things of whenever I talk to my friends here from the British Isles, I guess, is the words that we share, but we have different meanings. This is another one that cracks me up. I think I was talking to Richard Fergie a few years back and he said, well, I'm going on holiday.

And I was like, which one? I don't think Christmas is coming.

He said "No, no, you guys call it vacation."

"Oh, okay. Well that works."

This one though, this got me into trouble.

So Dublin last month, I was complimenting on Twitter someone's suspenders publicly and I was quickly told with lots of people making fun of me that apparently these are not called suspenders here.

Suspenders are very, very different.

These are braces.

So there you are, but shopping ads.

So shopping is one of those things as we think through ... You've heard a lot today on automation, a lot on machine learning. That's awesome. Shopping has actually had a lot to do with automation machine learning for quite a while, right?

So we've never really had key words. We've always relied on Google to take our feed and mash it up in search terms in that.

But, even then, shopping is going more and more automated. We're actually going to discuss quite a bit smart shopping at the end of this. But as you, an e-commerce practitioner, as you kind of figure out "Hey, what is my role?"

I think if you lean into these three things you are, you are going to still have a job as the robot overlords takeover.

Strategy, right?

There's always going to be a place for having an idea of "Hey, let's do some data analysis. Let's figure out how that works into the overall marketing strategy" and that's how it works with shopping. So as you become more of a strategic partner rather than as a, as Nils was saying, rather than just a bidding person, that's going to be in your favor. I think feed management is going to be increasingly important and something that humans are going to assist with, even if, and I do believe this, that Google is leaning more and more into different levels of structured markup on your site.

I do think we are moving eventually towards a feedless era, but there will always be, even if we get there, there will always be a place for the humans to troubleshoot things. You're still going to need to be the one to get into Google Merchant Center impact things.

Someone needs to get the email saying "I don't know what to do. Fix this" because the CMO's really angry. Right? And then of course campaign set-up. Machines do great with automation. They've got to be pointed in the right direction. And so I think with shopping, setting up your campaigns well is really, really essential.

Okay. So we're going to discuss a couple of these today. The first one kind of around the feed management side, honestly I just wanted to give some ideas of how we get into and your merchant center, especially with like feed rules and that and make different shopping adjustments. And so I'm going to give three scenarios that are fairly common and hopefully these will give you some ideas for how you can make adjustments in your feed as well. Really quickly and randomly, how many people are actually managing shopping ads at this time out of curiosity?

Wow, fantastic. A good half the room/ if you're not and you're going to the event tomorrow, I'm actually speaking on Google shopping, but it's a much higher level like, hey, this is enough to help you understand how this works so that you know as you're in the boardroom or whatever talking, you know. So that might be a good one to go to. But if you do manage shopping ads, then here's some things that we'll run into.

So this is your CMO, looks strikingly like Vince Vaughn in a stock photo shoot because it is Vince Vaughn in a stock photo shoot. They actually did this as a marketing campaign. These are free stock photos you can get online. It was for a movie Unfinished Business. So your CMO says "Hey, I'd like you to test our product titles."All right, well cool. You're a great marketer. So you hop into search terms report, maybe keyword planner, get some ideas for title sets you can run. And then you hop into merchant center, apply those with a feed rule. You pull out the product type that you want to test, segment those, push that up for a feed rule.

And now you've done a title test. Well, right, but then what? How do you know which one is one? Because as one of my favorite actors, UK or US, as Hugh Laurie says "Who knows?" Right? Because a lot of times with shopping ad titles, you can't test them simultaneously. So you can have a lot of things throwing those off, so it can be a little bit difficult.Here's some of the ways that we'll test things. So as I was telling a friend in Dublin, yeah I really liked Jeeves and Wooster and he said "You have to watch Blackadder." I was like "Blackadder?"

Okay. So I downloaded them, watched them on my flight back and I was a fan. Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Laurie, and Stephen Fryer are three of my favorite actors. So one of the ways that you can test your shopping titles is by obviously digging into those search terms reports. So if you're targeting specific search terms in your title, then yeah, get an idea of whether or not those search terms actually increase, especially key KPIs.

However, you can also check out very specifically ... What we like to focus on as we're trying to get an idea of, okay, from this period to that as we tested the titles on this product or maybe this brand, what changed?Well, you'll be able to see things like click share. Of all the clicks you are eligible to receive did you see that increase? Or click through rate, okay. So as people are engaging more with this product ... As they're seeing it, they're clicking. Maybe they're clicking more through more because your title is more engaging or you can see impression share grow as well.A good friend of mine, Gil Hong, he actually does some work for us as well, he likes to do this formula that allows him to see, "Hey, did our total eligible impressions actually change from the time we started a test or not?" So these are some ways that you can tell. Again, since you're not testing them at the same time, though, a lot can go wrong. And so one note is like, hey, if you are running a title test with shopping, you really do have to make sure that as much as possible you're eliminating a lot of the other variables because let's say you really jack up bids on those products, then you just kind of totally blew your test because that could be wild as things change as well.Yeah, you increase your bids.

Of course you're getting more clicks or higher click through rate. So just be aware of that as well. Okay, so another common scenario for shopping that you can fix with Google Merchant Center is, so your CEO. So the CMO's boss emails. Have you ever gotten one of these emails? Right? Middle of the night. Whenever you get an email that's been forwarded through two or three people in a company and the first one was from the CEO, never a good thing, right? That's never a happy thing. And so maybe they're saying something like "Hey, we don't like that you include the word sheep. We think that it devalues our brand. We want you to remove that from all of the ads at once." Well how do you do that? Right? Well you could go to your feed provider, someone like Feedonomics, we like them.

Hey, they'll go in and do that. You can talk to your dev team, right? And in 18 to 24 months later, they'll get it done, right? Or you can go into Google Merchant Center. And so if you're used to Merchant Center again .. So feed rules, they're within the feed where you can access feed rules and change up different things. There's actually this little section down below that's called Modifications. It's kind of like feed rules 2.0 and you actually even get more expansions on what you can do. And one of those is a find and replace. So you can say "Hey, find all of the word sheep within title and descriptions and eliminate it. Just replace it with null or replace it with premium or whatever." And you can do that.

Okay. So then the third common scenario, hopefully these are giving you some ideas for a different ways that you can adjust things. Back to good old Vince.

So he really likes what you're doing. You did a great job in responding to the CEO's email. Now we'd like our best products and we want to make sure those are top, those our first. Go do your thing shopping person. Okay, well, what do you do? Cause you're thinking "Well okay, but there's all this stuff that impacts that, right? There's bids and maybe we don't have our campaigns segmented out that way and I don't know, it's Google, Google's algorithm. What do we do with that?" Right? Here's what you do. So you actually have the ability to basically do all of this and really quickly.

So if you have access to Google Analytics, you'll go in and pull your product performance by skew and go ahead and then sort by your revenue and quantity. I like doing both of those by the way, so you don't just get just revenue, which maybe you had an accidental couple of really high selling products and there are high revenue products, but sort by product revenue quantity and then export that to a Google sheets.

And then what you're going to do is you're going to take those products, those skews, which hopefully they match up to the item ID. If not, then you do have to get a little uglier and how you're doing it, but hopefully the match up to the item ID. And then you're going to add in a custom label. So that's all you're going to do. Then you hop into Merchant Center and here's where supplemental feeds come in. So feed rules are ways to adjust things in Merchant Center where there's kind of a limited set of variables of things that you're trying to do to the products, right? There's only so many things you can do, especially since you can only apply one feed rule per field, which really stinks.

Supplemental fields, though, is where you can, or supplemental feeds, is where you can go in and have quite a number of products that you want to change in various ways and that's going to then be matched up by Google within Merchant Center to those products.

So the finalized product has taken all these things into account. And so what we'd do here is we'd upload this Google sheet, including our top product skews with our new custom label that we made. We upload that as a supplemental feed into Merchant Center and then we take maybe our normal campaign structure. If you're like that one guy who, mentioned earlier, if you have like 400,000 campaigns in there, okay fine. You can add an ad group to each one called top products and then you're going to target this custom label.

Or you can try a smart shopping just focused on the top products, a new campaign, whatever you want to do. But you have successfully all by yourself without having to ask anyone else for help, you've successfully identified your top products. You've pulled them out into the feed and now you are targeting them specifically with higher bids.

And then pretty much you get this amazing raise, right? And then your company goes on to double its revenue and everything's awesome except no one really will care cause you're just the shopping ads person. And that's okay. We know and we care. So, all right, so Google Merchant Center, there's a lot you can do. There's a lot you can do even by your very own lonesome, without having to get the dev team involved. I do like developers. I really do. They're very smart. They just don't prioritize shopping changes at all. So, good feed providers do though. So, as we think through campaign structure, I wanted to ... I actually had this whole segment on bidding and I got rid of it because I didn't have time and I really wanted to make sure I hit the smart shopping thing.

And I'm really glad I did because there's been so much talk about automation today that I think that hopefully this will help add to it, especially because I have some cautions. So smart shopping, again to expand on what's been said already, smart shopping is basically Google's black box where they take whatever you want to target for ROAS or you can say "No, I don't want to target anything." Then they target maximize conversion value and then they'll take that and your budget and then they'll just, you're releasing them into the wild and they're going after every possible channel that's Google-y. All right, so Gmail, YouTube, all of that stuff. Display.

If Google owns it, smart shopping can appear on it. And so we've done just about $1 million in testing just on smart shopping campaigns. So we spend about a million on smart shopping across all of our accounts and we've never taken one account and just switched it fully over to smart shopping.This all been tests that we've been trying to do just to figure it out and see. We have definitely seen it, for the most part, perform well in ROAS and so it does deliver in that. At times it will beat things in revenue as well. It can increase revenue. We've also seen it struggle at times.

One of the most ironic things for me that I've witnessed in smart shopping is it struggles the most with smaller accounts, which obviously in my opinion makes sense because that's the whole point of data, right? The less data you have, the harder it is for the machine. But, the reason I say ironically is because Google still notes that the reason they created smart shopping was for the small advertisers. So, that sounds problematic. So, there are a few things about smart shopping that you should be aware of and then we'll talk about some optimization abilities. A few things that you really need to be aware of.So with smart shopping, I said black box because it is a black box.

Okay there is literally no data that you can get from it. And I don't even mean like the data, the ability to change things. I mean they don't let you see any of this stuff. So I'm like audiences, hey, which audiences? You don't know. Now Google has said that some of this stuff is they release stuff and then they'll give you more information like as you go, right? So apparently smart shopping does take your largest three remarketing audiences automatically. So there you go.

But you know know which ones and how much spend they're doing. You don't know any of that. You don't know what placements. There's a little bit of a hack that I'll share later, but still, you don't really know what placements you're appearing on.Videos, which again, if you're a brand, yeah, that should cause immediate concern, right? Brand safety, search terms. Hey, what search terms are you spending money on? Cause we'd like to target those with search.

Nope, no idea. Can't tell you. Right? That's a fun conversation to have with a CEO who's frustrated about something that's not going right in his smart shopping campaign. By the way, I've had that. And they literally invented a new channel. Okay. So if you've ever seen Cross Network as a channel come through, that's smart shopping. Well how much of your spend is going towards G-mail? I don't know. It's in Cross Network somewhere. So in terms of data, smart shopping sucks. All right. And I mean, I've heard someone literally say "Hey, as long as you get the ROAS, who cares?" But like ROAS has its own issues too.

ROAS is only as good as your attribution model and that's only as good as the ability of that attribution model to be great. And we're still a long way from attribution being really, really great and so ROAS, a lot of times, still because of all the myths, that because of all the misses with devices and all that, attribution and ROAS is still going to struggle and hit it. I mean, go for it and all that, but just be aware that there are still limitations. So you have a specific channel that it's devoted entirely to that and I have some concerns there. You are going to see the basic volatility that you'll see pretty much in all smart bidding and machine learning. I think as others have said, especially as we enter the ages of smart bidding and automation, hopefully we'll see some of that volatility decrease.

Some of that may be just the way it is that there'll be some times where day to day off lows are a little bit lower, highs are a little bit higher and that's just kind of a way it is as the machine adjusts to itself. You definitely see that within smart shopping, especially around holidays. They're trying to figure that out. Sorry. Like our holidays. All right. Not your vacations. Although there seems to be an amazing ability of my Google campaigns to struggle when I'm on vacation. I can't be the only one who's noticed that. We do have audience, so audience things with smart shopping as well. So this goes back to kind of that ROAS point.

So if Google is primarily going after ROAS even if we use DDA in most of our accounts, at least that can, right? So if Google is primarily going after ROAS, what often tends to be the best working ROAS audience in your accounts?The new, cold, "Never seen your brand before" or the remarketed they're on their 20th time and finally they're sick of it and "Sure, I'll buy"? Okay. And so we have done investigation with Google Analytics and run tests and we've seen that the percentage of new users in Google Analytics from our smart shopping decreases dramatically from our regular shopping campaigns. It, it did depend on the account. So it didn't seem like there is a difference. We did witness up to a 60% drop in one account. And so again, to the point of be cautious. I'm not saying don't use it. I do think this is where Google is going.

So in some ways, use it and figure it out and let's figure it out now. But also, I think there needs to be some caution before we just fully embrace it, especially as we consider that. There might be some issues that you have, especially on top of funnel traffic that you won't really witness until down the road.And again, to the point of certain attribution issues, you might struggle with that.

Okay, so not to be just Negative Nelly there about everything, but what can you do to smart shopping? Not much, but you can do a few things, right? So you can change your OS targets. All right, that's fun. Now, to be honest, I've not really noticed a dramatic ... I would say the ROAS targets and smart shopping are more directional than hard rules.

Okay. So, if you change it from 800 to 900 it's not like you're going to magically see your smart shopping campaign jump from 800 to 900% ROAS. We will definitely see traffic increase, especially if we lower that ROAS target, but you can change the ROAS target. You can, you can assist the machine by excluding things.So a smart shopping campaign, you can only have one ad group and that's where everything is lumped in.

What we've found is as you start to segment things out into different brands and product types and now they actually added item IDs in here, which is awesome. You can see, hey there some that for some reason the Google machine just really hasn't given up on and we're spending hundreds and hundreds or thousands of dollars with just little sales. Yeah, we can actually still exclude those in smart shopping.

So that's nice. You can adjust that. Account level filters do work, so account level content exclusions, things like that. Those actually cover smart shopping. As long as the little text says "All campaigns" it does cover smart shopping as well.

So you can do that and then you can, again, I set a hack, so you can exclude placements and apps and videos.So some of that brand safety thing. Just to be clear, what I mean by that is if there's some like horrific video channel out there and all of a sudden your brand's ad is on there and then someone screenshots that. Yeah, that's really great. Brands don't like that.

And so what you can do is you can exclude certain things, but it has to be account level just so you're aware. So you can't just exclude a placement. Even though it says this here, you can't believe what Google's saying here. It says you can use campaign or ad group. You can't. If you do, you'll get an error message literally. So it has to be at the account level, but then that does exclude it from every campaign that runs it, just so you know, FYI.

Oh and here's where we wrote the ... We actually discovered that.

So, we wrote the blog posts on that and there's the link and then finally, as much as I wined about them all bumping, everything into a channel. I do like the idea of pulling it into its own separate channel within Google Analytics.

So as you're looking at things in Google Analytics, I like keeping smart shopping on its own channel cause it ... I get it, what Google is doing. It really is kind of its own thing. It's not really shopping ads anymore. And so we like to pull it into its own channel as well just to make sure that we see those things. And then finally, what do you target with smart shopping? So I think this is the key here.

So what we're doing right now is we are primary, like I said, we are not going into an account and totally changing everything over to smart shopping. A, I don't want to lose all of that data.I do think that's a crucial point. And so like if you, again, to reiterate, if you went in and changed everything to smart shopping for one year, you would have a year with absolutely no data that you spent a lot of money for. And I think that's problematic. Google changed that.

However, what we do like doing is we've started to look at smart shopping, like my favorite afternoon snack, all right, coffee with some sort of sweet pastry, a biscuit, if you will. The coffee is like your core. The coffee is like your legacy. That's like your core. It's always there. It holds the universe together. It's the force, right? If you've not seen star Wars, you won't get that.

So that's going to be your ... Maybe there's kind of a complicated bidding by query structure, whatever you're doing. But that's still is the core of what we're doing.And then we've started to use smart shopping as a means to kind of get the message out far and wide, especially on products where there is an easy buy-in or like peacock products, right? They get out there and they're really good at drawing attention to themselves, bringing people to the site and then selling them on other things as well.

So we've started to use smart shopping for that. Basically get this news far and wide across Gmail and YouTube and everything and then bring them in and still have the core legacy campaigns as well that we're running. So hopefully that helps on the shopping side. This is my amazing family and the real superhero of this presentation is that woman, cause I know it's hard. You probably lose count, but there are actually five kids there and she's at home alone with them. So thank you honey. Thank you.

This was originally recorded at a Brighton SEO conference. If you want to listen to more episodes or find out about the conference itself, you can do at

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Kirk Williams
Owner & Chief Pondering Officer

Kirk is the owner of ZATO, his Paid Search & Social PPC micro-agency of experts, and has been working in Digital Marketing since 2009. His personal motto (perhaps unhealthily so), is "let's overthink this some more."  He even wrote a book recently on philosophical PPC musings that you can check out here: Ponderings of a PPC Professional.

He has been named one of the Top 25 Most Influential PPCers in the world by PPC Hero 6 years in a row (2016-2021), has written articles for many industry publications (including Shopify, Moz, PPC Hero, Search Engine Land, and Microsoft), and is a frequent guest on digital marketing podcasts and webinars.

Kirk currently resides in Billings, MT with his wife, six children, books, Trek Bikes, Taylor guitar, and little sleep.

Kirk is an avid "discusser of marketing things" on Twitter, as well as an avid conference speaker, having traveled around the world to talk about Paid Search (especially Shopping Ads).  Kirk has booked speaking engagements in London, Dublin, Sydney, Milan, NYC, Dallas, OKC, Milwaukee, and more and has been recognized through reviews as one of the Top 10 conference presentations on more than one occasion.

You can connect with Kirk on Twitter, and Linkedin, or follow his marketing song parodies on TikTok.

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