Episode 38: The devil that is Google Ads Optimisation Score

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What's in this episode?

In this episode you'll hear Mark Williams-Cook and Rob Lewis talking about the ins and outs of the Google Ads Optimisation Score. Does it work in your favour or Google's? What are the common traps and mistakes that businesses fall into when entering into the world of Google Ads?

Podcast Transcription

MC: Welcome to Episode 38 of the Search with Candour Podcast! Recorded on Friday the 29th of November. My name is Mark Williams-Cook and hooray! I'm joined by Rob again.

RL: Hello.

MC: Today we are gonna be talking about optimisation score and the traps in Google Ads. So I think this is gonna be really really helpful if you are a small medium business or you're fairly new to Adwords and if you're really experienced in AdWords, I think this episode might be quite cathartic for you.

So earlier in the year, I was invited by a very nice chap, called Joe Glover to speak at one of his events. So Joe runs an event called The Marketing Meetup and The Marketing Meetup runs all over the UK now and actually, I think I saw he just recently has launched in New York as well. It's a really friendly meetup, it follows the same kind of formula as a lot of SEO, PPC meetups in that he gets speakers but he gets them to talk about all aspects of marketing and Joe asked me, I think it's like the beginning of this year, to come and do a talk to his audience about Google Ads but specifically for small businesses, people on smaller budgets, that kind of thing and what would be practical and helpful for them.

I thought; oh wow firstly, it's lucky it's not an advanced thing because I won't have to bug Rob and then I sat down and thought ‘what things would actually really help someone on a smaller budget or just beginning with Google Ads’ and where I actually got to with this and it went down really well was basically avoiding the traps that Google Ads lays for you when you set up the accounts and this is really what we're going to be talking about this episode. I mean at that time I spoke about - so if you set up a new Google account, now the process is a little bit sort of insidious in that you go through this, they've repackaged it a few times because used to have like AdWords Express and now you've got like these smart setups but what they're trying to do is get you to opt in and turn on or leave on I should say as a lot of them by default on certain options.

So the things I mentioned were things to watch out for like, when you're being told to put keywords in - as we all know that the default match type is broad, which means you can put in what you think of some fairly targeted or niche keywords and actually by default you'll be bidding on all kinds of things and that falls into this Google approach of, broad to narrow and they sell this on the basis that, hey we're doing you a favour here because you might miss some opportunities if you choose some really specific keywords, you might miss out all these other things people are searching for and this broad to narrow approach is you push towards in everything, every stage of this setup so there's things like, you will be by default opted in to the Search Partner Network and like Search Partner Network, Rob that's not something generally when you're setting up accounts, new accounts I guess that you do normally immediately?

RL: No it really depends on the sector, but typically I want to make sure that a new account has the highest return on investment. So typically I won't automatically lock them in, I'll always opt out.

MC: And we've spoken before about stuff like the location targeting, the default option for that is or it was, always the people in that location or interested in that location and you had to go into advanced settings, you know I wouldn't really cast that as an advanced setting to make it just people in that region and I think we touched on as well, how they've changed again now actually, so it's just really people that are interested, isn't it? You have to actually exclude countries manually.

RL: Yeah.

MC: Then of course there's this whole very debatable, in value story about all the different automated bidding strategies. So actually it's quite hard to set up an account now with manual bidding you know, if you're new to Google Ads and you try and select manual biddings, you get all these warnings saying, warning your account performance may be lower with manual bidding.

RL: One of the things that always makes me laugh now is when you set up a campaign and it automatically opts you into the Display Network for a search campaign and if you try to opt out, you get a warning message that says ‘are you sure you don't want to reach millions more people’, of course to a layman they'd be like, well of course I do, I want to reach those people, so they opt in.

MC: I noticed it does the same when you try and opt out for the Search Partners, I think the message says something along the lines of, it comes up with the exclamation mark to keep you on your toes, then it says something like ‘most advertisers opt in to the Search Partners Network’ and it's just like well of course they do because you've ticked it by default; it doesn't say on average people make more money or you know any kind of performance criteria it just says more people will do this and actually when you're dealing with bidding environments, competitive bidding environments, that are essentially zero-sum games, it doesn't actually pay to do what everyone else is doing. a lot of the times the most effective strategy is actually to do things slightly differently, isn't it?

RL: Absolutely.

MC: And so what we actually want to talk about is, drumroll…. optimisation score! So optimisation score wasn't actually around for the longest time. The longest time when I managed, it was Google AdWords account we didn't have optimisation score but it's something that has come in now and I've noticed it's creeping more and more to the forefront of the Google ads platform and I've seen lots of people, I know there's lots of frustration in the Google Ads manager agency community about this optimisation score. So do you want to take us through it, Rob? Start with what is optimisation score? Where do you see it? and what is it? And what does it do?

RL: Sure okay. Well optimisation score really has been around since last year, since around 2018 when Google started pushing the recommendations tab and I'm sure most advertisers that work in Google Ads have seen the recommendations tab by now. It is essentially what it suggests it's a tab that highlights recommendations that Google is suggesting that you apply to your accounts, along with various issues or fixes it thinks it has found on your account. Inside the recommendations tab Google will include this optimisation score, which is a percentage figure, obviously between zero and 100 percent and the way it works the more Google recommendations or fixes that you apply from the recommendations tab, the higher the optimisation score will increase.

So I noticed the other month that Google's quietly been rolling out optimisation score as a default metric in some Google ads accounts, so for some advertisers they will log in to their Google ads account and the first thing they will see in there, next to their clicks and impressions, is a new tab, a new column that says optimisation score; which would obviously be anywhere between nought percent and one hundred percent.

MC: So that's when you say default metric, you mean that's actually just on the default table view of Google Ads?

RL: Yes, I mean I had lots of custom built columns that I use for every advertise that I preset, that are saved for each account and I found that they snuck their way into my saved.

MC: Oh really? The custom ones as well?

RL: Yes absolutely!

MC: I didn’t know that.

RL: Yeah, so people were probably going to become a lot more aware of optimisation of score because of that and before optimisation score was a thing, Google account managers and agency liaison staff at Google would have a similar process, I guess to the recommendations tab, where they would analyze an account and they would work with you and speak with you and highlight things that they thought were missing from the account or new initiatives that they've been working on at Google, that they'd released, that you weren't trialling, they would call you up every month or so or email regularly to say, hey notice you've not tried this out yet.

So in my opinion the recommendations tab and optimisation score is I guess, it's a stage up from that, it takes a lot of the pressure off Google staff to try and push you to use these new initiatives.

MC: So before would you say the account managers at Google were more manually looking at the account and then going through?

RL: There was an element of that but they also had a Google sheet system that would scour the account and highlight things in red that were missing or and they would give you an agency score as well and tell you how you compare to other agencies in terms of usage. and I'm sure they probably had a very similar thing as well for advertisers that didn't work with an agency but had an in-house team working on the pay-per-click account. But going back to optimisation score, everyone loves or hates a vanity metric and in my opinion optimisation score is a vanity metric, so people logging into their accounts and they see a low optimisation score, many advertisers will want that score to say a hundred percent because they see it I guess as a reflection of their optimisation abilities.

MC: Well, it is called optimisation score.

RL: Exactly. So with a simple click of a button or two, that percentage can increase. But the main question is what is optimisation score? Just to be annoying, I'm going to tell you what it is not. It is not quality score, so it's not a metric that influences your ad rank in any way shape or form, it's just a metric whose primary purpose is to highlight campaign opportunities, potential account repairs or highlight missing elements of a campaign that may or may not help to improve your performance.

So I guess the easiest way to get a handle on how optimisation score works is to just navigate to the recommendations tab and have a look at the things. First of all, have a look at your optimisation score and see what recommendations Google is suggesting you apply to increase it. If you hover your mouse over the optimisation score metric, a little message appears from Google explaining what it is and I'm just going to read it out here. It says, ‘your optimisation score is an estimate of how well your account is set to perform. Apply the recommendations below to help your campaigns perform better and raise your optimisation score.’ So by looking through the various recommendations that Google provides, you will see that it applies a score uplift if you apply the respective recommendation.

MC: So it's literally just based on when you click on those things and they're done? It's not based on any type of feedback of performance?

RL: No, no. So in theory, if you were to apply every recommendation in the recommendations tab, your optimisation score could increase of 100%, although it can actually get higher than 100% depending on what you've applied beforehand. But interestingly if you dismiss a recommendation, that will also increase your optimisation score because that recommendation no longer exists, so if your optimisation score was 80% and Google said, if you double your budget you'll get an optimisation score uplift of 20%, if you decide not to apply that and you just dismiss it, your optimisation score would still go up by 20%.

MC: If only work worked like that.

RL: Exactly, just press no! Just keep pressing no, haha.

MC: Just dismiss those tasks you gave me...

RL: But actually it's funny that you should say that because just as scary and equally, you could just press yes all the time, as I'm sure people have when they've gone into the recommendations tab, say oh I want some of that 100% - yes, yes, yes, apply, apply, apply!

So if you're really bothered about the optimisation score and the figure it's showing you and you don't want it to be lower than 100%, you can literally just press dismiss to everything and the recommendations will disappear and you’ll have a nice shiny 100% optimisation score.

MC: How does this fit in though? Because I've seen a lot of the frustration around optimisation score, be around the Google account managers; so the account managers are the people that will be assigned to work with those running Google Ads accounts, which would be both agencies and clients directly and from what I've heard people complain about is the pressure they've been under, essentially to apply all of the things on the optimisation score.

RL: Yes and as a manager myself, I am often under pressure by clients. I tried to be good today, I tried to start off with the benefits of the recommendations tab but you've swayed me into the dangers of recommendations tab so I'm gonna have to start with the dangers, but I think the most important, the biggest danger to advertisers are those who don't question the recommendations - that's the biggest danger those that just click on apply, because as you say they're under pressure from the advertiser to have this 100% optimisation score, which actually has nothing to do with business performance KPIs or any real actual optimisation.

Interestingly, if you look at the recommendations that provide the biggest uplift, they're always one of two things; budget and bid strategy. So if you want to get the biggest increased optimisation score, Google says increase your spend. Well that's got nothing to do with optimisation - I could spend thousands and thousands and thousands of pounds more per day and not actually get anything out of it, other than wasted spend and lower profits. So there is an argument there that Google wasn't really looking at your best interest for a lot of the score. Now interestingly there are some really positive things that the recommendation tab will also highlight such as missing sitelink extensions, negative keywords that are stopping campaigns from running; now those things provide the lowest optimisation score uplift, but in my opinion they're the things that influence business performance and can help increase conversion, so it's interesting that it puts a lot of its influence to optimisation score on spend. I guess the cynics among us would say that optimisation score is there for Google to help hit its business targets, but of course there are very positive things about the recommendations tab.

MC: I mean the spending can fall into that broad to narrow narrative of, if you have low spend too much of it will be going to sort of your core keywords and if you do have a strategy that's relying on say broad match, rather than doing the narrow to a broad thing of specifying exact or closed variant matches to force budget into them that you might miss out. so I can see how if you followed their recipe of organising the account it would certainly cost you more, but I can see how they would explain that in terms of, well you need to spend more because otherwise it's just going to go in these keywords and you're missing out on all these and look what you could have won.

RL: Well it's interesting, I'm going to go off on a bit of a tangent now, beg your pardon, but Google recently removed the ability to change your budget delivery settings, most of my campaigns used to be set accelerated but occasionally I'd set them to standard and that was often a recommendation in the tab, it was always remove your budget delivery from accelerated and put it to standard because we know best. Now what I found is that since they've removed accelerated delivery, all of my budgets - when I have a limited budget - they're not being spread evenly throughout the day, they're always being used up really early on in the morning now. So Google should actually be looking at that and spreading it throughout the day but it's not and what I'm finding more and more is the recommendations tab is telling me that I need to increase my budget because I'm missing out on people during the day; just thought that was an interesting thing to think about there.

MC: I'd love to hear if anyone else has that same experience as well because Google Ads training documentation that Google gives was quite specific around how they spent budgets in terms of accelerated and standard delivery and the idea behind standard delivery was they would spread out your budget to last you across the day.

RL: Now I'm finding that I come into work in the morning and sometimes my budgets are spent already!

MC: And you get in really early.

RL: I get in very early, not as early as you though! Now you mentioned earlier about how this impacts the actual pay-per-click manager and I have to say, I think there's another danger here which is that the recommendations tab or optimisation score can cause distrust among clients and their pay-per-click managers or employers and their in-house pay-per-click employees who they've employed to have the pay-per-click expertise and manage the account and I think there's a danger that if top-level decision-makers in business, who don't have much experience with Google Ads, if they log in and they see a low optimisation score, they might question the skills of the person managing the account. You know, those who actually know what they're doing and say, ‘well why is the optimisation score only 60%? Why have you not applied these recommendations? Apparently we're missing out on lots of traffic because you haven't pressed the supply button, you know what am I paying you for? I can do this myself.’

MC: Well I've actually seen now two cases where an agency is reported that their Google account manager has directly contacted the client about the agency not implementing their suggestions that came from optimisation score. So they've phoned up the client and said, ‘Hey, we're trying to get the best for your account and your agency hasn't applied this, this and this and we told them to for Best Performance’ and obviously if that happened to us, I'd be pretty mad.

RL: Yes absolutely and as you say Google will prefer advertisers to go for the broadest advertising approach first.

MC: So I think that's something maybe, to those who are listening, that are running paid search accounts or have someone do it for them, do bare this in mind about optimisation score and take that, certainly with minimally we can say at the moment, with a pinch of salt and listen to the person that's doing it for you.

RL: Because even though it has the word optimisation in it, it doesn't actually really reflect the optimisation of the account or your business objectives or strategy. I mean that's probably the most important thing to consider and actually going back to accelerated delivery being removed as an option, I wonder if the recommendations tab is partially used by Google as a research exercise to see why there is low uptake for certain tools, because when you dismiss a recommendation you can actually give you a reason why, so that's invaluable information for Google and one of the options is ‘I don't think that this will improve performance’ now, if enough people press that Google then has a decision to make, does it just do away with that entirely if no one's using it or does it make people have to use it by removing it as an option, such as the case of the budget delivery option.

MC: I mean I've found it useful sometimes. So there are some useful things for the optimisation score, I think one of the most helpful ones is when you are running big campaigns with lots of ads, and you've missed or there's a new opportunity for things like different types of ad extensions because it can be really difficult sometimes to manage which ad extensions are appropriate and keeping track of which ones are and aren't applied.

RL: Exactly and if you're really knee deep in optimisation and you're carrying out requests from the client or there's been a huge campaign you've been working on, you know it's very easy to sometimes lose sight of a specific, tiny little thing that has been used across the entire account but is missing on one campaign - the recommendations tabs great for highlighting that. And you know, it's good for little quick wins and just tidying up the account and finding potential issues, so yeah absolutely, it's always a good thing to look at in case there is something obvious that's missing from the account.

MC: So do you think we're still quite far away from someone new being able to run a Google Ads campaign through the advice you're getting in the optimisation score recommendations?

RL: I would definitely say so, yes. I mean, you use the example earlier of the Smart Express setup that they used to use. It's interesting because I think the campaign is most likely to fail for a new business, who's just dipping their toes into Google ads for the first time, if they go through that setup process and they're going to potentially spend a thousand, two thousand, three thousand then eventually you can say, well it's not doing anything, so Google ads just doesn't work. In my mind it makes sense to go and slowly see results and then expand, so I'm curious as to why Google has taken this approach personally.

MC: I mean I've had discussions with a few people about this and I personally think it, it does partly have to do with if Google had the default setup say to closed variant for when you put keywords in, I do think not enough people that are new - which I imagine still makes a significant proportion of the Google ads population - understand that much about how those keyword matching options are working and they probably would just type in a few keywords. We know that the longtail does make up the majority of searches, so we need to use some kind of matching to find them and secondly, I think it is beneficial for Google in terms that if everyone took this say, efficient narrow too broad approach of, okay we'll start with some closed variant, with some phrase match and we'll slowly expand and we'll keep wastage to a minimum and we'll put things that work into their own campaigns and drive maximum budget to them, what would happen, I think, is all of these keywords are going to approach an equilibrium for what they're worth and be fairly static.

Whereas if you've got lots of new companies try turning their hand to Google Ads and using automated bidding strategies, using broad match, a lot of people will pay over the odds to begin with or will raise the price on keywords that aren't worth that much and that impacts everyone, the whole ecosystem, because as soon as someone starts rocking the boat and putting prices up, prices go for everyone and then all the automated stuff kicks in and I'm sure with some people their account cost-per-click will creep up above what's really acceptable and then like you say those people will fall by the wayside and say, Google Ads doesn't work and they'll stop and then you know, the price per click isn't instantly going to drop back down, there's gonna be sort of momentum as it goes back down, so I think people entering into Google Ads, making a splash, is kind of beneficial in terms of profit.

RL: It's funny actually, riding on those trends makes me think of when I first started learning pay-per-click on Google Ads or Adwords, it was round about the time where advertisers had learned that it was much better to bid on the longtail, niche keywords because A) they were cheaper and B) they converted higher and after a while the cost per click on those terms started getting high, so I got to the point where I thought, well I want to try out these broader keywords that people used to bid on because they're cheaper, maybe even though they convert lower, fewer people are now bidding on from, so for quite a long time I rode on the rave of people not actually bidding on those really broad terms and I had really good success for a while.

Then it balanced out as you said and the trends change and people started doing that again and the cost per click lowered on the longer tail terms and then they increased again on the broad terms and it did balance itself out. But what I have found is that since there's been this huge push for automated machine learning bidding or smart bidding strategies, that the cost per click has been getting higher. now I can't obviously attribute it to that, but the Google Ads cost per click has got significantly higher in the past 12 months and if more and more advertisers have a maximised clicks bidding strategy, then surely someone's going to bid for a higher position, the machine learning is going to say, well you've chosen to have maximised click so we're going to increase your bids, and everyone's bids are going to increase if they're not setting caps in place. So there's no human control in place monitoring the average cost per click as you say, there's not an equilibrium place is potentially going to get higher.

MC: Well I guess it’ll find an equilibrium much faster, which means the costs won't creep up as people bounce backwards and forwards, manually adjusting things the machine will play each other or play itself because it's a one machine, but it would take - my guess would be - take the cost per click much faster to the acceptable maximum where people will keep paying basically.

RL: Time will tell.

MC: But we essentially covered what we said right near the beginning there about, sometimes it's advantageous to do things other people aren't doing in these bidding environments. I mean you said there was that trend where everyone kind of went a bit more longtime and the prices went up and now it's kind of settled where if you look at terms like car insurance they may well be cheaper than something like you know buy car insurance online because it's got a higher intent term and we all know that they’re valuable.

So if you've got any closing recommendations for those people in Google ads about optimisation score that may be getting started.

RL: Take it with a pinch of salt, which i think is something I have said on every single podcast I've ever done with you Mark, so I'm getting bored of hearing myself say it.

MC: I think it's more than a pinch though, let’s be honest.

RL: It's like a couple of tablespoons.

MC: A palm full of salt.

RL: Too much salt is bad for you, but in this case I think the more salt, the better. Just look at the recommendations tab and decide whether the recommendations it's suggesting are relevant. Just this morning I looked in the recommendations tab before this podcast actually and one of them was, ‘add 100 new keywords for an uplift of 10 percent optimisation score’ and I looked at the keywords and they just were not relevant at all, so just have a look and just you know your account, you know your business, you know your sector, Google does not.

MC: And I guess my throw in for that would be, if you're the person not managing the account and you are looking in, talk to the person is actually managing it before you come to any conclusion about how well they're doing their job, based on this number that we know isn't directly related to performance.

RL: Absolutely.

MC: That's all we have time for, we've been about half an hour again. Goes quick right?

RL: It does!

MC: We will see you in one week's time, going into December - so post Black Friday coming up to Christmas. Have a great week!

RL: Goodbye.

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