Shifts in Google’s, and also Bing and others’, approach to paid search in recent years have placed increasing emphasis on AI-driven automation and less on manual control by marketers, with marketers encouraged to switch to ad and match types that use automation to determine what is shown to searchers rather than being able to set this manually.

“This trend of Google automating and decreasing control is not a new one,” points out Christos Stavropolous, Head of Product Strategy at BrightBid. Google started rolling out Dynamic Search Ads (DSA), which displays a dynamically-generated ad using content from the brand’s website in response to relevant search queries, as early as 2011 with a revamp in 2015. Then in 2016, Smart bidding was launched, which uses automated bidding to accomplish a set goal.

However, in recent years there has undoubtedly been a shift towards Google’s AI taking the reins from PPC marketers, from the Search Terms Report displaying less data to Responsive Search Ads (RSAs) becoming the default text ad format, to Google retiring Broad Match Modifier (BMM) match types, which allowed marketers to specify certain required keywords before a Broad Match ad would display.

“Essentially, it’s a way of controlling the marketplace better from Google’s side,” Stavropoulos says of Google’s increased emphasis on automation and AI.

How has this trend changed the game for paid search, and what does it mean for the role of a search marketer? We asked some experts for their take on PPC automation and how to adapt.

Keeping humans in the driver’s seat

BrightBid is an AI-powered adtech company with its own automated AI engine for optimisation and bidding, so the team are proponents of the advantages of AI in marketing. However, they also believe in letting marketing experts retain control, an approach that Stavropolous describes as “automation, but with a human touch”.

“We automate what is repetitive, and what can be amplified when it comes to optimisation,” he explains. “But we want our digital specialists to have overarching control.

“Then between the automation and humans we also have an AI element, which tries to imitate and learn from the person that runs the campaign. So, in a way, it becomes like an amplifier – not a takeover.”

The best results come from having a ‘driver’ at the wheel of the car.

– Emma Welland, House of Performance

Emma Welland, Co-Founder at performance marketing agency House of Performance, also emphasises the need for humans to remain in the ‘driver’s seat’ when it comes to paid search.

“The biggest mistake search marketers are making is thinking that automation drives itself,” she says. “Whilst Google are launching automated campaign types that appear like they need little management, the best results come from having a ‘driver’ at the wheel of the car.

“You have to embrace [change]”

“Performance Max is the best example of this,” Welland goes on. “Anyone can set up a Performance Max campaign using Google’s steps; however, to get results you need an expert leveraging every opportunity.”

Performance Max campaigns were first rolled out by Google in November 2021, and throughout 2022 and 2023, Google has been converting Smart Shopping campaigns to the Performance Max campaign type. Performance Max relies on automation to optimise bidding in real-time (using Smart Bidding), and can even automatically generate assets for marketers using context such as landing pages, the brand’s existing ads, and keywords in their ad group.

However, not all of Google’s default settings and suggestions will be suited to each campaign or brand, and so marketers need to be savvy about what each one entails in order to get the best results from Performance Max.

Welland encourages marketers not to be afraid of automation, citing a shift from Standard Shopping campaigns to the more automation-heavy Performance Max as a trend that should be more prevalent, but isn’t yet. “Some brands are scared of automation and are sticking with Standard Shopping, but these brands will fall behind.”

“You can’t hide from change; you have to embrace it.”

Search marketers must be “more curious than ever”

Has the shift to a much more automation-driven paid search landscape changed the role of the paid search marketer, or affected the skills that search marketers need in 2023?

Jodie Brookton, Strategic Director at ethical marketing agency Climbing Trees, acknowledges that, “The advancements in Google’s automation technologies and the shift towards “keywordless” paid searches are reshaping the demands on search marketers and altering the framework of how they implement campaigns.”

As a result, she believes that marketers need to become adept at conducting spot research and adapting their campaigns on the fly to keep abreast of these updates.

“With the constant changes, marketers have to enhance their research capabilities, staying ahead with real-time insights on evolving trends and platform modifications to future-proof their campaigns.”

House of Performance’s Welland adds that search marketers need to be “more curious than ever” in light of the increasing automation of paid search by Google and others. “The role of a search marketer hasn’t actually changed that much … I like to compare search marketers to detectives: instead of solving a crime you are solving ROAS or CPA. You can’t leave any stone unturned, and must optimise regularly to drive performance.

“With this in mind, I believe the best search marketers are still analytical, thrive on data, have good attention to detail, and are very curious.”

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