Google Ads: Standard Shopping vs Smart Shopping – Which Is Better?

Google Ads Standard Shopping vs Smart Shopping – Which Is Better

The short answer? Neither.

Both can be highly effective (but I do have a preference and I will explain why below).

Over the years, my personal opinion is that Google has become far more hungry for clicks. More clicks = more money in the eyes of Google.

They’ve constantly been making recommendations that let the “machines” take control of our budgets while not always achieving better results (sometimes far worse).

Just take a look at your account recommendations with a judgemental eye. Most relate to automated “machine” based bidding adjustments i.e. less control to you, more control to big G.

And if you’re like me then anytime Google starts to push something, i.e. “smart campaigns”, then you start to feel a sense of unease.

Maybe it’s the growing pressure of other channels (read FB, TikTok, LinkedIn) eating into shareholder pockets but Google has been far more aggressive in taking more from our wallets.

It’s one of the reasons why they’ve lost trust with myself and many other advertisers from it’s questionable recommendations. These recommendations can impact our pockets heavily if we don’t keep a close eye on it.

Now don’t get me wrong though, I still think that Google Ads and Google Shopping ads are one of the most effective channels for marketing any eCommerce business.

It is highly profitable and targets high intent ready to buy traffic which any business should want.

But when it comes to Smart campaigns you might find yourself asking questions like:

  • Are smart campaigns really “smarter” than me?
  • Will Google waste more of my money?
  • Will Google take away control?
  • Can they really achieve better results than standard?

I’m going to get to all of that shortly.

If the above sounds like you, and you’re not sure which one is for you, then this article is for you.

A Primer on Basic Google Shopping Ads

If you’re reading this article I’m going to presume you’ve already got a pretty solid idea about what Google Shopping ads are so I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of explaining all things Google shopping.

However, if you’re just starting out then I suggest you read our Beginners guide to Google Shopping.

The truth? Google Shopping ads are nothing new.

Google has offered Shopping ads for many years however it’s only been in recent times, maybe mid 2018, that they introduced something called Smart Shopping campaigns.

Google explains them like this:

“Simplify your campaign management, maximise your conversion value, and expand your reach with Smart Shopping campaigns. This campaign subtype combines Standard Shopping and display remarketing campaigns, and uses automated bidding and ad placement to promote your products and business across networks.”

The word “simplify” is the key part of that sentence. One of the key reasons Google is pushing smart is because of the simplicity in which non technical non Google experts can get started while using the benefits of machine learning to get results.

So that moves us onto the key points of difference? What exactly is different to Standard campaigns.

Standard Shopping Ads and What’s Included?

To put it simply, shopping ads are the product images including price and brand name that come up when we type something like “tennis shoes”.

Initially, you’ll only see your ads within the Shopping network and in very specific Google product searches (i.e. not display).

There’s a number inclusions with standard campaigns:

  • Visibility of the search term report (so we can see which search terms are used when our products are clicked)
  • Campaign priorities (we can create a “funnel” so to speak, more on this later)
  • Product ad groups (we can group products and brands to segment and adapt our bids accordingly)
  • Multiple bidding strategies (we have a choice of bidding strategy – anything from full manual to target cpa, target roas or even maximise conversion value after enough sales)
  • Schedules (you can control the schedule of how and when you want your ads to show)
  • Locations (you can target many locations within a single country and big accordingly)
  • Audiences (you can target in market and affinity audiences as well as standard remarketing audiences too)

I’ll go through the advantages of these shortly, but first let’s discuss Smart Campaigns.

Smart Shopping Ads and Why They’re Different

So what is Google Smart Shopping?

In many ways, it’s very similar to regular Google Shopping Ads – in fact, it’s a part of the same system. You’ll still have to set up accounts on Google Ads and Google Merchant Center the same way you always have.

But there are some key differences.

The answer lies within the Google description – ” Combines Standard Shopping and display remarketing campaigns, and uses automated bidding and ad placement to promote your products and business across networks.”

In short, what you’re getting is the following.

  • Standard Shopping product visibility (I’ll restrain from using the word functionality as you do lose standard functionality to optimise smart campaigns).
  • Display retargeting including dynamic retargeting (i.e. product based display ads).
  • Automated bidding (i.e. the Maximise Conversion Value strategy – nothing else).

In other words, you’ll provide Google with:

  • The products you wish to include in the smart campaign
  • The roas target you’d like it to try and achieve.
  • The country you wish to target

Simple hey?

Then the big G is going to handle the rest. It’ll apply machine learning to try and get the best possible results for you, maximizing conversions while staying within your price range.

But what about what I’ve listed for standard campaigns? Unfortunately not.

The Pros and Cons of Traditional Shopping Ads

So now let’s talk about the pros and cons, this is what you’ve been waiting for right?

From this point onwards, I’m going to arm you with the best knowledge I’ve got and then you’ve got a choice to make.

The good news is that you can use one, or the other, or a combination of the two. Yes, you can use both Smart and Standard campaigns but Smart will always override the same products being advertised within Standard campaigns.

What’s most important is that you test.

So let’s start with regular old vanilla Shopping ads and my big reasons for using them.

Their benefits include:

  • You can segment your products within a single campaign. For example using Product ad groups you can segment your products in a way that makes sense i.e. via brand or via product category or via brand and category. (shown below)
  • You can view the search term report and build extensive negative lists. Remember we’re not targeting keywords like traditional search campaigns. Google is using our product titles and descriptions to determine which search terms or product ads will show on. Remember, Google loves clicks and they don’t mind if not every click is relevant to us. However this is something we should care about. Build our negative lists should be a big part of our overall tuning strategy.
  • You can create a tier system that allows you to separate general, brand and product specific search terms so you can bid more aggressively on bottom of the funnel search terms. This one is a bit more complicated to get your head around, it would be something like this i.e.
    • Campaign Tier 1 (high priority) – General terms – i.e. men’s sunglasses – 40c cpc.
    • Campaign Tier 2 (mod priority – Brand terms – i.e. oakley sunglasses – 60c cpc.
    • Tier 3 (low priority – Brand & product – i.e. rayban wayfarer – 80c cpc.
    • It means that we’re bidding more aggressively on searches that are closer to the purchase rather than bidding the same amount for everything.
  • We can use manual or automated bidding once we have enough conversions / purchases to benefit from it. I typically recommend starting with manual (without enhanced) then as you achieve a profitable roas and at least 30 sales in 30 days then you can consider moving to an automated strategy. The more sales you have in a 30 day period the stronger your automated bidding should work. The point is that we at least have a choice and we don’t have to miss out on automated bidding altogether

That all sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? So what are the drawbacks? The primary issues are:

  • Setup can be complicated if you’re new to the game. If things like “negative lists” or “product ad groups” or “tiered” structures confuse you then you might struggle, at least in the short term.
  • Tuning your search term report and building negative lists is a huge task and is something that requires constant attention. At Pixelrush we used software with automated rules (that we’ve created ourselves) to prune our high wastage terms.
  • Results depend heavily on your ability to make the right decisions for your ads – something that can be especially problematic for beginners and those without much time to learn the ropes.
  • Implementing tiered campaigns is something that requires some experience to do correctly and there are many variations of tiers you might consider creating, not always the example i’ve shown.

So let’s talk about Smart Shopping now.

The Pros and Cons of Smart Shopping Ads

You guessed it – I’m going to do the same thing now for Smart Shopping ads.

Smart Shopping ads can be great because:

  • They’re quicker and easier to set up, saving you some time.
  • Your ads will have a wide reach – you’ll automatically include display retargeting and dynamic products. This wider reach can be beneficial for eCommerce stores that have fewer products.
  • You need to make fewer choices – you’ll only need to decide which products to include (typically all to start with) and the target return on ad spend you’d like Google to achieve – be realistic!).
  • You aren’t relying on your own skills or level of experience. Instead, you can benefit from Google’s well-honed algorithms to get the most out of your money. While not always perfect, Smart Shopping has positive reviews overall and can produce some strong results.
  • You can achieve results fairly quickly and easily. I’m not here to poo hoo smart campaigns, I’ve seen many businesses simply point and click and achieve $10+ roas without any level of knowledge or experience.

At the same time, there are a few potential issues with Smart Shopping ads:

  • You don’t get much control over how your ads are displayed – you have to be okay with taking a backseat and letting Google do the driving. Basically any of the pros i’ve mentioned for Standard campaigns no longer exist for Smart campaigns.
  • You’ll get access to less detailed analytics – no search term report and no product groups.
  • You miss out on some useful features like custom scheduling, network placement, location targeting, and negative keywords.
  • You don’t have many triggers to pull when the results start to dive. This is one of my big concerns with smart in that you’re really at the mercy of Google and it’s constant barrage of changes. If just one thing changes it can completely throw off your campaigns leaving you in a pickle and your revenue on the slide.

As you can see, this isn’t exactly a simple choice. Both types of Shopping ads have some clear pros, but also some aspects that may give you pause.

If you test your Smart Shopping campaign and it achieves better results than your standard, or achieves an acceptable roas quickly, then you might be best to stick with them.

However, If you’re struggling to hit the a profitable roas, then my recommendations is to go back to Standard and start off with better segmentation and lower bids.

Now let’s learn about the importance of testing and why we can’t always trust the machines to think for us.

Examples Where Standard Campaigns Have Heavily Outperformed Smart Campaigns

Smart campaigns are often a point of contention with businesses I speak with.

I hear things like “they are performing well enough so let’s leave them”….

Fair enough. I get it.

If you’re heavily reliant on the sales they are generating for your business then it can make it challenging to switch them off and test Standard options.

That’s typically where the decision comes from for most business owners.

But one of the key advantages you have for Standard campaigns is the ability to control your cost per click. When it comes to ecomm, you’ve got three main triggers and they are your cpc, your average order value and your conversion rate.

Out of all of those three, your cpc is the most easily controlled when it comes to Google Shopping.

So here’s a great example of what switching from a Smart campaign to a Standard can do for that:

As you can see, we simply swapped to a Standard campaign and reduced our bids. Google felt we should be bidding at 0.77c on average where as we found we could achieve the same number of clicks at an average of 0.48c.

While our conversion rate was marginally lower we had a far more profitable roas of 9.58 for roughly 2800 clicks across both campaigns.

That’s $3.50 extra in our pockets for every $1 spent when compared to the Smart Campaign. This is huge for any eComm business.

Here’s another example:

This time Google felt we should be bidding at $1.39 where as using our standard campaign we set our bids at roughly 30c. The results are significant.

Not only did we achieve a significantly higher conversion rate, our roas went up to a massive $65.33 which means that we could be far more aggressive on those terms if we needed to be, even if it means losing some of our roas but gaining a great number of sales.

How I feel getting results like this….

At the end of the day, eCommerce is more often a volumes game while maintaining an acceptable level of profitability.

I think these are both two great examples of my original point, Google has become far more money hungry so it’s important we don’t trust them blindly.

Which Type of Shopping Ads Should You Use?

At this point, let’s summarise what we’ve learned about these two advertising solutions.

Google Shopping Ads: These are ads that you set up, customise, and schedule manually. They’re time-consuming and sometimes confusing to create, and rely heavily on your own skills or the agency you work with. However, they also give you complete freedom over your ads, and access to the full range of Google Shopping ad-related features and analytics.

These are my preferred starting place due to the sheer amount of additional control we get versus Smart Shopping campaigns.

To summarise who should use these:

  • You’ve got plenty of time to spend on optimise your campaigns.
  • You like having total control over your ads, or you’re uneasy about letting Google’s algorithms take charge.
  • You want to know exactly what’s working and amplify it rather than living in the mysterious world of Smart campaigns.
  • You have a lot of experience with online marketing, so you know how to target and schedule your ads for maximum effect.
  • You’re not content with your roas and feel that you can achieve greater numbers if you spend the time to tune your campaigns.

Smart Shopping Ads: These ads are perfect for someone that is less experienced or has less time to setup and manage their campaigns. You’re looking for more of a set and forget strategy as long as it maintains an acceptable roas.

If you have a large amount of products and are selling well known and established brands then you should have no problems starting with Smart Shopping Ads.

As you get more sales within your account don’t forget to go back and revisit your roas targets in the campaign settings. I often find many accounts have left the original roas even though the automated bids are achieving much higher. We always want it to be chasing a new goal if it’s achieved the current.

To summarise:

  • You don’t have much time to spare, or you simply like the idea of automating the process and getting it off your plate.
  • You’re new to placing online ads, and not confident in your ability to make the right decisions.
  • You want to put Google’s knowledge and experience to work for you, and use its algorithms to maximise your reach and conversions.

Which camp you fall into will help you decide what variety of ad to focus on.

However…I don’t want to set up a false dichotomy here. You aren’t limited to only using one or the other of these ad types. In fact, you can sometimes get the best results from using a mix of the two, or starting with one and then transitioning into the other.

Let’s discuss how.

Using Traditional and Smart Shopping Ads in Combination

There are a few ways you can benefit from both types of Google Shopping ads. If you don’t like making decisions, or you want to get the best of both worlds, here are two approaches you can take.

Since you have the ability to set up multiple ad campaigns, you can simply use the traditional system for some of them and the ‘smart’ system for others. For example, you could:

  • Use Smart Shopping for low-value, low-risk campaigns that you want to automate, saving yourself some time.
  • Use a Standard campaign for low average order value products where you can control your bids more precisely.
  • Use Smart Shopping for high value, high performing products where you want increase visibility and scale by leveraging both the shopping, display and machine learning in smart campaigns.
  • Use traditional Shopping ads for campaigns you want more control over – such as high-priority, expensive, or time-sensitive campaigns.

Your Initial Shopping Strategy?

What I often recommend is to start with one type and then transition to another. Many of our client campaigns have found this to be beneficial, particularly when approached in a specific order:

  1. First, you start out with a standard Google Shopping campaign controlling it with manual cpc and spending more time on optimisation and tuning so you can increase the number of sales you’re achieving within a 30 day period. If you can assist Google in the short term to find your best type of customer then it should help to machines to learn more quickly.
  2. Then, you transition that campaign to Smart Shopping, in order to automate it and use Google’s machine learning to take it to the next level. If you’re getting at least 30 purchase in 30 days but ideally closer to 50-100 purchase in your standard campaigns then you should be getting some great data that will help the machines learn more quickly and potentially achieve a stronger result but with less work than you’ve been putting.

Conclusion

So what have we learned? First of all, I want to emphasise that Google Shopping is an excellent way to market your e-commerce business. If you’re an eCommerce business and you’re not actively participating then you’re missing out.

As for the two types of ads, traditional Google Shopping ads give you maximum control, at the expense of time and trouble and control. We know that Google loves to spend our money and increase the number of clicks even if they are always relevant clicks. If you love the idea of Standard Campaigns, and all the benefits I’ve given in this article, but you find it too confusing to start, get in touch with me and I will help you.

On the other hand Smart Shopping ads save you time, but you’ll lose a lot of control. In my opinion, you’re likely to get the best results by starting with standard Shopping campaigns, and then transitioning them to Smart Shopping campaigns but then continuing to test Smart campaigns at certain periods especially if you’re getting a high volume of sales. Smart Shopping campaigns can absolutely outperform standard campaigns so don’t ignore them.

Do you have any questions about how to get started with either type of Google Shopping ad? Don’t hesitate to leave a comment!

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