Are agencies going to be expected to “manage to the recommendations”? That’s among the concerns I heard from many marketers after Google announced the performance portion of the Google Partner program requirements will be evaluated based on manager account optimization scores starting in June, with added focus on Google’s automated recommendations.
This change, in particular — and reaction to it — strikes at the tension between the benefits and limitations of automation and marketers’ relationship with the platforms designing the automation. There are the positives of big data insights, time-saving efficiencies. And yet, the systems don’t have the full view of an individual business, they are still training (on advertisers’ dime) and there are the inherent conflicts of interest concerns when the algorithms are designed by the very platforms that advertisers are paying to serve their campaigns.
Optimization score. Google shows an optimization score at the manager account, individual account and campaign levels. It’s defined as “an estimate of how well your account is set to perform.” Google already evaluated agency performance, but it was never explicit about what criteria was being evaluated. The idea for using optimization score as an external gauge is to offer more transparency about what is being evaluated and how to improve.
Agencies must have an optimization score of at least 70% for Partner status Google clarified since first announcing the change in mid-February. It also added a note stating that its internal data shows “advertisers who increased their account-level optimization score by 10 points saw a 10% increase in conversions, on average.”
If agencies fall below the 70% threshold (or fail to meet the other requirements), they’ll be notified and given suggestions for meeting the requirements and have 60 days to get back in good standing before losing their badge. Agencies can regain their badge when they meet the requirements again.
“Over the years, we’ve all seen various automated scorecards used by aggressive SEO or PPC agencies when they audit a company’s marketing efforts. Typically these things are meant to find fault and to achieve a specific goal [that’s] not 100% aligned with the client’s objectives,” said Andrew Goodman, founder and president of digital marketing agency Page Zero Media, which has Google Premier Partner status. “Google’s scorecards are a highly sophisticated version of the same phenomenon. Recommendations as aids to busy / stretched account managers are certainly a good idea.” His concern comes in using them to judge account or agency performance. That “is jumping the gun, IMO,” said Goodman.
Bad recommendations. Google offers dozens of auto-generated recommendations in Google Ads accounts that range from keyword additions and removals to budget changes to bid strategy switches to feature adoptions. They have improved as Google’s machine learning has matured, but they’re by no means perfect. Since the announcement, I’ve spoken with numerous Google Partner agency representatives — at SMX West last week and since — about the changes, and routinely heard complaints about bad recommendations. Poor keyword suggestions; pushes to adopt dynamic search ads; and smart bidding strategies that don’t align with the business goals.
“Working alongside the Google team can bring many, many benefits. From access to beta programs to knowing about updates and changed to the ad platform is a huge benefit to CMI and our clients,” said Justin Fried, EVP growth and innovation at CMI/Compas. “With that being said, it is important to remember that they are publicly traded company and while the titles of [the] team you work with may not say ‘sales,’ the team does have specific goals to get their clients to increase spend and adopt new features. Knowing this, we have to assume some of the optimization recommendations coming from the Google team are self-serving. So when we receive recommendations, we ensure anything we implement is in the best interest of our client.”
For some, the optimization score criteria was the final straw. “The recommendations, for the most part, are not helpful to good agencies, or anyone that should be fully trained and at ‘Partner’ status,” said Greg Finn CMO and partner at digital marketing agency Cypress North.
Finn has been outspoken about his frustrations over the change and what it says about the value of the Partner badge. The agency has dropped its badge and replaced it with an alternative “ClientPartners” badge it created for agencies to show “that you won’t put Ad Platform profit over client performance.” Finn also questions why Google is dropping the requirement for agencies to have proven experience in Google Ads of at least 12 months. “You can now set up an account… take that test…apply all recommendations and you are a partner.”
Are agencies expected to manage to the recommendations? Will they be forced to either accept recommendations that will have a negligible or negative impact on performance)? That’s the big concern. Google says it understands not all recommendations will be appropriate and that the leeway in the 70% underscores this.
“Optimization score is one of the best signals for partners to determine if their campaigns are reaching the right customers for their clients effectively,” a Google spokesperson told Search Engine Land. “Agencies will continue to have the control and autonomy to make the right choices from the recommendations page for their clients, while benefiting from the efficiencies the optimization score brings.”
The spokesperson added, “We are committed to helping our partners who currently do not meet the necessary new requirements, including how to best use the recommendations page and maintain a 70% optimization score, with a suite of training and tools.”
Analysis in the age of automation. Automation requires a healthy level of skepticism, an understanding of how the various optimizations are designed to work and savvy analytical skills to determine whether the automation is working as intended. But in the end, everything goes back to business fundamentals.
Goodman points out, for example, that the 10% lift in conversions cited by Google from accepting recommendations might not benefit the bottom line. “No cost figure is cited, so this 10% increase in conversions could have come with a 10% or even 25% increase in cost. Who knows?” said Goodman. “The second flaw is simply that it could skew towards highly under-managed, clumsily-optimized accounts.”
“The score is divorced from business growth and profitability metrics; we’ve retained and delighted clients precisely because we leave no stone unturned to help their businesses grow profitably, rather than optimizing to perverse or unrelated metrics.”
Will it change how agencies manage campaigns? What was clear in my discussions is that agencies are not expected to manage their campaigns solely via the Recommendations tab nor that they should accept recommendations that don’t make sense for the business. Dismiss or simply ignore those that you determine aren’t good for the account.
Some Partner agencies had already made reviewing recommendations part of their account management routines.
“In an account with hundreds of campaigns, the Recommendations page gives me a place to start my optimizations. I like how easy it is to apply simple suggestions and to dismiss other recommendations that may not be relevant to my account,” said Carrie Albright, director of services at Hanapin Marketing.
WPromote has done the same, seeing the recommendations as a kind of system check when making big changes to accounts. “We wanted an additional set of eyes on our account performance to roll out any changes at scale,” said Angelo Lillo, general manager of paid search, at Wpromote.
Whether reviewing recommendations is part of their workflow or not, the marketers I spoke with said the new requirements won’t affect how they approach client work. “We will not change how we operate,” said Fried. “Our clients are our main priority and we will only implement optimizations that support their overall goals and move their business in a positive direction.”
Most acknowledged they’ll pay closer attention to the recommendations and their optimization scores after this change, but the approach to clients won’t and shouldn’t be affected.
“It is OK to put extra rigor behind our analysis of the recommendations,” said Fried. “We will continue to review the recommendations and only implement things that are in the best interest of our client.”