Smart Display Ads: Take Advantage of This Brand New Ad Format

by | Apr 13, 2017 | PPC

Those who attended our conference in February will know how much we love all things automation. It is a theme that has been engrossing the digital landscape for the last 12 months or more. In fact, when we attended PPC Hero Conf last year, most sessions included automation; either in terms of marketers jobs, or consumer behaviour.

The point is: automation is coming, whether we like it or not. (So suck it up.) As PPC marketers, we have to get to grips with this, and fast. We have to accept that a machine might be better at optimising campaigns than we are. A machine can process billions of pieces of data in seconds, where our brains can only manage a couple at once.

But we are way, way off computers taking our jobs, and rendering us useless… right?

Erm… maybe not.

Google is quickly making headway into this automated world. Marketers are being freed from their daily bid management / creative management woes, and allowing machine learning to take the driver’s seat on its ad network.

Enter Smart Display Ads

Smart Display Ads were just released from Beta last week and should be rolling out to all advertisers as I write this. We were lucky to be able to test them out before they were released while in Beta phase, and we were pleasantly surprised by the results. (Despite the risk to my job that this article might entail…)

Smart Display Ads worked up quite a frenzy (with over 32 comments!) on our Facebook group when they were first released with PPC marketers all over the world giving us their experiences…

(If you’re not part of the Ready Fire Aim FB group you should be. It’s full of tips, tricks and conversation around your favorite ad networks, SEO and digital strategies that are working for businesses around the world that you can implement tomorrow. Join us here:

What Are Smart Display Ads?

Smart Display ads are adverts used on the Display Network (GDN) which Google manages. In other words, they are automated. This means they cannot be managed as closely as other ads. For instance, we can’t manage:

– Bids
– Placements
– Creative (to some extent)
– Exclusions
– Devices

Instead, Google manages all those aspects for you. All they require from you are the creative assets and a CPA goal. You can provide images, headlines, subheads and descriptions to Google, and they test every permutation of the assets to determine the best combination to meet your CPA.

Each asset is graded: Low, Good or Best.

Results of Smart Display Ads

I have to say, the results are pretty good across all accounts. CPAs are low. Volume is reasonably high. We aren’t running any on 1-step accounts yet, but I would imagine this can only be a good thing for them, too.

And it looks like our colleagues around the world are also seeing some early success, laced with a little caution:

Pros and Cons of Smart Display Ads 

Let’s start with the glass-half-full:


Great for ad testing: Once you have tested out a few variations of assets (images and copy), you have a brand new, top-performing ad, ready to roll-out to other GDN campaigns, native networks and Facebook ads.

Great for when you’re about to give up: Let’s face it, they’re not all winners… but before you give up on a campaign, trying it on Smart Display would help to confirm your suspicions… or potentially resurrect something you just couldn’t get to stick. 

Great for finding new placements: While some of the placements may just be the same as the placements in our regular accounts, there is potential for Google to spot a placement gold-mine that we haven’t.

Less time spent managing and optimising: When working with Smart Display campaigns we are forced to be more focused on the creative assets than anything else. We can’t spend hours placement mining, or tweaking bids. We can only throw in new assets.


– Terrible for bringing in duplicate names: This is a big one. Because Smart Display Ads won’t allow us to exclude any audience – even our customers or subscribers – we are seeing a lot of duplicate addresses. And as it turns out, so are our colleagues:

So, the great CPA we are seeing on the platform is actually doubled once we see the actual number on our file. And of course, we are paying for names we already own.

Although I wouldn’t criticise this too much. What it does do is prove that with very little input from us as marketers, Google is able to find people who look just like our subscribers – so much so, that in many cases they actually are our subscribers – and convert them.

We approached our Google rep about this. His reply:

“Thank you for letting me know about this issue. I’ve actually had this discussion with a number of clients running Smart Display Campaigns (SDC) latestly. I’ve spoken with the beta team about this and this is apparently an issue many other advertisers have. They are actively working on a product update that will allow us to exclude existing customers but have not provided details on the release yet.

Smart Display Campaigns are actually becoming available to all CIDs next week so I imagine now that the beta has reached launch status, the next update will hopefully be coming shortly.

That being said, if the amount of repeats is starting to become too high, a ‘workaround’ I’ve been suggesting is to stop the SDC all together and focus on a standard display campaign with the same offer as the SDC that excludes existing customers and from there turning on Display Campaign Optimizer to the “Aggressive Targeting” setting. This will automate the display campaign to go after conversions while avoiding existing customers. In that way, we can make up for any volume lost from pausing the SDC while maintaining.”

When adding new assets, the ad history is – kind of – lost: Ok, this is an odd one. Let me explain. When you make any change to a Google Adwords ad, Google would delete the original ad and replace it with the newly updated ad. You would lose all your data associated with the old ad, and the new ad would need to start “learning” from scratch. Something we all want to avoid.

When you change an asset in a Smart Display ad (an important part of optimising this new ad type) Google say’s that the “learning” is not lost. The assets that are not changed still withhold data, so you are effectively forcing the ad to iterate its testing. However, what we see in the platform is that the ad is reset. Data goes back to zero. We are assured by our rep that this doesn’t mean the entire ad has to learn again, only the new assets. However, it is frustrating that the ad looks like it has been deleted, as it would a regular ad.

No placement mining: Regardless of what you think about the placement, if its working, Google will continue to show your ad there. You can’t bid down and you can’t exclude. This could cause problems if you like to be picky about where your ads are placed, for example, if you see a lot of placements and usually like to control the amount of traffic you give to an anonymous site.

No control over devices: If, like me, you are particularly cautious around mobile and app traffic, these campaigns are definitely going to challenge your inner control-freak. There is absolutely no control over the devices our ads are placed on. That said, Google isn’t going crazy with mobile or apps. They are appearing in the campaign, but it isn’t a disproportionate amount compared with desktop.


For our (and Google’s) first foray into automated ads, I’m pretty happy with how these look. However, it still feels like there could be improvements made to the set up and management of the ads.

I particularly like the way we can now iterate our ad testing and constantly refine different aspects of our ad to find which ad ultimately wins. Often the top performer is actually not an ad we had even considered. Even if we only use them sparingly for this reason, and then take the learnings and roll-out across our other GDN campaigns, I’m happy we have a good ad testing tool in our arsenal.

The biggest problem is the lack of exclusions. I can’t see a clear way around this, so if your CPA isn’t super-low, you just won’t find success with this type of campaign until they allow us to exclude.

Want to get a jump-start on Smart Display campaigns? Email me today and we’ll help you get set up with this exciting new ad type! 

Natalie - Signature

Natalie Eagling,
Account Manager, AIM