Really Google? Silent Change Forces Content Campaigns into Automatic Bidding

17 Comments Written on September 21st, 2010 by
Categories: Contextual Advertising, Conversion, Display Ads, Google Adwords

I had to rub my eyes for a minute and check with some contacts to make sure this actually happened:

I believe it USED to be when you created a content-only campaign and left the “Content Bid” field blank, that Adwords would just use the “Default Bid” for the adgroup in lieu of there being a specified content bid.

I looked today and this is what I see:

Google Adwords Forced Auto bids

What Just Happened Here?

Is it just me, or did they just FORCIBLY move everyone who left that Content Bid field blank into “auto” bidding? Good thing that in the case of this campaign, the “average of all the adgroup’s CPC bids” generally only varies by a cent or two.  Imagine what would happen if some top-performing adgroups in a campaign had vastly higher bids than lower performing adgroups: suddenly your “auto” CPCs are way larger than you want or need.

Of course, some are probably thinking “just set up your campaign with content-specific bids and you won’t have to worry about it”, but why should this be necessary if you take the time to properly configure your campaigns by not mixing search and content in the first place?

The Fox Guarding the Henhouse…

New Adwords advertisers often question why they need to truly understand PPC when Google is telling them they can just run everything on autopilot using algorithms that primarily serves Google’s best interests while  being pitched back to advertisers as “what’s best for you”.

This really, really looks like a an effort to slip this past unsuspecting advertisers and turn the dials to more revenue for Google, and it shows why educating yourself on PPC tactics is essential.

This is effectively letting Google write their own paychecks with all of this ‘improve your life’ automation…No thanks.


Brad Geddes posted this morning on his blog that nothing has really changed here, that ‘auto’ does not mean “automatic CPC bidding“, and the hierarchy of bids has always been (with the exception of new options like Audiences):

  1. Placements
  2. Audience
  3. Ad group placement bid (only older accts might see this)
  4. Campaign placement bid (only older accts might see this)
  5. Ad group display network bid
  6. Campaign content bid (only older accts might see this)
  7. Auto
  8. Default bid

The point being that the “Auto” in step 7 is simply a carry-over from search campaign settings where there are keyword-level individual bids that could be averaged for an “auto” bid in that particular adgroup.

The help text in the yellow box that pops up next to where Google labels the display network bid field, appears to be cut and paste from point number four in this Adwords help article:

“You can enter your Display Network bids in the “Display Network Max. CPC” column on the Ad groups page. If you don’t set a specific bid, your bid is set to Auto by default. Auto Display Network bids are based on an average of all keyword bids for the ad group (including the default ad group bid and individual keyword bids).”

It’s confusing language here as it says “Auto Display Network bids” are based on an average of all keyword bids in the adgroup (which of course isn’t possible with Content-only adgroups).

Couple that with what an advertiser sees when he actually does intentionally select automatic CPC bidding in a content-only campaign:

Additionally, Google’s labeling of the display network bid option when Display is turned off at the campaign level shows that they have the capability to make the field labeling context-specific in new UI:

It’s easy to see how this all starts to get confusing… When is ‘auto’ not ‘auto’??

Final Thoughts

It may ultimately be that there’s no functional change in the way the bid hierarchy works here, but few dispute the language change in labeling here.  After digging into this heavily over the past couple of days and talking with other advertisers it’s really tough to tell, and I’m not even 100% sure other than the fact that wording is eerily similar to what they say when you ARE indeed having Google set your bids.

Why change the language to an old nomenclature that applies to search campaigns only when they clearly have the ability to get granular in the labeling when display is on or off?

Thanks to everyone for your feedback and thoughts, it’s tough to trace these things back when the UI changes every time you hit F5:)

Brad’s takeaway point in his post I 100% agree with:

“The real takeaway: Set bids at the most granular level. Placements or audiences if you have them; and then always place a display network bid at the ad group level.”

Good reminder all around…

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17 comments “Really Google? Silent Change Forces Content Campaigns into Automatic Bidding”

That strikes me as a classic example of not thinking through the consequences of a feature/change decision. It may have not been totally intentional, but it is definitely not something that should have been done.

Thanks Keith, 

Yeah, it looks bad, especially 9 days before the end of the fiscal quarter, makes you wonder if they needed a quick revenue spike.

Tough economy… and a tough crowd. Maybe, what’s best for their users, doesn’t translate to what’s best for their advertisers.

@Geordie I don’t think it is as much a revenue spike as just plain not thinking. Look at Buzz – I really don’t think their internal QA process exercises much in the way of critical thinking from a customer perspective.

Looks like Google is pulling a Yahoo! This is some of the worst oversight I have seen. Do No Evil???

I don’t think this is a change to the functionality, it is a change to the language in the the tool to reflect how AdWords has worked for a very long time (if not forever). The help files have always explained this (not clearly, and I don’t have the links handy). There was never keyword level bidding on the content network. It always either A) used the ad group bid or B) calculated an average of the keyword level bids. 

Really ‘Auto’ is Average. Think of it that way and it won’t be so upsetting.

This is based on the best info I have, after looking into this for a long time. If anyone has other valid information I’d be interested to hear.

Hi Craig,

If the content field was blank it used to look to the “default” bid that was entered in the top box.  (You’re correct that we’re not looking at keyword level bidding here, just adgroup level in content-only campaigns. )

Bids used to be labeled (for instance in Adwords editor) as “Max CPC bids”, with three categories or fields: “Search Bid”, “Automatic Placements Bid” and “Managed Placements Bid”.  Until now, if you left the “Managed Placements Bid” and “Automatic Placements Bid” empty (in adwords editor) bidding would default to the “Search Bid”.  (which translated to the “Default Bid” field in the Adwords online UI”). If you had all three fields blank, it would make you enter at least a “Search Bid”, but all bid types were manually controlled.

Now, instead of defaulting to manual bidding, relying on the “Search Bid” it changes the bidding to automatic, which is entirely different than manual, user specified bidding.

Geordie – So you’re saying that instead of using the ad group level search default bid, it now uses the averaged bid from the keywords?

If that’s right, seems like it’s not much worse and still not what it should be. Who wants to use their search bid on the content network anyway? That was a pretty bad default. Averaged keyword bids that were meant for the search network aren’t much better. This whole thing seems a hack to me. They should require the ad group level content network bid (for auto placements) and make that the default. I suppose supporting the keyword averaging method is an OK option, although I can’t imagine when anyone should or would want to use it.

Another grey area that needs a lot more research and explaining that it should, and is probably worth. 

I’ve seen a lot of clients copy and paste their search campaigns in editor and change the settings to content, leaving adgroup-level search bids the same, leaving the “Search bid” as the only field filled in.  Might not be best practice, but it happens and they still have manual control of their bids.

There are also a lot of legacy campaigns out there where the search network has been turned off (we all know Google enables both search and content networks by default in a new campaign even though they recommend against doing that), and content left on.  That campaign has now lost its manual bids.

Averaging adgroup level keyword bids is fine so long as there’s no large variation between adgroup bid amounts.  However, if you have your top adgroups set to high bids for better placement, and the rest of your bids are substantially lower, the average may not be in your best interests.

I think the point is, you’ve been arbitrarily moved from manual bidding to automatic if your campaign was originally set up to use manual bids.

This indeed is kinda sneaky. But I think the key here is to create a separate campaign for search and another one for the display network. That way, you can disable network bids on the campaign level and not worry about this automatic bidding to the display network.

I think maybe it’s just a problem with their wording that is causing a confusion… The popup says:
“This setting uses an average of all your ad group’s CPC bids.” (#1)
… which is different from:
“This setting uses an average of all your ad groups’ CPC bids.” (#2)

I think what you’re saying in your blog post is that they use the average bids from all of the ad groups in the campaign (i.e., #2 above). But I think what Google may be trying to say is that they use the average bids from all of the keywords in that particular ad group (i.e., #1 above).

#2 is obviously pretty bad. #1 not as much. #1 *is* different from what Google says at (“If you don’t set this bid, we’ll use the default bid.”), so they did make a change … But unless within that ad group your default bid is wildly different from the ad group bid average, it shouldn’t make much of a difference.

BTW, looks like they use less confusing wording at :
“Auto Display Network bids are based on an average of all keyword bids for the ad group (including the default ad group bid and individual keyword bids).”

Excellent points Rehan,

The placement of the apostrophe does indeed make a big difference.  It looks to me like the way answer 112269 is saying things work is the way they USED to work before this change, maybe that explanation hasn’t been updated yet: “If you don’t set this bid, we’ll use the default bid.”

The wording in 116289: “Auto Display Network bids are based on an average of all keyword bids for the ad group (including the default ad group bid and individual keyword bids).”  doesnt’ even make sense as you don’t have individual keyword bids on the content network, just the option for overriding individual placement bids (not keywords).

Interestingly, in these two bid hierarchy explanation FAQ, Google says that Default bids will be the last, least specific option they fall back on.  No mention of the Default becoming automatic:

Incidentally, one of the interesting things about the new Adwords AJAX interface is that changes like these can be made silently and no one has the ability to go back and compare the change, it comes down to memory.  This is a big reason why I checked with a number of other large advertisers to make sure that this really had changed, which indeed it has.

A few pennies difference here and there on a per click basis can make a big difference across large accounts, and obviously move the needle for Google as well at scale.

Definitely a sneaky move by Google, but I tend to see this a lot – Silent changes, some people seeing xyz and others seeing abc while the rest of us see mno…. Google plays around a lot 🙂

Geordie, you said you checked with a number of large advertisers to see if this had changed…what did they tell you? It changed to auto bidding or it changed to default bidding? One of my frustrations with the content network is being forced to put a bid into the default field. If I’m not doing search, I don’t want to put anything in there…it’s confusing for my clients…but I’ll usually put a penny in that field to appease Google and then use the automatic or managed fields to set up my real bids.

Hey Shelley, 

They saw what I saw, that it had indeed changed to auto from default.  So if you had a content-only campaign with nothing in the content bid field, but did have a bid in the default bid field, instead of that bid field being recognized as your desired bid, autobidding will take it place.

also, ever noticed that if you add suggested KWs under Opportunities that they default to who knows that higher max CPC values?


This aint no surprise! It only stinks if you break out Content and Search campaigns out on their, that’s the part of this post no one connected:

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