Default Campaign Settings In AdWords — The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Fellow SEM experts, how many times has this happened to you? A newbie joins your company (or a company with which your SEM agency is working) and is convinced that he is an SEM master. He’s read a few SEM books, attended a conference or two, and gone through the AdWords tutorials, after all. It’s just keywords and text ads!

In a worst-case scenario, this genius has enough confidence to convince folks higher up in the organization that he can truly make positive improvements to the path of the company’s SEM fortunes and suddenly has some control over the campaigns. My favorite example of this scenario happened last year when a self-proclaimed “searchologist” did a re-org of a B2B AdWords campaign that resulted in an 85% conversion rate — a nice increase over the 3% conversion rate the campaigns had seen for the prior three years.

When I pointed out that this was likely due to a misplaced conversion pixel on the landing page and that this 85% “conversion rate” was more likely indicative of a 15% bounce rate, the searchologist shot back saying that it was the new account structure that was driving these incredible results. As with many things in life, SEM is easy to do, but hard to do well. This axiom is proven to me every day by neophytes who have anointed themselves searchologists, as in the case above.

To demonstrate how dangerous it is to start an AdWords campaign without a lot of deep knowledge, I recently set up a new AdWords campaign and looked at the default settings that AdWords recommends. As you’ll see in the following deep-dive, starting a campaign on AdWords recommended settings can easily lead you to a world of hurt.

Search & Display Or Search & Destroy?

The default campaign type when starting a new AdWords campaign is “Search Network with Display Select,” and the default setting is “standard” versus “all features.” Sticking with the default setting of “standard” here can cause advertisers to miss out on all sorts of opportunities to fine-tune their PPC campaigns, as you’ll see throughout this column.

adwords display select

Display Select is a recent addition to the AdWords world; it pushes your text ads onto parts of the Google Display Network (GDN). GDN can be a very powerful network if managed properly — we have many clients that see 30-40% of their acquisitions coming from GDN — but it can also be a cesspool of irrelevant and occasionally fraudulent sites. (Example: I recently evaluated a B2B telephony site that was spending thousands of dollars a month on a website that had articles about getting cat urine out of carpets!)

Moreover, we’ve found that the conversion rate on banner ads on GDN is astronomically higher than the conversion rate of text ads, so this “display select” offering (which involves text ads only) is a double-whammy for newbie AdWords users.

Devices: All For One, One For All

Regardless of whether you choose “standard” or “all features,” you are defaulted into all devices when you set up your campaign:

device selection

Of course, since the advent of Enhanced Campaigns, we are all defaulted into all devices. What’s missing here is the ability to exclude mobile devices by bidding at -100%. Assuming that new AdWords advertisers are the least likely to have mobile-optimized sites, running full-throttle on mobile is likely going to be pretty painful.

Location: Pakistanis Searching For “Los Angeles Burger King”

The next option is location targeting. The default setting (for US customers) goes to US and Canada, which makes sense to me. The advanced options (which I have highlighted in yellow in the screenshot) are missing for “standard” users:

adwords location options

I’ve found a surprisingly large variance in performance between “people in my targeted location” and “people searching for or viewing pages about my targeted location.” In general, folks outside the US perform much more poorly than people in the US (due to shipping costs or the local nature of a product or service). I generally recommend that you exclude these “geo intent” keywords unless you have data that suggest otherwise.

Extensions: PLAs MIA

Ad extension options are unchecked by default in the “standard” edition; they also exclude several more advanced options (yellow represents the excluded options):

adwords ad extensions

Again, in the spirit of simplicity, I totally understand why Google has unchecked these and excluded some choices. That said, an advertiser that at a minimum doesn’t have sitelinks is going to be at a huge disadvantage for competitive terms, especially now that Google has tweaked its algorithm to factor ad extensions into ranking.

Additionally, for e-commerce businesses, not even showing product listing ads (PLAs) as an option is a pretty big deal. For many merchants, PLAs perform better than text ads, and Google appears to be giving PLAs more and more prominence.

Day Parting: All AdWords, All The Time

“Standard” setting users are not shown day-parting options, whereas the “all features” users at least get the ability to click and open a section on day-parting:

adwords ad scheduling

Depending on the business, day-parting can be very important. For example, brick-and-mortar businesses that do not have online storefronts are usually better off shutting off ads when their store is closed. B2B companies see conversion rates drop over the weekends.

Moreover, the options shown above aren’t even the most advanced choices — power users can also make bid adjustments by time of day, as opposed to just on/off functionality.

Ad Rotation: CTR FTW!

“Standard” users don’t get to choose ad rotation preferences. “All features” users can open up a hidden field to make their choice, although the “recommended” and default choice is to optimize for CTR:

adwords ad rotation

My preference is to optimize for a combination of CTR and conversion rate, but given that this isn’t a choice, I’d rather chose to optimization for conversion rate.

Keyword Matching: Close Only Counts In Horseshoes & Hand Grenades

The last “all features”-only option allows advertisers to opt-out of exact and phrase near-match:

adwords keyword matching

I haven’t seen a huge impact one way or the other from this feature, but when in doubt, I prefer to have more control over my keywords, so I opt out.

The Average Man Thinks He Isn’t

As I’ve said numerous times in this article, I don’t fault Google for making choices in the name of simplicity. Amongst self-serve online advertising platforms, Google has the best training and FAQs and the easiest-to-use interface. All that being said, the things that are missing from the default campaign settings in AdWords are the nuances that often make or break an account.

And, this ultimately goes back to my original point: people who think they know AdWords but actually don’t will get burned badly by simply following AdWords’ recommended settings. If you think an expert is expensive, wait until you see what a novice will cost you!

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEM | Google: AdWords | Paid Search Column


About The Author: is founder and CEO of 3Q Digital (formerly PPC Associates), a position he has held since the Company's inception in 2008. Prior to 3Q Digital, he held senior marketing roles at several Internet companies, including (2000-2001), FindLaw (2001-2004), Adteractive (2004-2006), and Mercantila (2007-2008). David currently serves on advisory boards for several companies, including Marin Software, MediaBoost, Mediacause, and a stealth travel start-up.

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  • Ronnie’s Mustache

    Good article, David!

    1. The default advanced location option can be a real waste of $$. And the fact that you have to click “[+]Advanced…” is pretty shady- IMO.

    2. As far as opting out of “near match”; I think this needs to be addressed after testing it for a bit. I often leave it on for a trial period. If nothing else, you get to see what sort of MSQ’s it’s generating.

    3. I totally understand why Adwords decided to “unselect” the options in your “Extensions: PLAs MIA” section-

    -PLA’s require quite a bit of setup.

    -DSA’s are usually not great performers (usually quite useless).

    -Apps and Reviews don’t apply to the majority of users.
    _The reviews extension is tough to qualify for. And you’re potentially sending people away to the reviewing site. (no thanks!)

    4. BTW- Isn’t an 85% conversion rate pretty standard? ;)

  • Tom Goodwin

    Don’t agree with opting out of close variants. It’s not possible or desirable to list all relevant misspells in an Adwords account then duplicate for plurals. What appeals to the perfectionist is not always pragmatic.

  • Pat Grady

    When you try to simplify something complex, often you just make it more complex.

  • George Michie

    Great post, David. Your closing line is priceless! I’d also be wary of veterans. Too often people who’ve been doing search for years have been doing it badly for years. Expertise isn’t a linear function of time; it comes from rigorous training, exposure to a range of scenarios, and being judged by real results.

  • Sam Owen

    There’s a quick way to see if close variants is good or bad for your account. I normally start by including them and then a couple of months down the line download my search terms report data. A simple pivot table will let you pivot by exact – close variant and phrase – close variant. If your CPA for those terms is good, leave it. If horrible, turn it off.

  • Larry Kim


  • Tom

    LOL thats funny, I just was in the middle of writing up an internal process list for existing and non existing accounts and highlighted all of these setting and how they should be set if they are not depending on the type and location/s of the business

  • David Rodnitzky

    If an 85% conversion rate is standard for you, please send me your resume!

    Agreed that PLAs are hard to set up, but given their increasing prominence in the SERPs, this is a pretty vital step.

  • David Rodnitzky

    Valid point Tom, though I don’t agree. I think it is possible to control for all variations. We do this through our Alpha Beta process – there’s a white paper on our Web site that explains how.

  • David Rodnitzky

    Thanks George! This is a great point – I call it “caveman SEM” – where someone is working in a company cut off from the rest of the world of best practices and has no idea that they have been doing stuff wrong for years!

  • Sarah Rose

    Hi there,

    I was fucked hard by Google default setting, they are just more than worst. Google burn my whole pocket and say we are sorry for this. I started my campaign as a beginner and trusted deeply on Google default setting, which screw me hard. As looking forward with your analysis over Google Adwords I think that It might be some what my fault. I think will keep using Google Adwords service with adwords coupons



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