Is AdWords Express Hurting Your Small Business?

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I love AdWords. I recommend it for many businesses. It’s a powerful tool, and can be very profitable. In the right situation, if an expert is running AdWords, it’s a source of profitable business. But it’s really complicated and there are a lot of ways to get it wrong. AdWords can cost your business a lot of money very quickly.

What Is AdWords Express?

If you’re not familiar with AdWords Express, it’s an easy way for small businesses using Google Places to run AdWords. You don’t have to choose keywords- but you can’t modify them.

A client for one of my other services ran into trouble with AdWords Express. I wasn’t aware he was doing this, and he wasted a lot of money. Here’s the story…

AdWords Express Misspent 79% of His Money

Sam Alexander (name changed to protect the innocent) runs a limo service in Orlando. He started running AdWords express. He soon ran out of money. I volunteered to take a look at his account. Over the last three months, he spent just over $9,000 on AdWords. About $5,500 of that went to the Places (AdWords Express) campaign. Seductively, the cost per click in that campaign was lower. You know why? Because many of the keywords were showing to the wrong people.

People Who Want “Free” Don’t Hire Car Services

First off, the keywords AdWords Express uses are all broad match, and you can’t use negative keywords here. That’s a big no no, unless you live solely to raise Google’s stock price. You get lots of irrelevant clicks.

147 of the 686 keywords included the word “taxi”. Sam runs a luxury service that’s up to twice as expensive as taxis. What’s worse, the keywords also included “airport shuttle” – there are often free hotel shuttles. People who want free are not going to buy a premium service.

Have you ever hired a car service to or from the airport? If not, and if you’re a taxi person, you are not my client’s customer. I told this story to another guy who’s in bail bonds. He’s not in limos, but he could see that people looking for taxis are not this guy’s customer. He is smarter than AdWords Express.

This is a very specific market, and everybody is not the customer. One of the best things about AdWords is your ability to target the right prospect. But AdWords Express doesn’t allow that.

How much of that $5,500 AdWords Express spend was relevant to Sam’s business? Only the $1,184 for car and limo keywords. That means that AdWords Express spent 79% of the money on the wrong keywords.

Google took $4,300 of Sam’s money over three months providing irrelevant clicks.

Now, just multiple that by the number of small businesses using AdWords Express. Are all situations this bad? Maybe not- but that’s a big inefficiency that could be making Google a lot of money and hurting small businesses. Even if your AdWords Express account is profitable, it’s likely that it’s inefficient and you could be doing even better with more keyword control.

Why Is AdWords Express So Dumb?

Here is what AdWords claims on the sales page for AdWords Express:

Let us manage your ads

Your ad will automatically reach the right people whether they’re searching on laptops or mobile phones. No maintenance required, everything is done for you.

But AdWords Express’s automated way of choosing keywords is not smart enough to deliver on that promise. It seems to have an IQ of about 60. Is it dumb on purpose? Are the categories too general? Or is accomplishing this automation task  beyond Google’s ability?

If you think this is an isolated incident, you’re wrong. Check out this post and the comments below it.

What’s Going on, Google?

Small business owners don’t have time to try to understand AdWords. This service is well-intentioned, but not effective. AdWords Express  isn’t good enough, and needs to be fixed. I propose it be modified to allow some basic subcategory control. I saw about five subcategories of keywords in this account. Sam should have been able to turn off “taxi” and “shuttle”, for example. Do that, and it could be the awesome tool you meant it to be.

Brian Carter
Brian is author of The Like Economy: How Businesses Make Money With Facebook and Facebook Marketing: Leveraging Facebook's Features For Your Marketing Campaigns, How to... Read Full Bio
Brian Carter
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  • Ignite Visibility

    This is very true. AdWords will take anyones money but really could care less about results. The Google Engage and Express program are really a joke. They give you just enough education to get some accounts up and running, but conversions will never happen. To be successful in the Google auction you really need a SEM professional, it is that complicated and competitive.

  • SEO of NOLA

    I had a hunch this was happening to one of my clients. Thanks for the info!

  • Robert

    Interesting! It seems that Adwords Express is a strange tool. I didn’t know that Google has bad tools with low efficiency. One similar behavior is sandbox effect, but that is organic thing and a long story…

  • Photocopiers for sale

    Interesting, i’ve not really had a look at the Adwords express. I’m savi on Adwords, is it worth me looking in to the express version?

  • Norm

    I’ve taken over a few Adwords accounts that were setup by Google. They weren’t bad. Good account structure and common set of negative keywords around job searches. Not bad considering they can’t possibly have the same level of detail in a vertical market we specialize in. However they do only setup broad match for these as well. For our clients running their places account in Adwords, the feedback is not favorable. I don’t have the level of detail you discuss, but I have seen clients waste money this way.

  • Larry Kim

    I think AdWords Express is OK for companies spending around 5-25$ / month on adwords. once you start spending more than $500, or $1000, or more, then it increasingly becomes worth your time to spend more time optimizing your account.

  • SEO Person

    I agree, Google Express is not good. I generate some clicks but I don’t get conversions through it. I can’t even choose keywords just categories. We are a nieche category and most of the searches are not related to us. Oh and I agree with Ignite. Google Engage program is such a joke, the latest offer I got I was so upset with that I wrote a blog. Google don’t care about those, gave it to newly hired young people to do something with it but doesn’t care about the results.

  • Delbert Kim

    Thank you for this terrific write-up. I love this particular case study regarding AdWords Express.

    Separately, I’m having trouble understanding why some of the commenters are so turned off by Google Engage. Google Engage certainly doesn’t hurt. It looks like it was designed strictly for digital advertising agencies. I also find the free coupons, pamphlets, and some of the content to be pretty useful as it gives clients something tangible to look at.

    With that being said, some of their motivational tactics aren’t too effective, but I really don’t pay it any mind.

    • SeoPerson

      The only purpose of the Engage program is to get more advertisers to sign up for them. They realized the best is to encourage AdWord professionals so you can work for them as an independent sales person. The motivation technique is so bad however that when I get an Engage package I am usually more pissed than motivated. Google is also not taking it seriously when you see who is leading this program. Someone who thinks you should fall on your knees hearing the name GOOGLE and you should be honored to sell more advertising for them. The latest package I received was about asking me to generate $1000 or $20000 revenue in AdWords with BRAND NEW accounts within 3 months. If I do I will be ELIGIBLE to enter a contest to win a ChromeBook (worth less than $1000) or for 20k I CAN WIN a trip to SF for a training event which is possibly about helping me to gain more customers for Google. Really? I am now really motivated to gain another 20k for Google. Why even bother with these packages?
      They don’t offer you anything that will help you to sell more. Yes you are getting coupons but now ANYONE can get those coupons even your neighbor’s dog if he wants one. Will this give you an advantage and will you be able to win more clients with it? Information? You do the certification program and keep up with the latest news on the blogs and you have all information you need. I am managing 20k-30k a month campaigns on Adwords and I am not expecting anything but surely this program doesn’t make me motivated at all to go out of my way to sell more. There is so many ways to do this better and really motivate professionals. Start it with leading the program by someone who is not thinking that we all pee in our pants just to hear the name Google.

      • Pashmina

        Here! Here!

        Google Engage is a farce. And insulting to those of us who have been in the business for some plus years.

        The $100 isn’t special. A larger incentive would work. Like $500?

        On the other hand the recently launched Google Agency Edge is a bit better as a resource.

      • SkyRider

        Over the last couple months I have been hounded with repeated phone calls by some third party posing as Google in an attempt to get me to spend money on this program. They call and make it sound as if there is some problem with my current AdWords account. Then they segue into focusing on Places advertising without mentioning AdWords Express by name (which doesn’t even apply to my current business).

        When that didn’t work, I then got a coupon via email. I had to open up the email in original mode because the disclaimer type was so small, to find that it will only work for AdWords Express.

        If they want to give me an enticement to start advertising again, they can give me a coupon to use with whichever Ad type I see fit. Otherwise, I just see it as deceptive advertising on their part and a way to entice people who don’t know any better into an ad dollar sink hole.

  • Phil

    I started running a Google Adwords Express test campaign for a client in Bristol, UK and although the ads are well-enough targeted the CPC is between 25% and 75% more expensive. What’s more, when I set the cmpaign up AdWords would not accept the voucher that my client had been give and so they did not benefit from the £50 trial offer. Bad Google!!!
    This client however does very well from regular AdWords campaigns.

  • Pashmina

    Interesting case study. Do you think it’s possible that this type of waste happens only in a fraction of the Express accounts, and that for the most part it brings clients good leads? Or it a rather significant number of Express managed accounts that suck?

  • Toronto Freelance Web Designer

    I’ve had some experience with Google AdWords and to be honest i’ve never seen any conversion. First time around i had that famous voucher of $75 and i noticed the money disappeared in no time. Second time around i convinced my company to use $1000 towards AdWords and this time with the help of a Google Associate in starting a campaign with different strategies… once again the result was… a waste of money. So i must agree with some people here and the article, that basically AdWords is a way for Google to get your money and thats it!

  • Pashmina

    Toronto, it’s not enough to just spend money on Adwords. No matter how well structured and executed your campaign, if you’re sending them to a crap website with no encouragement to convert, your prospects will go elsewhere.

  • Ygfhelper

    Great post!
    I’ve lost money from Adwords Express, and I was contacted by a Google marketing specialist to pitch the sale but he didn’t tell me my landing page couldn’t convert anything and I didn’t know any better. A Google Ad words specialist contacted me, and cost me $800.00 dollars by lieing to me so I have my guard up when it comes to Google marketing specialists. The Google Engage program recruited my services with my free $2000.00 worth of coupons to share with all of my customers, then they changed the program where you must spend twenty-five to get $100.00 in free advertising. I’m still trying to figure out how I make money if my customer loses money. I’m learning, but in the mean time I got my Google Ad words account suspended , and do I feel like a criminal for being ignorant of how to use Ad words properly. One day my keywords will match my ad title, that will match my landing page title with a clear call to action to buy products and services that match my keywords. Do I have it right?

  • Tom Gimer

    It depends on the business. You’ve seen from the comments that it’s not suited to niche businesses because of the broad keyword approach. But if you offer a broad array of services in your industry, it is a decent way to handle PPC. We can’t afford to get bogged down in the day to day bidding for keywords, so we let Google do it for us. We monitor the ad and account performance and definitely get great value out of our PPC budget with Adwords Express. And just an fyi, while you can’t use negative keywords, if you do see the wrong keywords eating away at your budget you can let Google know.

  • Richard

    Although I’m in agreement to the fact that AdWords is a powerful tool, I can attest that it can cost you a lot of dollars especially when you are operating a small business like mine. Based on my experience, I find it a bit complicated that, at times, leads me to think of a conclusion to stop using it. But in the long run, I have noticed how I gained more and more traffic out of it. The latest I knew then is that I was able to get through my operating expenses and see the continuous flow of cash into my business. It is worth to integrate into your business after all.

  • James

    79% seems a bit above the norm for wasted clicks on express. Also, what would it cost if a business hired a “professional” to manage the campaigns? Most SEM’s charge ridiculous fees, so much so that a 79% markup becomes justifiable.

  • pete

    Hi Brian

    I actually think this article about adword express is not harsh enough. I just went through an experience where my per click cost increase almost three fold in the space of a month. This was for a very specific product in an average size town. There may be 15 other competing companies out there but a lot of them don’t even have a decent website let alone an adwords accounts.

    What I dislike about express is:
    – you can’t select the keyword – google selects a broad ‘category’ for you
    – you can’t set a limit on how much you are prepared to pay for a click which throws you ROI controls right out the window
    – the navigation sucks.
    – if you use the $100 free coupons they put you on automatic payment and then make it hard to change to manual payment.
    – there are no phone numbers, emails or other links with which you can dispute a bill. It took me 2 weeks to talk to an indian call centre which basically said, “sorry, I can’t help you, you have to pay” after giving information that was at times totally incorrect.

    No I have closed down ALL my express accounts an I am not as happy as I used to be to give Google my adwords money either. Adwords Express is a scam.