How Ad Suggestions Could Land You in a Lawsuit

Ad Suggestions is a new beta feature in AdWords that uses their artificial intelligence systems to write ads for you. This is part of Google’s ongoing attempt to automate just about every part of their advertising platform. Although there may be some benefits, there are some serious business risks associated with this system that you need to understand. At best, it will be mostly harmless to your business. At worst, it will cause legal problems and waste your time and money.

AdWords is a complicated system. Many advertisers don’t devote sufficient labor to ongoing improvements to their ads. So if Google’s machine learning algorithms could correctly identify ad copy that would sell effectively, and automatically create the ads for you, that could improve the advertiser experience.

Google’s latest foray into applying machine learning to their advertising platforms is in beta testing right now. It has been added to some AdWords accounts, but only a few. It will likely roll out to more accounts over the coming months. Since it presents some serious problems for advertisers, you need to be aware of them and take immediate steps to reduce your risks once it is enabled for your account.

Fundamentally, it’s easy to automate calculations, like the statistics involved in A/B testing or calculating various metrics and creating reports from them. But it’s another story to try to get a computer to write a great ad headline or make good marketing decisions. Sometimes what comes out might be acceptable. Many times, it is not. Bad ad copy might just waste your money. But it could also get you sued.

Machine Learning Isn’t Good Enough Yet

Here’s a screenshot of an example Ad Suggestion. Note that it’s not precisely wrong. It’s just weird.

"Leaf Blowers Are Powered By Electric Or Gasoline Motors." Ummm. Okay. So what?

Here’s the thing. A computer performing textual analysis can come up with a grammatically correct sentence. That sentence may actually describe the products being advertised. It could be factually true. But stilted descriptive text that no human would actually use…this doesn’t sell the product. It doesn’t provide any information to the person reading the ad that they didn’t already know. And while the text may be true, that doesn’t mean it speaks to features, benefits, or unique selling points of the product or company. It doesn’t resonate with customers. Running this ad would be a waste of money.

Google’s machine learning algorithms are not sophisticated enough to understand what kinds of people might want to buy a leaf blower, what a leaf blower is used for, what alternatives exist, how customers evaluate different leaf blowers, and why they should buy it from one company instead of another. You can automate putting some bland text together. You can’t automate an understanding of a company’s position, business model, how it competes in the marketplace, and the benefits of its products relative to competitors.

This is the fundamental problem with a whole host of marketing automation platforms and even many of the companies selling ad management services for ecommerce companies. By turning control over to the machines, reducing the labor involved, and automating everything, they can cut their costs and boost margins. But they lose every time to expert humans working in conjunction with expert systems. At this point in history it’s ridiculous to turn over ad copy to automated systems. They are nowhere near good enough.

So What? It’s Just a Suggestion!

You might be tempted to say, "what’s the big deal?" After all, these are just ad suggestions, right? Wrong. AdWords Ad Suggestions first show up in the Opportunities tab in the New AdWords Experience. If you’re using the older AdWords interface, you won’t even see them. After 14 days, they are automatically applied to your account.

This means, if you only log in to your account once every few weeks to check the results and make some changes, you could have ads get suggested, and then automatically applied, without ever seeing them. And if you are still using the older interface, you probably won’t even notice they’re pending. This is by design.

It isn’t necessarily a bad thing to have Google suggest new ads. If they’re bad, and you just dismiss them, it only wastes a little bit of your time. And hey, perhaps from time to time one of the suggestions might trigger some creative spark, and you can actually write a better ad after seeing the suggestion. That’s fine.

The problem is that these ads are not suggestions if they are going to be automatically applied.

Ad Suggestions Could Get You Sued

Every business has to exercise some care in the messaging they put out. Legal issues abound: libel, regulatory, trademark, false advertising… The number of ways this could go wrong is astounding, and I don’t think that the engineers working on AdWords really appreciate the delicate environment that many businesses operate within. I’ll illustrate this with one simple example.

A business I’ve worked with for years sells clear plastic bags. Some of them have what most people would call a zip top or zip lock. But ZipLoc is a registered trademark of SC Johnson. And they are very aggressive with policing their trademark, because the term has become so generic they are in danger of losing it. Most people use zip lock to mean any bag with that style closure. They no longer mean the brand.

In this situation, anyone who puts the term zip lock or anything close to that in their ads is going to hear from SC Johnson’s lawyers. Do I trust that the AdWords Ad Suggestion system will avoid this, and all related terms? Nope. Not at all.

There is no configuration option to allow me to add something like negative keywords to the Ad Suggestion system to ensure it will avoid sensitive terms for my clients. Perhaps the engineers have designed the system so that it consults a database of trademarks. But even there, with all the legal grey areas surrounding various terms in various contexts, I wouldn’t trust an automated system to navigate that effectively.

Google’s algorithms don’t know if I’m selling the actual trademarked product, with permission to use the trademark, or a generic product that needs to be referred to by other terms. Any ads involving zip top style bags require review by someone who understands the legal issues. And this is just one small example in a vast sea of business risk.

Can you think of any examples that apply to your business?

  • Are you in a highly-regulated industry?
  • Do you have to be very careful about using certain terms in your ads because of competitor trademarks?
  • Do you face any risks from running advertisements that might be misleading to consumers?
  • Do you have agreements with suppliers about messaging related to their trademarks?

What Should I Do?

Ad Suggestions isn’t a bad system, but only if it remains an ad suggestion system. Google will presumably suggest ads when their systems have identified some potential for improvement, so we do think the Ad Suggestions can be useful as input to a person writing ads, to serve as a source for inspiration. But the automatic application of new ads to the account after 14 days is a serious business risk. At Psyberware, we are turning this setting off for all clients who were included in the beta test. And we are monitoring the eventual rollout of this feature to additional accounts to ensure we catch it promptly and turn off automatic application of ad suggestions.

How Do I Turn Off Automatic Application of Ad Suggestions

To turn off the automatic application of suggested ads, follow these steps:

  1. Log in to the new AdWords interface (If you are still using the old interface, click the gear icon in the upper right, and then select Get more done. Try the faster AdWords. BETA.)

  2. Click All Campaigns, then Opportunities, then the Ads and Extensions tab. At the bottom of the Ad Suggestion, click View Opportunity.

  1. Select Change Settings in the lower right.

  1. Click Ad Suggestions and then select Don’t automatically apply ad suggestions.

  1. Save your settings.

An even better way of managing your settings is to work with an agency that knows your business intimately, is constantly monitoring your account for new opportunities, and writing relevant ads. We specialize in ad management for ecommerce merchants and we’d love to handle all of this complexity for you. Get in touch, and let’s see if there’s a good fit.

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