What Is The Difference Between A Smart Campaign & A Search Campaign?

· FAQs

In this short edition of Digital Marketing FAQs, we are looking at the difference between a Smart Campaign & search campaign in Google Ads.

Smart Campaigns are a component of the Google Ads platform (formerly, and perhaps still better known as Google AdWords).

Google is pushing advertisers heavily towards Smart Campaigns, with their being different types of Smart Campaigns such as display, shopping and regular Smart campaigns.

But what exactly is the difference between setting up a Smart campaign, and setting up a search campaign? And what is the difference in terms of performance?

To answer this question, we are going to look at the key differences in the setup process, as well as the difference in the delivery and performance side of things.

Differences In Purpose

Search ads are the ‘classic’ style of Google Ads advertising.

Basically, with a search ads campaign you select your targeting criteria (location, time of day your ads run etc) and then set up ad groups and keywords under those ad groups.

Many DIY Google Ads advertisers find search ads campaigns tricky to set up.

Doing a “simple” setup with search ads isn’t as easy as you might think.

That’s why Google devised Smart Campaigns.

Smart Campaigns have evolved out of the ‘AdWords Express’ option (I won’t go fully into the history here, but suffice it to say that AdWords Express was all about making it easier for smaller businesses to get started on the platform in a more “turn key” fashion, with less technical knowledge required).

The whole idea of a Smart Campaign is diametrically opposed to a regular Search campaign.

With Smart Campaigns, you give Google some basic information about what your business is and your products/services, and then Google basically sorts out the rest for you.

They help create ad copy based on your website and Google My Business profile (you can still edit it), they select keywords to target for you, as well as help you advertise in other locations such as Google Maps.

This is compared with regular campaigns, where you have many potentially complex targeting options, and can fine tune delivery.

Long story short, a Smart Campaign is all about giving Google control to interpret your business and automatically find people who might be interested in your products/services.

Search Campaigns have more control and power, but require more technical knowledge and planning to set up.

Differences In Set Up

The differences in the set up side of things are really “night and day” or “chalk and cheese”.

With a regular search campaign, you get to run the full gamut of setup and configuration options.

You can configure ad group structure, keyword selection, keyword match types, ad extensions and more.

With Smart Campaigns, the process is far more basic and stripped back. It’s all about getting you up and running faster. You supply basic information about your business, products/services and advertising objectives to Google (as well as budget etc) and they basically sort out the rest for you!

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Differences In Delivery & Interface

As you might expect, there are some differences between a Smart Campaign & a Search Campaign when it comes to how your ads are delivered, and potentially with regards to performance.

With a regular Search campaign your ads show in Google Search, and potentially on Search Partners if you elect to use the Search Partners network (possibly also Display network if you make the mistake of leaving this setting enabled by default). You can get placement in Maps with the right extension set up, but it’s trickier.

With Smart Campaigns your ads can show in Search and many other places, such as Maps, partner websites and more.

Long story short, your ads will probably get wider distribution with a Smart Campaign.

Smart Campaigns also get a different type of dashboard:


Compared with the regular interface for determining and analysing performance of a Search Campaign, it’s clear that the Smart interface is built to make it easier to pull out key stats and facts at a glance (basically how many people have seen my ads, how many have clicked, what did I spend, and what sort of searches were people making?)

With a regular campaign it requires more digging and knowledge of the platform to pull out the stats you might want to find. However, you’ve got more detailed data at your disposal if you want and need it!

Differences In Performance

This is where the discussion gets interesting.

It’s abundantly clear that Smart Campaigns are designed to be easier and faster to setup, as well as more straightforward to manage.

But does this simplicity automatically equal rubbish performance, and does this therefore mean that you shouldn’t use Smart Campaigns?

Most Google Ads pros, digital marketing agencies etc will tell you that Smart Campaigns should be avoided. And - in most instances - that is correct.

If you have the ability to learn how to do (or invest in someone else doing) proper setup of regular Search Campaigns - possibly along with Display Campaigns - then you are probably better off to go through the full setup process. There is more control, more potential for optimisation, and generally you will see better performance.

HOWEVER (and this is a big caveat) if you run a small business and have a modest budget that would quickly be chewed up by management costs if you hire a freelancer or agency, then a Smart Campaign could actually be a good option.

For example, if you have say $250 a month to spend on Google Ads, you’d probably have to pay that again for professional management.

I have seen many smaller businesses wind up spending more on management than they do on ad spend. There is definitely a point at which it makes more sense to let Google have a stab at managing ads on your behalf, as every extra dollar you can allocate to Smart Campaign ad spend is likely to be more valuable than being allocated to management.

There’s not much point in paying $500 a month in management fees for $250 in ad spend (I have seen this exact scenario many times in my consulting career). Unless your agency/freelancer is capable of working miracles, in this kind of scenario you’d likely be better off allocating your management spend towards a Smart Campaign.

Remember that Google’s goal here with Smart Campaigns is to make using and getting results from their platform as easy as possible, and ultimately move money from agency and freelancer pockets into Google’s bank account.

In short, although Smart Campaigns generally do not perform as well as well-managed Search Campaigns, if you have a small business (especially something straightforward like a local service business e.g. electrician or florist) and a modest ad spend budget, then Smart Campaigns could be a good choice.

Smart Campaigns can be great for businesses that want to try Google Ads without having commit to large spend or management fees.

Just bear in mind you will be limited in terms of performance analysis and optimisation opportunities.

As your business grows you will hit a point where Smart Campaigns start making less sense, and you’re better to look at full campaign setups with professional management (or learn yourself).

I hope this has helped you to understand the difference between a Smart campaign and a Search campaign in Google Ads.

If you need more help understanding which is right for your business, please send me a message or email info@samfrost.co.nz and I’d be glad to help.