Google Ads – how to tell if you’re being ripped off

Marketing / 14.07.22
Mark Vaesen

If you’ve ever used Google search, then you’ve almost certainly seen Google Ads. These are the paid-for adverts which appear at the top or bottom of the organic (non-paid-for) search results. They have a subtle “Ad” indicator in the top left to differentiate them from organic results.

Google Ads for Change Formation

Google Ads can be a lucrative way of marketing your business – so long as they’re well managed.

Let me repeat that: so long as they are well managed.

A poorly managed Google Ads campaign can cost you a fortune, for little return on your investment.

Sometimes this is just the result of using an inexperienced Google Ads manager.

Unfortunately, however, there are agencies in our world who run Google Ads so they benefit themselves far more than their clients. We can’t say for sure whether they’re unscrupulous or just incompetent… but we have our suspicions.

This article looks at some of the ways in which agencies can get your Google Ads wrong (deliberately or not) and how you can spot the problem before it costs you too much money.

Lack of transparency

Whenever an agency is spending your money, there should be absolute transparency about what they’re doing and how this is benefiting you.

Google Ads account ownership

Some agencies will set up your Google Ads in their own account, not yours, and won’t give you access.

For some agencies it’s a policy to manage all Google Ads from their own account, but if this is the case you should at least have access to all the data about your ads, to allow you to interrogate it yourself.

Ideally, however, the agency should set up the Google Ads in an account that you own. That way you retain full control and, should you and the agency go your separate ways, you can re-use the adverts without having to set them up again from scratch,

Agreeing search terms

The Google Ads search terms are the phrases which users type into Google which will trigger your advert to appear.

You’ll often see spam emails promising to get you to the “top of Google” and some ad agencies will make the same promises.

The idea of being top of Google is great, in principle, but you need to ask the question “What search terms are we top of Google for?”

If your agency lacks transparency then you might not know the answer, and this is a problem.

In the past we’ve seen agencies who have only placed ads against unusual search terms, probably not the ones their clients need to target.

Why would they do this?

Because the cost per click on these unusual, less competitive search terms will be much lower. And, if they’re not giving you the full picture about what your money is being spent on, this gives them the opportunity to make a tidy profit at your expense. Which brings us on to our next red flag…

Clarity about what you’re paying for

Agencies will charge you for two things when running your Google Ads.

Firstly, they’ll charge you for their time in managing the campaigns. Secondly, they’ll charge you for each time someone clicks on your advert.

This is all fine (and is standard practice), however the problems start when agencies don’t tell you how much of what you’re paying is going on management fees and how much on your clicks.

This creates an immediate conflict of interest because it incentivises the agency to show your ads for low-cost clicks (unusual/uncompetitive search terms) because the cost per click is lower. They can then put a much higher proportion of what you’re paying into their pocket as management fee.

If an agency refuses to divulge how much of what you’re paying is management fee and how much is ad click budget, this is definitely one to walk away from.

Beware of what jargon might be disguising

There’s a lot of jargon associated with Google Ads. A LOT.

“Ad rank”. “Search network only”. “Campaign”. “CPM”. “Billing threshold”. “Ad group”. “CTR”. “Bid strategy”. “Display network only”. “Keywords”. “CPC”. “Ad extensions”. “PPC”. “Impressions”.

The list goes on and on.

However, you shouldn’t be expected to understand these terms (in the same way that you wouldn’t expect us to immediately understand the jargon from your industry). If your agency starts to throw jargon at you, ask them to explain it properly and, importantly, how it relates back to your business objectives.

The data you should receive

So what should a good agency share with you?

You should expect the following:

  • Sign off on the wording of every advert before it goes live.
  • Agreement about which locations you’re targeting – an ecommerce business probably needs to be country-wide, but a solicitor will might only want to advertise in their local catchment area.
  • Regular (probably monthly) reporting on:
    • Number of clicks on your adverts
    • Cost per click
    • The search terms that triggered the adverts that received clicks
    • The conversion rate (e.g. ecommerce sales, contact form completions, clicks on your phone number)
Takeaway: Don’t work with any agency that isn’t happy to give you the full picture about how they’re spending your money.

Posting ads when people search for your brand/company name

Now, first and foremost, we should say that this is not always a bad thing to do. If, for example, a competitor’s advertising when someone searches for your brand name, then running your own ads to drown them out may well be a good tactic.

However, advertising against your own brand or company name should only be done when there’s a good reason for it. If your advertising agency are doing this, make sure you ask them what that good reason is.

Read more about running ads for your own brand name.

Why could this be problem?

The issue comes with the fact that when someone searches for you by name (eg “Tomango brand agency”) they are highly likely to click on the first thing they see that takes them to your website.

Normally, this would be your website’s listing in the organic (unpaid) search results.

But if you’re advertising, then your ad will appear above the organic search results, so will receive more clicks.

Your ad agency can proudly show what a fantastic conversion rate it has (in terms of the proportion of people searching who then click on your ads). But, of course, these people would have ended up on your website anyway, even if the ads weren’t running, because they were looking specifically for you and would have clicked on your organic search result (which wouldn’t have cost you anything).

BC SoftWear Google Ad
Generally we don’t recommend Google Ads when someone searches for you by name. However, in this case, our client (BC SoftWear) has a distributor (Salons Direct) running adverts when someone searches for “bc softwear”. There’s a risk that someone will click on their advert, rather than the BC SoftWear organic listing immediately below it. Therefore, we’re running ads to make sure BC SoftWear themselves always appear at the top.
Takeaway: Search for your company/brand name and see if your ads appear. If they do, ask your agency why they’ve chosen to do this – they should be happy to give you an explanation.

Not weeding out unconvertable clicks

This is another way in which an agency could choose to get you more clicks, more cheaply, but without delivering the right type of enquiries. It’s putting quantity over quality – which might look good in reports but doesn’t give you the return on investment you’re looking for.

In Google Ads, as well as saying which search terms you want your ad to appear for, you can also say which search terms you don’t want it to appear for. This stops you paying for clicks from people searching for something irrelevant, or who are unlikely to ever convert.

For example, we were running an ad campaign for a cosmetic mole removal company in Tunbridge Wells. We displayed their ads when someone searched for “mole removal tunbridge wells”. We spotted another ad running against the same search term – for a furniture removals company! Any clicks on their advert would have been a complete waste of money.

Another, more complex, example is a company who sells high end, handmade kitchens. When running their advert we’re careful to remove any search terms such as “wickes kitchen” or “ikea kitchen” because people looking for these are highly unlikely to have the budget for a bespoke kitchen, so we don’t want to risk the client paying for clicks which won’t convert.

Google Ads for "hotel maidstone" search
Here we’ve searched for hotels in Maidstone. As you can see, the Google Ads include budget options such as Travelodge and Premier Inn.
Google Ads for "luxury hotel maidstone" search
If we amend the search to luxury hotels in Maidstone, the budget hotel options no longer appear. This is because they know that someone searching for a luxury hotel is unlikely to want to stay in a Travelodge, therefore advertising against this search term could cost them money for clicks which will never convert.

Your Google Ads agency should make an effort to really understand your business, your objectives, your services/products and your position in the market. If they aren’t asking these types of questions then they won’t have the knowledge to run the best campaigns for you.

Takeaway: Make sure you receive reports showing which search terms triggered your adverts to appear and check they are all relevant.

Where is your ad?

One of the simplest things to do is search in Google and see if your ad appears (DON’T CLICK ON IT – or you’ll end up paying for your own click!).

Your ad won’t appear every time. If you have a limited daily budget and look for your ads later in the day they might not appear because that day’s budget has run out. However, if your ad consistently fails to appear, then challenge your agency about why this is.

And look at where on the page your ad is appearing. Is it at the bottom of page 1? The cost per click will be cheaper for ads down there, but the click through rate is low and you’ll probably get lower conversion rates. If your ads are always at the bottom, challenge your agency about why this is.

Your ad might not even be on page 1, it might be on page 2. It’s virtually (though not completely) pointless to run ads on page 2, so again you should challenge your agency about why they’re adopting this strategy.

We should add, at this point, that we’re very happy to be challenged by our own clients! Often we just need to provide a bit of additional explanation, but sometimes the conversation will give us some fresh insights and ideas to help improve the ads further. So don’t be afraid to speak up.

Takeaway: Look for your ads on Google and challenge your agency if they’re not appearing in a good position on page 1.

Should you use an agency at all?

So, having taken you through the murky world of how you could be ripped off by a Google Ads agency, does that mean you shouldn’t use one at all?

Absolutely not! The right Google Ads agency will bring a huge amount of experience and expertise to your adverts and ensure that you’re getting every drop of benefit from them.

Managing them yourself can be a real headache. They’re complicated to set up, the Google Ads support team will keep calling you about “optimising” them (though this is primarily about helping Google to make more money from them) and we have seen them spiral out of control without proper management.

It’s not so much a question of whether you should use an agency, but of finding the right agency.

If you think we could be the right agency to manage your Google Ads in Sussex or further afield, give us a call on 01273 814 019 or email