Is Google AdWords Too Complicated for Small Businesses?

Remember when Google AdWords was easy? Remember when all you needed was five minutes and a credit card to advertise to millions of people? Yes, those were the good old days, back in the early 2000s when Google launched its revolutionary pay-per-click (PPC) platform AdWords.

But in the 10 years since its launch, has Google AdWords become too complicated for SMBs?

Is Google AdWords Too Complicated for Small Businesses?

It Wasn’t Always This Complicated

I’ve worked with AdWords accounts for over six years now. My first foray into PPC was a group project in my Internet marketing class. My team was handed a shiny American Express gift card worth $500 and told to create an AdWords campaign for a local company. We did some keyword research, wrote a few ads and unleashed our creation into the wild. To this day I don’t know if the project had a positive ROI for the company, but at that point in time, using AdWords was so easy five college kids with no experience could do it.

After graduating from college I started working for a software company that marketed almost exclusively online. I was in charge of an AdWords budget of several thousand dollars a month and got much better at using it. My keyword lists became more refined, my ad copy had laser-like focus on getting the click, and I was landing users on the exact page that would deliver on their intent. With the robust reporting, all I had to do was focus on the numbers and let them direct where I put in my efforts. AdWords was so easy a new college grad could do it.

Eventually I moved on to work for an Internet marketing agency where I was the one-man PPC department. I was now managing multiple accounts and tens of thousands of dollars in clicks. Sounds like a big deal, but the basic principles were still the same. Pick good keywords and write good ads to keep Google happy with your high click-through rate (CTR). Send people to landing pages that convert to keep the client happy. AdWords was so easy that one guy could run a whole agency’s PPC portfolio.

The changes were almost imperceptible to me because I was working on multiple accounts every day and reading numerous industry blogs. But to the SMB owner, Google AdWords was evolving faster than a virus in a sci-fi movie.

The Interface

AdWords started beta testing a new interface in November 2008. They expanded the beta during the first part of 2009, and on July 30, 2009 they said “Bye, bye, beta.” Personally I didn’t mind the new interface, but for someone unfamiliar with AdWords, I can see how it had an intimidating appearance. Here is a screenshot from early 2009:

New AdWords Interface

Look at how many options you have from this one screen:

  • 6 top-level tabs, 4 of which have drop-down menus
  • 6 more tabs inside the main campaign area of the page
  • 2 scrolling menus in the left sidebar
  • Other links scattered around the page

That’s a lot of options, and that was in 2009. Looking at the interface for one of my clients today, there can be as many as 10 tabs in the main campaign area, and many basic functions (like reporting and the keyword tool) have been moved in the last year or so. Not very friendly to the novice user.

New Features

If you visit the Official Google AdWords Blog you’ll notice that virtually every post is about something “new” or “improved.” Here’s a short list of new features AdWords has launched in past few months:

  • Search Funnels
  • Ad Extension
  • Seller Ratings
  • AdWords Campaign Experiments
  • Remarketing
  • AdWords Automated Rules
  • Enhanced CPC
  • Broad Match Modifier
  • Call Tracking
  • AdWords API

Each one of these features is powerful, but at a rate of nearly one major feature added per month, how is the SMB owner supposed to keep up?

Quality Score

Quality Score (QS) isn’t new in AdWords. It’s been around for years. However, the factors affecting QS change frequently, and even the best PPC managers in the industry struggle to decipher what exactly goes into the QS algorithm, how much weight each factor receives and how QS differs based on placement (since QS is calculated differently for search vs. display). Since this seemingly magical number influences if/where your ad will be displayed and how much you’ll pay for a click, you can’t just ignore it. But can SMB owners really invest the money/time necessary to hit a constantly moving target?

K.I.S.S

No matter how complicated AdWords gets, success will always depend on the basics.

  1. What pain do your customers have? – Choose keywords related to this pain.
  2. How can you fix their pain? – Write ad copy that offers a potential solution.
  3. What do they do next? – Send users to a page that clearly explains how you’ll solve their pain and what they need to do (Buy Now, Sign Up, etc.).

While simple, this approach should guide all your AdWords efforts. Put yourself in the customer’s shoes by imagining that you have a problem and typed it into Google. You see multiple ads and search results. Which ones stand out? Is there an angle not being utilized? Go to your landing page and see how well it matches up with the search term and ad copy. Once you’ve mastered this basic process you can augment your efforts with new features, but keeping it simple will help your business benefit from Google AdWords.

More in: 48 Comments ▼

Robert Brady


Robert Brady Robert Brady is the owner and head PPC wizard at Righteous Marketing, a Google AdWord Certified Partner. Robert helps small business owners and large companies just getting started with Pay-Per-Click (PPC) get better results from their PPC management.

48 Reactions

  1. I run a small software business in the assisted living industry, and I’ve just started using AdWords. In fact, I started yesterday. In my first interaction with the interface ever, I was able to get a campaign going in about 10 minutes.

    I should caveat that by saying that I’m certainly no AdWords power user. All I wanted to do was redeem a $100 free advertising gift card and give AdWords a shot by starting a (very) simple advertising campaign. With very minimal effort, I was able to accomplish all that. I haven’t felt like their system is too complicated.

    • I did the same thing,however the campaign produced poor results and what really happened was I thought I had produced a campaign which worked and instead I poured money into google ads for nothing.
      Untill google can offer a simplified service, I will not be using them.

  2. I Totally agree!
    Even if you are an expertise in online Mk and you use to be in touch with this kind of tools, its getting too many difficult. Google should STOP this race and think that for most of people that use Adwords, Adwords isn’t the most important thing or their lives

  3. I agree with the fact you need to get a grasp on the basics, then learn/decide if new features are a good fit. But, plain and simple: search wasn’t the same in 2009 as it is in 2011. We can’t tell searchers what results/features to use, therefore we need our tool to evolve to allow us to leverage all aspects of paid search (which means more options in the interface).

    As for the increased tabs (which I find to be intuitively labeled), if you don’t need 10, hide 4 of them to bring you back to the original 6.

  4. I would say that it’s not too complicated to get an ad up and running…..the complicated part is having a successful ad on Google. Just because it’s there, doesn’t mean it’s getting clicks, or that it’s getting you business. What’s REALLY hard now is getting Google certified. I am not, but a co-worker that is going through the process has made statements like, “Do you have to be a computer programmer now to run Google ads?”

  5. @Adam – Glad you’re having a good experience. You’re on the right track by focusing on the basics.

    @Jaime – I am okay with AdWords adding features but new advertisers need help knowing where to start so they don’t get lost, have a bad experience and turn their back on a great opportunity.

    @Brad – I’m all for the new features. I use most of them for my clients and they deliver great results. However, for new advertisers the amount of options and features creates a lot of noise and can make for a frustrating experience.

  6. Here’s the thing… AdWords is easy enough to setup and get going. It always has been and that’s the lure. The complicated part is getting results and understanding how you can take advantage of all the latest features to get even better results.

  7. Great job with this post, Robert.

    Google can make things a little too complicated, once in awhile, but compared to our friends at FB, it’s nothing!

    I’ve used Adwords on and off for a few years. I have not had too much success. At all.

    Maybe an expert like can help.

    The Franchise King®

  8. Hi Robert,

    I really loved the way you gave a comparison and overview of how AdWords has changed over time. I have to agree that it was much simpler back then to now but then I guess technology and online marketing has improved leaps and bounds in these past few years and Google keeps adding new features to make it more beneficial for the users. However, you’ve given the perfect solution, learn the basics and then go ahead experiment with the other features. Thanks a lot for sharing. I am sure people who weren’t familiar with AdWords will know exactly what it’s all about!

    Riya Sam
    Training for Entrepreneurs.com

  9. I work a lot with small business owners and the problem isn’t so much being able to get ads up and running on Adwords, it’s getting a return from these.

    I know many people who have wasted a small fortune on Adwords because they didn’t really understand how to use the platform properly.

    I think for businesses with poor websites Adwords can be a complete waste of time and the money better spent on improving the user experience and conversion optimisation.

  10. I’ve been working with AdWords on behalf of clients pretty much since Google opened the doors.

    I absolutely believe that AdWords is too complicated for the average SMB, and I’ve been pretty noisy on the subject for years. Sure, it’s very easy to get an ad up and running, but to keep your ads up and running, and profitable, and taking advantage of as many opportunities as are available? No way.

    When Jane Business Owner gets her $100 free voucher and fires up her default account, Google stacks the deck (by default) heavily in favor Google, not the advertiser. The default account setup (broadest possible match keywords, Search Network & Display Network in same campaign, Quality Score column not enabled, other fine tuning options) is designed to burn through as much money as quickly as possible, before Jane has had a chance to learn the system.

    It all looks great while the voucher money is being used, and just about the time the spend rolls over to the credit card, that’s when the Quality Score issues kick in, and suddenly the minimum bids are ten times what they were the week before, or ads stop running entirely. And the advertiser has no clue what happened, or how to fix it. We get a lot of these frustrated end users on the forums, and they end up either hiring someone like me to clean up, or just give up. After all, they have businesses to run, not hundreds of hours to learn the nuances of AdWords.

    Google is blanketing the planet with $100 vouchers (they’ve become the AOL discs of the decade) to get new advertisers rather than making things simpler and trying to retain the advertisers they have.

    If they’d unstack the deck a little, Google would probably retain advertisers and the advertisers themselves would see more success. Win-win.

    • Thanks for those words, often when trying to get a good ROI I have felt in the past that its me getting it all wrong and that’s its all my fault, I imagine a lot of other users feel the same way.

  11. @Aaron & @SearchBlogger – You’ve hit the nail on the head. Easy to set up (and give Google your money) but more difficult to get good results (get customers and make more money).

  12. And that my friends is why Clickbooth has CB|CPC. In the recent years, so many companies have been wanting a Google AdWords alternative but no one was successfully able to put one out. So here comes Clickbooth, a CPA network, looking to conquer PPC.

  13. @Meg – I wonder if AOL has an estimate of how many of their CDs they sent out? Would love to ask Google if they’ve sent out more or less vouchers.

  14. I believe the interface is quite easy for small business owners to use, its simple and shouldn’t take long for them to build out a campaign. Its the account management that is the complicated part.

    Understand the value of different match types, what they should be paying per click and per lead, that is where it can get confusing for a business owner.

  15. I agree with the sentiment of the folks who say that set up is easy and getting clicks is easy, but targeting the right clickers/audience and getting a return is the greater challenge.

  16. Great post Robert. I agree that the interface and feature set are far more complicated than when I started in this 6 or 7 years ago. The basic principles you outlined should help people guide through the clutter.

  17. Most small businesses can’t afford to hire someone to update and refine their Google Adwords campaign. As one of your commenters noted, just because you have an ad up doesn’t mean it is effective. I think perhaps Google has gotten enamored with its own abilities and lost sight of the time and training that a small business can afford. Maybe Google needs to set up levels of engagement: the old 2008 model for ease of entry and use, a second level with more complex tools, and even a third. That way new users would not be overwhelmed and deterred from even trying what is a useful tool … if you can implement it effectively.

  18. It’s true that getting the Ad up there is the simplest part. In fact in my experience with Google, Yahoo, Bing and Facebook Advertising, Google has been the best. They respond very quickly, they approve Ads within minutes and they have, by far, the most thorough tools and help features around advertising.

    But the place where they fail is “educating people”. And I believe that’s partly because in hindsight they probably don’t want everyone to know how to make the max out of AdWords. I have worked in SEO and Adwords space for years and one thing that I have learned is that you should focus on making your site more SEO friendly even before venturing into anything related to Adwords. Google Adwords works based on the content of your site and the relevance of the content with your Ad. The better content and the more SEO friendly it is, and the better Ads you write, you’ll see better results. Unfortunately many people don’t spend enough time on making their sites SEO friendly and eventually get beat up by expensive campaigning…

  19. PPC is way too confusing. I spent a week in Alaska on a ship reading a book trying to learn it. I’ll spend my time doing backlinking and video. Bigger bang for my buck.

  20. I own a business that also is a franchise opportunity. Some of my franchisees are using Google adwords and some are not. The one that are complain more than anything that it is a huge expense that they are now replacing with smarter SEO placement.
    This is a great article though in helping to understand the ins and outs of Google adwords!
    Thank you!

  21. Thanks for sharing. Sometimes it’s like a moving target! It boils down to content, value in what you are sharing, and building relationships by being approachable, transparent and human. This is before you get into SEO and Google Adwords.

  22. I totally agree. Time and time again I have clients asking me questions on how to implement the most basic features in Adwords. You’re right, it never use to be this way. Unfortunately for small business owners and part-time marketers, it’s not changing anytime soon. I guess that’s why my managed PPC services are flourishing.

  23. Great article. I do agree that it is complex, but the biggest issue with Adwords right now is that it has become to expensive. Google is aware that costs have risen to a point where SEM with Adwords might not be obtainable for the small business, thus they rolled out products like Boost over the last few months.

    Because of questions like “is Google Adwords too complicated for small business?”, we are looking to create a database of users experiences with Google at Biznextdoor to answer the question, should I even be running PPC?

    Keep up the good work!

  24. Anyone can set up ads using AdWords for simple ads and simple, short, uncompetitive search terms. Maybe not for keywords more than $25.

    Most SMB probably don’t know how to use Analytics to figure out if they are getting a ROI. Improving CTR & Conversion are probably beyond the capabilities of most small businesses.

    At least (from Google’s perspective) the interface is easy enough to get SMBs to START using AdWords, and hopefully never stop.

  25. Even though they did change their layout and added a large number new features, I still think it is relatively easy to use.
    It would be nice though to allow the user to customize the functions they need via an admin panel.

  26. I kicked AdWords to the curb, not because it was too hard to use but because it had stopped paying for itself. I know from experience that people read top-down, so if my site is #1 in organic results, there’s no longer any point in advertising. It amazes me how many repeat customers find us every time by using a search engine instead of just typing into the URL bar.

  27. It may seem a little complicated or cumbersome to some SBO’s , but if you cannot understand it you should consider contracting a professional to either explain it or run it for you BEFORE you start any campaign. Why would you spend money advertising if you cannot grasp the platform and concept and of course a strategy to make it show an ROI!

    IF you budget does not permit contacting someone there are plenty of you tube and slide share how to’s that will explain the nuances of ad words.Not to mention blogs and Google’s own self help.

  28. @Charleen – Don’t forget that often times AdWords ads are placed above the organic results, so that if someone reads top to bottom they will often see paid ads first. This is especially true now that AdWords has been placing the 1st description line next to the title, making a listing that looks more like the organic results.

  29. Google has added bells and whistles that work for the sophisticated customer – the one who has used it since its simpler beginnings and grown with the changes. I shudder to think what a newbie would do with the current interface. Opportunities for choice can mean opportunities for mistakes, and with a small beginning budget like most SMBs have, mistakes can kill the business. This is why we tell our TV advertiser clients at Cheap-TV-Spots.com that we take control of the whole production process, then we help them through the maze of media buying.

  30. AdWords is simple to use, but difficult to use well and with precision. It is a sophisticated and powerful tool that many of us still think of as a do-it-yourself media tool. It has become anything but that.

  31. @Robert Brady – Yes, everyone knows Adwords appears first, and its the reason people spend what they do to be seen at the top. Studies have shown, however, that there is a trust issue with users concerning the paid results, and consequently, they often skip the ads and go for an organic (seen as honest) link, below the paid results. On the other hand, being seen is very valuable, in itself, even if the user doesn’t click on the ad. This viewing, over time, is branding – it’s also something that budget TV advertising does quite effectively, and often on a similar or lower budget than online ads.

    Jeff Madsen makes a good point about the ability to use Adwords well — many people make great gains, but many also simply lose money while they experiment or choose poorly.

  32. We were the first of our area to start adword 4 years ago. It seems that now my competitors have caught on and are all doing it. I want to know what is next for the cutting edge marketing. Ocoee Rafting is one of the most competitive key words to fight for in our field. So I ‘ve under cut everyone with all the other key words.

  33. Adwords isn’t too complicated if (and that’s a big if) Google would get some better training available for small business managers. Another thing that resonated throughout the comments was the poor default settings. Those broad match settings should only be used by people who know exactly what to do with them and why. Yet the part that doesn’t make sense is that Google is shooting themselves in the foot by not helping the sbm’s make money using Adwords. It would be a win-win situation if they did.

  34. The current dashboard can be confusing for anyone who hasn’t been using Adwords for awhile. It’s an effective marketing tool, but the best way to achieve that is to hire someone experienced with keyword research and writing targeted ads. Spending money on expertise is better than wasting it on ineffective ads. Using Adwords successfully is not as easy as Google or many Adwords do-it-yourself articles would have you believe.

  35. I am using adwords for 2 years and having some good success with it and in my experience I don’t think it’s complicated for small business

  36. Nick – Google has some training available through their small business center, which is good at teaching you how to spend more with AdWords. However, it usually falls short in helping businesses determine if efforts are worthwhile (because sometimes they just won’t be).

    Conny – I agree with you 100%, but some small business owners still try to go it alone and Google is all too willing to take their money.

    rabbi – Glad you’ve had success.

  37. Sorry but Google Adwords is dead.

    It is overpriced and most small companies do not have the time to be messing about with it.

    New search engines like Ehalos are now leading the way, they manage your campaign for free and the cost per click is a fraction of what google is.

  38. @John – I have to disagree. AdWords is still effective, even for small companies, and until search engines like Ehalos gain more significant search volume AdWords will continue to be important.

  39. Definitely, Robert. Adwords is very effective for small business. Although I do agree that it is extremely complicated and takes a lot of training to fully use these days.
    Thanks for the post!

  40. Adwords is complicated just like buying stocks – yes, anyone can do it but not many can get results. That said, some do get result but they just may have gotten lucky.

    Also “results” is very relative. If you are OK paying $100 per lead and can afford that then maybe you would call that “good results” but maybe you could get the same leads for $25 each if you had an expert help you.

    Its always wise to ask an expert or two for feedback on your account in form of “free consultation” because at the end of the day it is a profession for a reason.

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