How Google is Bringing Machine Learning to Small Business Advertising

Google’s new ad platform puts artificial intelligence within reach for businesses of all sizes.
With machine learning, Google will automatically prioritize your top-performing ads, so your marketing dollars go further. (Photo:

Every business owner wants to make wise decisions about how they spend their marketing dollars. But figuring out which advertising tactics are resonating the best with your target audience can be a challenge — especially when also juggling the daily responsibilities of your small business.


According to Greg Sterling of the Local Search Association, Google’s new ad platform is trying to take the complexity out of paid search for small businesses. (Photo: Greg Sterling)

In recent months, Google has made a number of changes to its advertising platform specifically designed to help small businesses make better use of their ad spend. How? By leveraging machine learning to optimize ads automatically.

To learn more about the new functionality, NCR Silver interviewed Greg Sterling, vice president of strategy and insights for the Local Search Association (LSA), a nonprofit industry association assisting businesses in online marketing to local consumers.

Learning like a human

Unless you’re a tech junkie or love sci-fi movies, you may be unfamiliar with the term “machine learning.” In short, it is the science of getting computers and artificial intelligence (AI) to learn new things over time by observing data trends and real-world interactions.

“Machine learning is technology that responds to external cues or events and adjusts accordingly,” explained Sterling. “Any event or transaction can be the basis for ‘learning’ and optimization.”

While the updates to Google’s ad algorithms will have limited impact on consumers, machine learning greatly improves online ad performance for businesses. In fact, Google found that advertisers who used the new tech to test multiple creatives saw up to 15 percent more clicks on their ads.

“The concept is to take the complexity out of paid search for local business. These ads and their creative elements will mostly be assembled by the system with minimal input from the small business marketer. The system will also optimize ads that are performing [well],” he said.

Related: 3 Disruptive Technologies that Are Making Their Way to Small Business

Building smarter campaigns

According to Sterling, the biggest difference Google’s new ad platform brings to local business owners is simplicity and automation. Before, ads were simple to set up but difficult to manage effectively.

“The machines do almost all the work. In theory, small businesses don’t need to develop expertise as search marketers, for these campaigns to be effective,” he explained.

Google calls its new default ad experience “Smart campaigns” because the ads are now tied directly to specific goals — from phone calls and website visits to requests for directions and in-store foot traffic.

Related: How to Get Into Google’s Local 3-Pack


Google found that advertisers who used the new tech to test multiple creatives saw up to 15 percent more clicks on their ads. (Photo: paulaphoto/Shutterstock)

Responding to consumer input

More experienced marketers will love Google’s new responsive search ad functionality. During the life of the campaign, ads that prove to achieve the desired result are prioritized over those that are not performing as well.

“Responsive search ads are for more sophisticated marketers, who provide creatives, copy and headlines,” Sterling said. “Google will then try out different combinations (A/B testing) and optimize against the ads that are successful (i.e., generating clicks).”

Smart Shopping campaigns perform similarly for ecommerce retailers. For stores that have a product feed set up through a Google merchant center, these campaigns will test various combinations of text and graphics to see which perform best.

Related: How To Know if Your Digital Marketing Campaign Is Working

Getting smarter by the day

While you don’t need to understand all the technical aspects of machine learning as a small business owner, it is helpful to research how new AI technologies are being used in the world today, said Sterling.

“Know that these technologies are changing the market and how marketing is being done,” he said. “Welcome it because it will make things substantially easier for [your online marketing endeavors].”

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