Google’s PMax: Without Real Transparency Ad Spend Could Be For Naught

Google’s PMax: Without Real Transparency Ad Spend Could Be For Naught

In this op-ed, Matthew Ratty, CEO of TrafficGuard (pictured) explains that When Google announced Performance Max (PMax), it seemed like the answer to every marketer’s dream. But something has gone awry.

PMax offered marketers the chance to drive efficiency, performance and better ROI across all of Google’s channels including YouTube, Search, Shopping and Discovery.

At the core of the PMax promise was Google’s AI, making decisions on everything from bidding, to creative, to search query matching and media environments. For many marketers, this even helped open the door to experimenting with innovation in online videos, such as YouTube Shorts.

However, akin to all AI and machine learning-driven advertising platforms, whether originating from Google, the Trade Desk, Yahoo, or numerous others, PMax requires that marketers place trust in the enigmatic algorithmic ‘black box.’ This calls for a dose of prudent scepticism.

The problem with all black box systems is marketers are at the mercy of the algorithm. In the case of PMax, where Google manages everything, it requires an even higher level of faith in the system. Limited granular reporting in PMax means that while you get broad campaign insights, you won’t be able to see if it’s display, search, video, or shopping ads driving your clicks and conversions.

This would be great if the world was perfect or if you only spent money on Google channels. But marketing is complex, with multiple media partners in any one campaign, and we all know from experience that industry opacity can be exploited to the detriment of marketers and their budgets.

Transparency and accountability are indispensable for marketers to operate with utmost effectiveness. This is why we think marketers should have access to expert analysis allowing them to make more informed decisions about PMax and all AI-driven optimization platforms.

Invalid Traffic is targeting PMax campaigns

It should come as no surprise that bad actors are shifting their focus from general programmatic fraud to targeting campaigns with no insights. The recent supply chain study conducted by ANA demonstrates that there is waste and inefficiency in the existing programmatic supply chain.

PMax is no exception, with the same underlying risk from invalid traffic (IVT) as we have seen on traditional programmatic campaigns. For the purposes of this piece, the definition of invalid traffic is traffic that neither contributes to incremental growth nor originates from human sources, encompassing entities like bots and data centres.

In the realm of traditional programmatic, invalid traffic and click fraud occur on a daily basis, spanning search, mobile, and affiliate campaigns.

For context, in search, we have seen between 5-15% of search clicks come from bots seeking to exploit paid search campaigns to sign up or claim incentives within the ads or worse, deliberately exhausting clients’ search budgets as a “competitive” tactic.

Of course, not all instances of invalid traffic bear malicious intent. For instance, we found that 97 per cent of one user’s Google ad budget was being consumed by returning users who were just using Google as a front door to click on a paid ad to log in to their account.

In the mobile domain, the figures we observe are even more worrying, especially for app install campaigns within sectors like car sharing and food delivery.

Instances of fraudulent app installs have surged to alarming rates, reaching up to 50 per cent and, for one client, the claimed clicks and installs exceeded the population of the targeted geography in a week!

When addressing affiliate fraud, specifically for high-payout categories such as sports and sports fantasy betting as well as subscription and entertainment services, we have seen click fraud and affiliate cookie stuffing through malevolent browser extensions siphon away $100,000 of affiliate payouts per month – harming marketers and publishers. Both those marketers and publishers that are being targeted should be concerned, especially with so many publishers pivoting to affiliate sources to offset general advertising challenges.

What we have observed on PMax is a mix of both new fraud tactics and some of the same types of invalid traffic and fraud that we see across programmatic.

As with most AI systems, PMax assumes every “user” engagement is positive in intent. When bad actors exploit this and create fake intent signals, it can end up training the algorithm to optimize towards the source of the invalid traffic. This results in wrongly optimized campaigns that divert and deplete advertising budgets by driving more fake engagement and conversion events.

To be fair, this is not malfeasance by Google or PMax, however, when AI is optimising towards invalid traffic, budgets can be exploited when there is opacity and no real-time third-party oversight and intervention.

PMax is simply a microcosm of what happens across the entire internet. The challenge lies in marketers who employ AI buying systems without independent third-party auditing and analysis, increasing the risk of simply pumping money into a high-speed AI-optimized ‘invalid traffic machine’.

What our client data shows about PMax

Our trials of our PMax analysis platform focused first on providing transparency of what channel type (search, shopping, display, video) is driving the conversion results. While Google’s AdManager interface for Performance Max fails to display this information, we found a way to provide visibility into these insights – because transparency matters when fighting fraud.

This includes an ability to clearly, by channel, for each and every PMax campaign, in real-time, identify where your money is going and what is driving your performance. Solving for what the ANA recently highlighted as the inefficiencies and waste that would otherwise come from the lack of access to data.

Access to real-time channel data provides the transparency and insights needed for advertisers to protect their entire PMax spend. For example, with one of our clients, who had trusted their paid search budget entirely to PMax, we identified where PMax was cannibalizing their branded keywords and highlighted that these keywords would perform better in a stand-alone search campaign where there is full control and transparency.

Additionally, our client saw PMax bidding on low-performing search terms that resulted in rapid burning of daily budgets on terms any experienced search marketer would normally exclude. This was not fraud per se; it was AI optimizing to suboptimal outcomes. Armed with this data, marketers can then confidently add brand exclusions across PMax (to avoid the wasted overspend on branded keywords) and add account-level negative keywords for extremely poor-performing generic terms.

Within PMax we are seeing a tendency of the algorithm to over-optimize towards paying for clicks from customers you already have – this has been a historic issue with any search PPC campaign, but has accelerated with PMax.

Existing customers who are “lazy browsers” and use Google to simply get to the homepage by way of clicking on a paid ad to get to the login section, or to find the customer service details are a honeypot for PMax’s AI bias for clicks and engagement. Clearly, it’s not logical for marketers to invest in these outcomes from their existing customers, when they could allocate their marketing budgets towards acquiring new customers, it simply adds to the Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC).

One of our clients saw over 50 per cent of their invalid traffic via PMax being funnelled into paying for existing customers to come to the website. We have made it possible for marketers to dynamically set click frequency thresholds on returning users, as well as filtering out bot traffic, forcing the AI algorithm to search for new valid users across PMax.

In terms of outright fraud on PMax, our data shows 7.5 per cent of PMax clicks were invalid across various campaigns. This included clearly identified fraud or highly suspect user engagement where secondary on-site user behaviour was not consistent with a qualified adult human audience. The good news is that this can be stopped. Real-time analysis via our website tags and a direct Google Ad Manager integration made it straightforward to identify and then protect client’s spend across the entire PMax campaign. This includes automatically passing to Google PMax the necessary data points required to mitigate invalid traffic so they were no longer targeted, helping clients acquire real audiences and incremental conversions, and reducing wasted budgets in the process.

What should marketers do about PMax?

All things considered, the industry should be optimistic about AI’s potential to drive better marketing performance. There is real value to be realized in automation and operational efficiencies to be gained.

However, whether it’s PMax or any other AI-led solutions, marketers must push for algorithmic transparency, invest in independent oversight, and not blindly trust the little black box of algorithms if they truly want to drive the best fraud-free performance. Otherwise, bad actors, whether they target PMax or any other AI-led advertising solution, will exploit trust for their benefit, draining marketing budgets in the process.




Please login with linkedin to comment

Google PerformanceMax TrafficGuard

Latest News

Sefiani Unveils A Wave Of Promotions & Appointments
  • Advertising

Sefiani Unveils A Wave Of Promotions & Appointments

Sefiani has strengthened its digital offering with a new senior appointment and bolstered its corporate and crisis management team with two new hires and two senior promotions. Katrina Calvi has been appointed social and digital content account director to lead the agency’s rapidly growing digital marketing offering, working closely with Clarity Global’s digital teams in […]

Yahoo Launches Identity Solutions For CTV
  • Technology

Yahoo Launches Identity Solutions For CTV

Yahoo Advertising has launched Yahoo Identity Solutions for Connected TV (CTV) environments including Paramount. Yahoo Identity Solutions on CTV will give advertisers enhanced targeting and measurement for the ID-constrained world, backed by global partnerships with Paramount, Tubi, NBCUniversal and FreeWheel “As CTV investments increase, identity signals are declining, impacting targeting and performance across channels, including […]

Infosum Launches Data Clean Room Solution With Samsung Ads Australia
  • Technology

Infosum Launches Data Clean Room Solution With Samsung Ads Australia

Samsung Ads has launched a data clean room solution powered by InfoSum. The relationship enables Samsung Ads’ clients to maximise the performance of their data-driven advertising strategies within InfoSum’s privacy-focused environment. As privacy regulations evolve, organisations across the region are prioritising their first-party data programs – making data clean rooms an increasingly important piece of […]

Fast 10: Bread Agency’s Amaury Treguer Its “Unrivalled” Social Commerce Focus
  • Advertising

Fast 10: Bread Agency’s Amaury Treguer Its “Unrivalled” Social Commerce Focus

Founded in August 2022, Amaury Treguer and the team at Bread Agency have certainly caught B&T’s eye recently. In January, it picked up the global social media account for Modibodi and last month, it launched an unusual billboard-first recruitment campaign. Greg ‘Sparrow’ Graham caught up with the agency’s co-founder Amaury Treguer to get the low […]

CRA Siren Award To Be Presented At B&T Awards 2024!
  • Media

CRA Siren Award To Be Presented At B&T Awards 2024!

After 20 years, Commercial Radio and Audio (CRA) will be revamping its Siren Award, with the trophy being handed out at this year’s B&T Awards! The Siren Award will be presented as the Best Use of Radio/Audio at this year’s B&T Awards, and marks a new approach for B&T and CRA aimed at reflecting excellence […]

Special Launches Second Iteration Of Virgin’s “Bring On Wonderful” Brand Platform
  • Campaigns

Special Launches Second Iteration Of Virgin’s “Bring On Wonderful” Brand Platform

The second installation of Virgin’s “Bring On Wonderful” brand platform, created by Special, has been revealed featuring the airline’s team members. The campaign was inspired by Virgin Australia team members demonstrating the ways they go above and beyond to bring joy to the flying experience. Like a viral video of a Perth baggage handler who […]

OMA & RSL Join Forces For ANZAC Day
  • Advertising

OMA & RSL Join Forces For ANZAC Day

The Outdoor Media Association (OMA) and RSL have once again joined forces in the spirit of mateship, partnering for the fifth consecutive year to encourage Australians to commemorate ANZAC Day. Lead image L-R: Geoff Noonan, QMS Queensland State Sales Manager; Jimmy Sullivan, Assistant Minister for Justice and Veterans’ Affairs; Elizabeth McIntyre, Outdoor Media Association CEO; Major […]

JOLT Appoints Former Vicinity Centres Alicia Proebstl As Group Sales Manager
  • Advertising

JOLT Appoints Former Vicinity Centres Alicia Proebstl As Group Sales Manager

JOLT has announced the appointment of Alicia Proebstl as its new group sales manager in Melbourne, driving out-of-home and digital advertising solutions for its growing Victorian and South Australian client base. In the role, Proebstl will be responsible for managing end-to-end media sales across JOLT’s Melbourne client base, while also growing market share and revenue. […]

NAB’s New Brand Campaign Flexes To Target Gen Z Via TBWA\Melbourne & Mindshare
  • Campaigns

NAB’s New Brand Campaign Flexes To Target Gen Z Via TBWA\Melbourne & Mindshare

NAB, together with TBWA\Melbourne and Mindshare, has unveiled the next iteration of the recently launched ‘Wrangle Your Money’ campaign. The new work is specifically tailored for Gen Z and is in response to young Australians feeling the ongoing cost-of-living crisis the hardest. Recent findings from ASIC reveal that 82% of Gen Z, in contrast to […]

“Intrinsically I’ve Always Had Giving At My Heart”: UNICEF’s Zunilka Whitnall On Making A Positive Social Impact
  • B&T Exclusive

“Intrinsically I’ve Always Had Giving At My Heart”: UNICEF’s Zunilka Whitnall On Making A Positive Social Impact

Zunilka Whitnall is a force to be reckoned with. The daughter of immigrant parents who desires to leave a legacy for her own children, Whitnall is passionate about evoking positive social change, not just financial. As the innovation, new products, and senior partnership specialist lead at UNICEF Australia, Zunilka cuts through the noise to achieve […]

AI-Powered ROI: The Retail Marketing Revolution
  • Partner Content

AI-Powered ROI: The Retail Marketing Revolution

In this op-ed, Jonathan Reeve, vice president of APAC for Eagle Eye, unpacks the power of AI for ROI in retail marketing. With AI, we’re on the verge of achieving retail marketing’s holy grail: true one-to-one personalisation. This is crucial because recognising the individuality of each shopper and delivering a custom retail experience that reflects […]

Partner Content

by B&T Magazine

B&T Magazine