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Jan 08, 2024

The view from the crossroads

This shift is the convergence of two entirely separate issues likely to affect the core aspects of online life for much of the planet. The first comes from technological developments, namely AI, making a splash in how search engines, advertising, content, and user tracking operate. The second is the consequences of trials, enquiries, and legislation being levelled at the big tech companies, most notably Google, in various jurisdictions that will fundamentally impact how it can operate.

The year the machines took over

2024 will be remembered as the year paid advertising online changed forever. The initial adoption of machine learning in Google Ads is being supplanted by full AI. Whether this is a good thing or not really depends on your previous experiences with things like automated bidding strategies or Performance Max campaigns.

Google spent the second half of 2023 promising that the largest change to their Ads network will be implementing AI-powered functionality, which will massively enhance automation within advertising accounts. The road from purely manual advertising to true AI functionality has been a long one, dating back to the introduction of Dynamic Search Ads in 2011. The latest step on this journey has been Performance Max, which Google pushed very hard after their introduction despite its limited usefulness to anyone operating in a geographical or market niche. Although they’ve brought in further functionality to make PMax more useful, the promises of full AI to be introduced in 2024 will eclipse everything that came before.

One aspect of modern online marketing that AI will be able to counter is the increasing lack of reliability in old methods of tracking users. Privacy legislation has made various industry sectors, from hardware manufacturers to search engines, take more stringent steps to protect user privacy. This is a good thing for the users, but for companies selling their products and services online, it robs them of their understanding of how effective their efforts have been. Google claims that AI and other forthcoming updates will get around this, allowing advertisers to see how their spending directly results in sales while protecting user privacy.

Unlike previous iterations of Google’s advertising automation, these new features will place an emphasis on control and transparent reporting of what is going on. This was a definite downside of the existing Performance Max campaign type, which (like the earlier smart campaign type) was notoriously opaque. This opens up the cross-network functionality of Performance Max while allowing the advertiser to maintain tight control over the messaging and placement of the adverts they run. Another new feature is the ability to assign “search themes” to the Performance Max campaigns, granting the ability to find the right users to advertise too much faster.

One potential downside is the lack of planning tools available during the initial stages of building a new campaign. The venerable Keyword Planner Tool can’t give even a vague estimate of what sort of audience your campaign will reach. Although features are being brought in that give you a picture of what you’re accomplishing compared to how much you could be doing

Is Google’s place at the top of the food chain over?

No stranger to the courts, Google’s ability to profit from skirting legal issues resulted in the EU choosing to make the fines for violating GDPR consequential even for a behemoth like Google’s parent company, Alphabet. They’re currently facing serious legal issues on both sides of the Atlantic.

A widely publicised (at least in the world of digital marketing) trial brought by the US Department of Justice against Alphabet for unfairly monopolising the search market coincided with a lawsuit brought by Hereford Litigation on behalf of British consumers. This was on top of an ongoing class-action lawsuit relating to Google’s privacy violations in California. Then we had the recent implementation of the EU’s Digital Markets Act, which was obviously aimed at curtailing the power of big tech. You could think that Google might be in trouble.

But then, in the last days of 2023, Google were able to settle the California privacy case out of court for a cool $5 billion, so to some, it seemed the tech giant would once again emerge largely unscathed from the recent round of legal wranglings. But the US antitrust trial is a different kettle of fish. This brought the world’s attention to what Google was doing to maintain their market share as the dominant search engine, not just in the USA but across much of the globe. Huge payouts to Apple to keep Google as the default search engine on iOS devices may turn out to be the smoking gun that sees Google slapped with similar restrictions Microsoft saw from the EU in 2009, resulting in Internet Explorer quickly losing its market dominance.

If Google were to lose their market share of search traffic, it would very quickly confuse matters for those wanting to market themselves or their wares online.

What this means

Until both aspects of these impending changes play out, it’s hard to say precisely what this will mean for two who sell and those who buy online. It’s almost sure that things will improve for those selling to the general public. Still, the future for successful B2B marketing is murkier, given that niche markets are always the last to be considered.

The problem with watching and waiting to see what happens is that unless your day job is digital marketing, you have far more important things to do than watching a relatively obscure section of the news. We recommend that you leave it to the professionals. We’re already preparing for the changes, whichever road the situation takes, and making sure our clients will be ahead of the wave whatever happens.