ALK Digital Marketing Solutions

Search vs Performance Max Campaigns for Google Ads

Graphic Design: Search vs Performance Max Campaigns
Graphic Design: Search vs Performance Max Campaigns

When I first began managing Google Ads campaigns for clients, it was pretty straightforward. I would perform keyword research, write effective search ads, consider targeting and display expansion and then move onto optimization. 

However, Google Ads has evolved dramatically in recent years, leading users and managers to reconsider the balance between manual control and algorithmic management. 

One of the most significant shifts is evident when comparing traditional search ads to the innovative AI-driven Performance Max campaigns. 

While Google Ads reports that accounts with Performance Max campaigns boast an average 13% increase in total incremental conversions, the question remains: are they always the best choice? 

In this article, we’ll delve into the distinctions between Google Ads Search vs Performance Max campaigns and provide insights into when to leverage each. 

A Brief History

Google’s roots lie in search, with users typing keywords like “Plumber Services” and Google presenting relevant results on its Search Engine Results Pages (SERP), known as organic listings. 


However, achieving visibility in organic listings was time-consuming, leading to the inception of Search Engine Marketing (SEM) in 2000, a cornerstone of Google Ads (then AdWords). 


Search Ads empowered businesses to secure better search result visibility through sponsored listings. Then Google gamified the ad-building process, assessing everything from keyword relevance to landing page quality to ensure a positive user experience.


Understanding Search Ads

Search Ads Example

Search ads are primarily text-based and target users searching for relevant keywords. They comprise headlines, descriptions, and various extensions (such as phone numbers or website links). 


Goals for search ads range from driving website traffic to increasing sales, with targeting options including keywords, geolocation, and audience lists. Google has advanced search ads over time, introducing features like algorithmic image generation and Responsive Search Ads.


And while Google’s Display Ads also offered advertising on the Google Display Network with graphic design or video ads, there wasn’t yet any campaign type that could do it all. 


Introducing Performance Max


Launched in 2021, Performance Max campaigns represent the evolution of Google Ads, offering a comprehensive approach across multiple platforms. 


They had all of the same assets that Search Ads had, plus new videos (including new template videos), logos, and various dimensions of images. Instead of needing a graphic designer to put together a display ad, the algorithm would simply combine all the assets provided into a preset design structure made for various placement options.


Placement options extended beyond traditional SERP or display network placements, encompassing all of Google’s diverse network, including Search, Gmail, YouTube, Google Search Partners, and Google Maps.


Similar to Search campaigns, Performance Max campaigns offer robust targeting options, encompassing keywords, geolocation and audience lists. But Performance Max campaigns also leveraged powerful, algorithm-driven audience signals to enhance targeting precision.


Case Studies

In late 2023 I began working with a regional travel industry client that had been running smart campaigns (simplistic, fully-automated campaigns) for about a year. As with many companies running only simple campaign structures, their returns were barely positive.

When I learned that they had an untapped budget to make use of on Google Ads, I recommended a multi-stage shift to Performance Max campaigns. From Q3 2023 to Q1 2024, the account has seen 4 times revenue increases and 6 times the return on ad spend with the addition of Performance Max.

Performance Max performed well because the account had previously established clean revenue and conversion reporting and quality media to work with. 

On the other hand, I once inherited an account with Performance Max campaigns that were not performing well. The company struggled with underperforming Performance Max campaigns due to suboptimal asset utilization, budget constraints, and messy conversion setups.

It’s important to be aware that Performance Max is driven by artificial intelligence. And artificial intelligence is only as good as the data we feed it. If you have a broken system to start, it will stay broken when you introduce Performance Max.

Summary: Search vs. Performance Max Campaigns

In summary, here are some considerations for when you should work with Search vs. Performance Max campaigns on Google Ads:


Performance Max Campaigns:

  • Particularly effective for visually oriented products or brands.

  • Suited for businesses with compelling image and video assets.

  • Requires a longer timeframe to establish historical data but can yield significant results with medium to high budgets.

  • Best for accounts with a well-optimized existing account and previously established conversion reporting that meets the company’s goals.

Search Campaigns:

  • Are ideally run before Performance Max campaigns in order to determine which keywords are most effective for use in Performance Max ‘Audience Signals’.

  • Best suited for companies with smaller budgets.

  • Best suited for accounts with specific keyword targets, conversion actions, and keyword-optimized landing pages.

  • Best suited for less companies and products that are less visual.

Why You Should Work With a Paid Ads Manager

Effective campaign management requires technical expertise, particularly in conversion reporting and budget planning. Professionals often yield superior results, leveraging experience and access to specialized tools and support.

In conclusion, understanding the nuances between search and Performance Max campaigns is crucial for devising a robust Google Ads strategy. By leveraging the unique features, targeting options, and asset capabilities of each campaign type, digital marketers can optimize their advertising efforts and drive tangible business outcomes.