Google Ads and Chesterton’s Fence – A Cautionary Principle

I started managing a new account a few weeks ago. It has a lot going for it…

✅ High spend

✅ It’s nicely positioned in one of those ‘unsexy’ niches where competition seems to lag behind demand

✅ I inherited it with both a solid foundation (and decent performance to show for it) and clear room for improvement.

It’s a rare alignment of stars, and while of course I never start work on an account with anything other than success in mind… this is one I’m making a conscious effort not to take for granted.

Now, there’s plenty to get your teeth into in the early stages of a management relationship like this.

But, for all the tempting and ‘obvious’ dials to turn; all the odd-looking configurations, surprising campaign splits, hard-to-parse naming conventions you often see in an inherited account…

I’m ‘doing’ less in this one than ever. On purpose.

Chesterton’s Fence

You may be aware of a particular brand of the precautionary principle known as Chesterton’s Fence…

Imagine a fence, standing alone in an open field. No obvious purpose. For all we can see, it’s entirely superfluous.

Since we can’t see what it’s for (or why it was even put there in the first place) why not just remove it and clear the obstruction?

The answer is, precisely because we can’t see what it’s for, or why it was put there in the first place.

As writer and philosopher G.K Chesterton put it in his book, “The Thing”:

“The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, 'I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away.' To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: 'If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.'"

(Chesterton, 1929, Chapter 6)

So: Chesterton’s Fence. Don’t destroy it if you don’t know what it’s for.

The principle might inform our approach to societal norms, traditions, laws, and (most importantly, I’m sure you’ll agree…) the structures and setup within a Google Ads account – cautioning against making hasty changes without understanding the reasoning behind the status quo.

And why it’s more important than ever

It is not just the harsh lessons of experience that are causing me to take this principle more to heart than ever (though I’ve been burnt often enough by the unintended consequences of well-meant optimisation moves.)

It’s also that the danger of those backfiring consequences has genuinely increased…

"Leverage points [in complex systems] frequently are not intuitive"

(Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems, 2008)

In a system with many, interconnected, mutually influencing parts (like the inner workings of the smart bidding black box) cause and effect; input and output, are not intuitive at all.

Smart bidding (along with its constellation of other automated Google Ads features) is not only a complex system; but also a largely invisible one. You can therefore expect frequent surprises about what works, and what doesn’t.

The more automated and opaque Google Ads gets, the easier it is for these odd results to happen, and the harder they are to analyse, and guard against*.

*For more on this, check out my free mini course How Google Ads has changed

So it pays to be humble about the limits of our predictive powers, and to be wary of making major changes when the going is good.

A series of careful tweaks is a far safer option than a well-intentioned overhaul.

Especially when you’re not yet well acquainted with the structure you’re dealing with.

By all means give that fence a clean. Sand off the splinters. Carefully repair – or remove – a broken section.

Just be very slow to reach for the chainsaw.

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