Why AdWords Smart Goals Aren’t So Smart

May 23, 2017

For a while now, all AdWords advertisers have been battling with the usefulness of Smart Goals inside of Google Analytics. Some say it’s a terrible feature to use, while other (granted, it’s a small percentage) endorse it. I’ve had my doubts but wanted to do my own research.

What are Smart Goals?

Smart Goals is a goal (note: that is singular) that you can enable in Google Analytics. Unlike other goals, this one uses behavioral and contextual (shared) data, not just your data, to predict which sessions will result in a conversion. Google is looking for highly-engaged visitors and using that to determine if it’s likely that the session will result in a conversion.

In Google’s words:

To generate Smart Goals, we apply machine learning across thousands of websites that use Google Analytics and have opted in to share anonymized conversion data. From this information, we can distill dozens of key factors that correlate with likelihood to convert: things like session duration, pages per session, location, device and browser. We can then apply these key factors to any website. The easiest way to think about Smart Goals is that they reflect your website visits that our model indicates are most likely to lead to conversions.

Who Needs Smart Goals?

Smart Goals were designed for AdWords advertisers, who don’t use conversion tracking, to be able to optimize their campaigns by gathering engagement metrics.

Are Smart Goals a Good Idea?

It sounds great in theory, but let’s look at this realistically.

Always Advertise with Purpose

First, please keep in mind that if you’re advertising without measuring your efforts, you could be wasting your time and money. You would have no way of knowing if ad clicks lead to purchases, contacts, downloads, signups, etc. Not only that, but you couldn’t effectively optimize your campaigns.

However, there are still hundreds of thousands of advertisers who don’t use conversion tracking. Let’s talk about that, because those are the businesses Smart Goals are targeted toward.

Should You Trust Anonymous Data?

Making decisions about your website and advertising campaigns based on other people’s data isn’t helpful, generally. Only the behavior of people using your website is going to help you make the best decisions about the direction of your digital advertising.

How Does Google Determine Likely-to-Convert Users?

If you don’t have conversions defined, how could you know which visits will likely lead to a conversion?

Google says, “Each session is assigned a score, with the best sessions being translated into Smart Goals.” So, what defines “best” sessions? Google looks at anonymous data to determine which users are most engaged on your site. They look at factors like session duration, pages per session, location, device and browser.

To be fair, if a client doesn’t have goals, engagement metrics are typically used in place of conversion metrics. I’m not against that. The problem is that with Smart Goals, there’s no one looking at the other important metrics. What about the cost of those engaged users? Did your sales increase? Are your campaigns as efficient as possible? These are all questions you could answer if you set up conversion tracking, rather than Smart Goals.

What Data is Provided?

Another problem is that the data provided about this goal is minimal. Unfortunately, I can’t show you the data, but you can get the gist from the image below.

Smart Goals in Google Analytics

You can only see whether the session was considered a Smart Goal or not. In other words, was the user engaged?

What’s important to note about Smart Goals that I’ve looked at in several GA accounts is that, more often than not, the engagement rate is high, but the number of conversions is quite low relative to the non-Smart Goal sessions. In this one, there are over 4,000 conversions for the non-Smart Goal sessions and 65 for the smart goal sessions. Based on the data, Smart Goals don’t seem to be accomplishing their task of determining which users are most likely to convert.

Should You Use Smart Goals?

Google tells us that setting up conversion tracking is the best option, and I’m going to side with them.

If you have the option to track your own users and set up your own conversions, then I would not use Smart Goals. When advertising, it’s incredibly important to use your own data to make decisions. But that’s my best practice.

Understandably, sometimes it’s not always easy to set up Goal tracking. Google Analytics has a few goal types that can be configured entirely from within the interface, like Destination Goals, Session Duration goals, and Pages per Session goals. If for some reason these goals won’t work for your site, and you have limited ability to make changes to your website that will enable Event Goals, whether that’s due to technical capabilities, budget, or staffing, then you might be a strong candidate for Smart Goals.

And really, there’s no harm in trying them out. Treat this like any other metric inside of Google Analytics. Collect data and make observations. Does it seem like it’s making sense? Make a change that’s designed to increase site engagement. Did your Smart Goal conversions go up?

If you want to try them, there are a few more points you should know.

Are You Eligible?


  • GA and AdWords accounts must be linked
  • The AdWords account must have sent at least 500 clicks to the selected GA view over the past 30 days
  • The view must not receive more than 10 million sessions in 30 days
  • The data sharing ‘Google Products and Services’ must be turned on in GA


  • Smart Goals are not configurable or customizable.
  • You can have one Smart Goal per view.
  • Smart Goals will take up 1 of the 20 available goal slots (like any other goal).
  • Smart Goals are currently only available for website views. Smart Goals cannot be used for mobile app views.
  • Smart Goals are not available for views that receive more than 1 million hits per day.
  • Smart Goals do not support View-Through Conversions or cross-device conversions in AdWords.

Remember that Google is using this for advertisers who are not tracking conversions. They never said it is a long-term solution. Advertisers are encouraged to set up conversion tracking in all instances. Nick Eppinger wrote a great guide on setting up conversion tracking and how to measure it. It is very thorough and there are screen shots of each action to help you through the process. I highly recommend it.

Additionally, from the Google Analytics side – we have A Plea for Using Google Analytics Goals.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you used Smart Goals and had a better experience? Or maybe you have a similar response? Leave your feedback in the comments!