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A New Dawn for Paid Search: Responsive Search Ads POV

On August 31, 2021 Google dropped the digital equivalent of a bombshell. The tech behemoth announced that, starting June 2022, it will sunset Expanded Text Ads or “ETAs”. From this point onwards, only Responsive Search Ads (RSAs) will be supported. Why is this important? It’s a critical change because all advertisers will be required to have at least one RSA active within their Google Ads account. Conversely, search engines users won’t notice anything different because ETAs and RSAs are displayed in exactly the same way.

For digital marketers, however, it’s a seismic shift because it means you will no longer be able to create or edit ETAs; however, there is some respite in that your existing ETAs will continue to run alongside your RSAs.

Based on our industry experience and intuition, with the keyword match type revolution now over, we indeed expected Google to turn their attention to their ad formats and ultimately remove ETAs. And for this reason we have been using RSAs for several years. We have tested various approaches and developed an FDA-compliant set of best practices thanks to which the impact of this change will be minimal for our clients.

What is the backstory?

Over time, as its algorithms have been evolving, Google has been taking steps to shift from advertiser control to AI-powered automation. The paid search changes have been gradual and a combination of multiple match-type methodology changes, audience targeting capabilities expansion, and continuously evolving automation features – Responsive Search Ads being one of them. The August 31st announcement is not an isolated change but rather just another step that takes us further in the same direction. We expect more to come. And expect Bing to follow.

What are RSAs and how are they different to ETAs?

Responsive Search Ads let you create an ad that adapts to show more relevant messaging to searchers. Using multiple headlines and description lines, search engines will automatically test different combinations to learn which combinations perform best. Advertisers traffic a few options for each element and the engines automatically arranges the assets for every auction.

Previously, with Expanded Text Ads, advertisers trafficked fixed combinations of headlines and description lines and left little for the engines to intervene.

What does all this mean?

  • Advertiser control: This update is one step closer to full automation and puts Google in the driver’s seat to pick and choose headlines and ad pieces that drive stronger engagement. It is still up to the advertiser to group element options into the RSAs, but even this is restricted because there is a limit of three RSAs per ad group.
  • Lack of transparency – Google won’t provide results on specific combinations, so as advertisers we won’t know which headlines and descriptions perform better and in what combination. And this is understandable, considering that trafficking 15 different headlines and four different descriptions gives the engines 43,680 variations to test.
  • Optimization – Due to the lack of results transparency, manual optimization options will be limited. However, the search engine algorithms are intended to optimize RSA arrangements of assets and adjust them based on historical performance and unique auction insights, creating potential for garnering huge value.
  • Performance – Underscore started using RSAs in tandem with ETAs shortly after their launch in 2018. And the good news is that, based on our experience, RSAs continue to perform well and often exceed ETA performance, so the expected impact on your current campaigns is minimal.
  • FDA Compliance – There’s no need to fret about adherence. Mandatory ad pieces such as brand, generic and boxed warnings can be pinned into the correct position to ensure FDA compliance while still allowing the search engines to test Headline 3 and Description Line 2.
  • Vendors – If you are wondering exactly who has committed to this change, thus far it is only Google. But while Bing has not yet announced any similar plans, history suggests that they too will be implementing the same change soon, so watch this space.

What should you do now?

We will be working with all our clients in the upcoming months to ensure all campaigns have RSAs approved and trafficked. Any campaigns already using RSAs as an add-on to ETAs will require a refresh to guarantee the proper grouping of assets – this will prevent us from losing visibility of ad performance while maintaining some (nominal) control of asset combination options.

Our strong recommendation is to focus all future paid search ad copy development exclusively on RSAs, to avoid the last minute rush. As with all major updates, there is always a cohort of advertisers that will wait until the very last minute to make these adjustments. The result is a Google Support team that rapidly becomes overwhelmed through the sheer volume of requests it receives throughout the final few weeks prior to deadline. The result: as advertisers we receive very minimal support in addition to a protracted approval process for any received editorial disapprovals. And having these casting a shadow over your account has a detrimental impact on both your Account Quality Score and your long-term cost efficiency. It’s RSAs for the win.

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