5 Big Brand PPC Ads with Critiques: What We Like, What We'd Change


What big brands are able to do with their enormous marketing budgets is inspiring – though sometimes it mostly inspires jealousy. The typical small business can’t sponsor the Olympics or get an ad spot during the Super Bowl. You have to tinker around with more accessible campaigns that cost less but typically have smaller reach as well.

PPC is an example of an incredibly accessible marketing channel – it’s being exploited by tiny one-man shops and huge multinational corporations alike. But how much better is a big-brand PPC ad than an SMB ad – if at all? Is it like comparing the latest Pepsi commercial to what your local furniture store puts together?

Let’s look at five big-brand AdWords ads and see what they do well and what they could do better.

(More: Dear eBay, Your Ads Don't Work Because They Suck)

By the way, I fully admit to stealing the format for this post from Oli Gardner at Unbounce, who recently did something similar with big-brand landing pages. Thanks, Oli!

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Big-Brand PPC Ad #1: LightingDirect.com

PPC Ad Example

A Google search for “chandeliers” turned up these three ads in the coveted top-of-page ad spots. Let’s focus on the middle ad from LightingDirect.com (a Build.com network site), comparing it to its close competition.

What I Like:

  • Seller Ratings – Both LightingDirect.com and LampsPlus are making use of the seller ratings extension available in AdWords. This helps them stand out a little more from the top-ranked ad. It’s working to the second ad’s advantage in particular because the company has over twice as many reviews as the third ad.
  • Lots of Benefits – This ad manages to pack four different benefits (free shipping, easy returns, great selection, and friendly service) into a small amount of space. The other two ads only include two benefits in their message.

What I’d Change/Test:

  • Punctuation – Putting punctuation at the end of the first line of descriptive text (a comma or period after “Easy Returns”) would have made this ad easier to read, since top-ranked ads often find their two description lines expanded into a single long line. They could probably also increase CTR by including an exclamation point.
  • Call to Action – There’s no explicit call to action in this ad. (The first ad makes the same mistake; the third ad has the “Subscribe to newsletter” button to entice an action.) I might try losing one of those four benefits and turning one of the benefits into a CTA – for example, “Claim Your Free Shipping Offer” or “Check Out Our Great Selection.”

Big-Brand PPC Ad #2: Audi

Brand Search PPC Ad

Unsurprisingly, Audi owns the top spot for a search on “Audi.” (And yes, we think even small businesses should bid on branded terms.) So what are they doing with the prime real estate?

What I Like:

  • SitelinksSitelinks are an easy win: They make your ad bigger and give users many more places to click. In fact they increase CTR even when users aren't clicking the sitelines themselves, meaning you get a lift on the main headline link too.
  • Verbs – Audi isn’t missing a call to action like LightingDirect was – in fact, the main description line as well as every single sitelink includes a verb, enticing the searcher to take action.
  • Social Extensions – Audi has an insane number of followers on Google+, so they’re right to show that number off. (According to Google: “On average, search ads with annotations have a 5-10% uplift in click through rate and the AdWords Social Extension helps you show more of them.”)

What I’d Change/Test:

  • Headline – Since this is the top result on a brand search, it probably has a super-duper high CTR, but nonetheless, I think the headline could be doing more work. All it really tells us is that this is the official site. Compare to this BMW ad that also tells us we can use the official site to build our own car.

Top Ranked PPC Ad

Big-Brand PPC Ad #3: Olay

Branded AdWords Ad

I know some of you dudes out there are thinking “What the %^&$ is BB cream?” Basically, it’s like gussied up tinted moisturizer … which is like a sheer foundation … never mind. The point is, it’s makeup, and you can buy it. Let’s take a look at the Olay ad and the other competition in the yellow box.

What I Like:

  • Use of Symbols – Did you know that using symbols, like the registered trademark symbol, can boost your ad performance? Test this now! They’re also using that powerful exclamation point.
  • Offers – I like the specific offers in the sitelinks, especially “Get a Free Skin Consultation,” which sounds like a great lead builder.

What I’d Change/Test:

  • Shorter Headline – The headline is too long so it gets truncated. Instantly what? We don’t know. [EDIT: As some commenters have pointed out, the first line of the description appears to have been pulled up into the headline, so the real issue is that the description doesn't work when broken up into two parts; still something to be mindful of. It's probably not a good idea to end your first description line with an adverb.]
  • Longer Description – On the other hand, the description line is throwing away its extra characters, space that could have been used for a call to action (Maybelline’s CTA in the third ad is awesome) or to repeat the keyword (“BB Cream”) in the text again. Remember, when the search query appears in your ad, it appears in bold face, so your ad stands out more.

Big-Brand PPC Ad #4: ULINE

Bad PPC Ads

ULINE is one of the top PPC spenders in the business and industrial category, spending over $35 million a year on AdWords advertising. Are they making the most of that big PPC budget?

What I Like:

………… <crickets> …………

I don’t like much about this ad. Let’s get to what I don’t like.

What I’d Change/Test:

  • Better Keyword Matching – It looks like they’re broad-matching on “labels,” but they’re not using dynamic keyword insertion (DKI), so the word “printing” doesn’t actually appear in the ad – not a great intent match. The ad is all about designing and customizing labels, not printing them. They should be keeping a better watch over their search query report and building out more targeted ad groups.
  • More Benefits – The only benefit here is “Over 27,500 Products” – which, some might argue, is actually a shortcoming. Who wants to search through nearly 30,000 products? Paradox of choice, anyone? Sounds like a waste of time. Compare this to the other two ads, which offer lots of information on price and specific details about label sizes and other information that would help the searcher make a decision.
  • Ad Extensions – ULINE’s ad doesn’t make use of any extensions at all. Can we get a sitelink up in this piece?

Since ULINE’s ad is relatively weak compared to the #2 and #3 ads, they’re probably bidding higher and paying a lot more than their competitors per click.

Big-Brand PPC Ad #5: SelectQuote

PPC Ad Text Help

Here’s an ad that follows a lot of the best practices we’ve already mentioned – clear call to action, using the search query in the text, sitelinks, etc. What are they doing that’s new?

What I Like:

  • The Local Connection – SelectQuote has localized their ad to recognize my location. I’m in Colorado, so I might want to deal with a local agent.
  • Communication Extension – Including a phone number means that your ad could lead to conversions even if they don’t click the ad. (That means it’s free, yay!)

What I’d Change/Test:

  • Numbers – The top-ranked Metlife ad gets specific with numbers: “Pay as little as $1/day for up to $500,000 coverage.” If I were SelectQuote’s PPC manager I’d test out concrete dollar amounts in my text too.
  • Appeal to Emotions – People looking for life insurance might be driven by some strong emotions – fear, compassion, concern for one’s loved ones, etc. An ad that speaks to those emotions could really do well here. I’d test something like “Take Care of Your Family. Get a Free Quote Today.”

Do you steal from the big boys when it comes to writing ad text? Or do the little guys do it better?

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Apr 24, 2013

I've done some PPC work in the past and the verticals I worked at all typically had big brands with very generic ad text.They had all the extensions worked out, but the ad text was generally sloppy. I'd say the little guys who know their customers really well write better ad copy - while the big guys who have the traditional "impressions" mindset often don't target their ads very well. Small businesses can still beat big brands at PPC!

Elisa Gabbert
Apr 24, 2013

Yeah, sometimes a big budget can actually hinder performance -- since you can afford to bid your way to the top spot, you get lazy when it comes to testing better ad text.

Apr 25, 2013

I think the all-in-one solution for instantly in olay`s ad is description not head line

Shawn McCarthy
Apr 25, 2013

I'm usually helping the little guy compete with the big guy so I, unapologetically biased, say that the little guys do it better when it comes to ad text :) Strong ads and laser-focused targeting are the best weapons in a small budget advertiser's arsenal. Great topic and post, Elisa!

Elisa Gabbert
Apr 25, 2013

Thanks, Shawn!

Apr 26, 2013

You say there isn't a CTA in the lighting ad, but isn't "Buy Chandeliers For Less" a CTA, really?

Elisa Gabbert
Apr 26, 2013

Jen, you're correct, there's a CTA in the headline, but it's unusual not to have one in the description copy itself. Thanks for pointing that out all the same!

Apr 26, 2013

I agree that the BMW ad with the longer headline is great. However, that's because Line 1 ends with a period and Google bumps it up to the headline. You can only have 25 characters in the headline and if you know you will be in the top position, taking advantage of this is a great way to extend it.

Dave Hassall
May 09, 2013

Hi WillThat's an intersting point you make, is this some "unwritten" rule:If you occupy the top 3 positions AND the 1st description line end with a "full stop / period" then the description gets "bumped up to headlineThanks Dave   

David Argy
May 09, 2013

I LOVED this article! It's so much easier for me to see examples and rewrite them for our ads, then it is to create them out of a blank slate.Does the WordStream software point out these type of issues with ads and make suggestions for changes?  Also, we have a relatively long URL, which is difficult to read when in all caps.  Does Adwords allow us to show some of the letters inthe URL as capitals to make it easier to read?Thanks, I learned a lot.

Elisa Gabbert
May 09, 2013

Thanks, David!Your main display URL is now lowercase by default in AdWords. You can however capitalize stuff after the slash (as in the /Dream-BB example above). Using any words or phrases in all caps is against policy. You can read more about that here: https://support.google.com/adwordspolicy/answer/176095?hl=en#The WordStream software helps you out with ad writing by showing you your best performing ad from the group, so you can start with messaging that is already working and edit from there. The software also automatically checks to make sure you're following best practices and Google guidelines so your ads won't get rejected. And finally you get alerts when you hvae low-performance ads that need tweaking.Hope that helps! 

Lisa K.
May 09, 2013

Elisa, Great article! Re: the BB ad, when you say, "The headline is too long so it gets truncated," -- what do you mean by that? AdWords doesn't let you submit an ad that exceeds the character limits in any way. To me, it appears that the headline is "OlayR BB Cream" and line #1 of the ad (brought up by AdWords to appear as part of the headline) is the part that is unclear. But, I don't understand what you mean about truncation. It seems to me that the ad was just carelessly constructed by copying and pasting a line from another ad, and then - surprise - the ad is live and makes no sense!

Elisa Gabbert
May 09, 2013

You're correct, the first description line was brought up into the headline, but because the two description lines were awkward to begin with, it doesn't make much sense:All-in-one solution for instantly / skin-perfecting coverage by OlayThis is hard to parse; the real problem is that the adverb makes the lines hard to read. It's a good argument for writing two lines that can be read independently, rather than trying to write one long sentence.Thanks for commenting! 

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