The Year in AdWords: The 27 Biggest Stories of 2017
Bitcoin. Cat Person. Other divisive things.
2017 has been one heck of a year, and no subset of the marketing world embodies that truth more so than AdWords. There were tons of changes, from platform redesign to new features and strategic adjustments galore!
With that, feast your eyes on the 27 most important changes to hit AdWords in 2017.
#1: The New AdWords Experience
Everyone’s favorite paid search platform got a makeover!
The top item in our year in AdWords is the platform itself. Monikered the “new AdWords Experience,” the updated AdWords user interface boasts a slew of new features (half a dozen of which make an appearance on this list) including powerful data visualizations, additional demographic targeting options, and a massively improved workflow.
While all advertisers currently have access to the new AdWords UI, it isn’t the only one available; if the nested menus and overhauled aesthetics cause dizziness and a faint longing for what was, you can still cling to the UI of yesteryear (for now).
#2: The Flagging Value of a #1 Organic Ranking Puts a Premium on PPC
At various points in each year, the value of PPC ads is questioned. One of the chief angles from which the business value of AdWords is decried goes something like this: “I already organically rank at the top of the SERP for [insert keyword specific to business]: why should I waste money on ads when people can already find me?!” Well, inquisitive business owner, because over the last two years, the value of a #1 organic ranking has decreased a whopping 37%.
The advent of featured snippets and other big, shiny SERP features, and the ever-growing prevalence of mobile searches has shoved organic search results below the fold. As this happens, AdWords ads (and shopping ads in particular) have become even more important for businesses advertising online.
#3: Major Changes to How Google Spends Your Budget
“Starting October 4, 2017, campaigns will be able to spend up to twice the average daily budget to help you reach your advertising goals.”
Boy, that one’s a doozy.
Mere months ago, Google significantly altered the way your budget is allocated throughout the course of a given month.
If a campaign in your account has a budget of $500, Google can decide to spend up to $1,000. Note that this change affects all budgets, whether they are unique to a campaign or if they are shared. Now, Google has always had the ability to exceed your daily budget: they just capped it at 20% instead of, you know, 100%. They call this “overdelivery,” and it ensures that, in the course of a 30.4-day period, you get as many clicks (read: spend as much money) as possible. If you’re concerned about spending to your monthly budget’s ceiling, check out this script (courtesy of one of our commenters) that provides daily budget overdelivery alerts.
#4: Ad Variations Allow for Fast, Efficient A/B Testing
Split testing is a major pain (not to mention time suck) for all AdWords users, but it can be especially taxing on small business owners. Who has time to dream up new ad copy when there are a dozen other tasks to cross off on a given day?!
Well, Google hears you, SMB marketer, and they’ve got your back. Just this month, the Ad Variations interface was introduced in the new AdWords Experience.
This new feature allows you to find and replace keywords, update entire section of your ads (perfect for sharing those post-holiday deals with prospects), and invert your headlines simply by bouncing through some pick lists. You no longer have an excuse to skip your split testing.
#5: Exact(ish) Match Keywords
Exact match keywords have long been the conversion-driving force behind many an AdWords account. The level of control they afforded advertisers made tailoring ad and landing page copy to a searcher’s query a breeze. Please note the use of past tense.
In Q1, Google altered the way it defines exact match keywords, opting to broaden their scope.
Today, “exact” is relative. AdWords now ignores, adds, or removes function words to match your target exact match keywords to very similar search queries. After analyzing 100 AdWords accounts over a 30-day period after this change went into effect, we discovered that, on average, 18% of active exact match keywords were rendered superfluous. If you haven’t already audited your account, get in there and tidy things up before the new year!
#6: Custom Intent Audiences
The chief advantage of AdWords, the ability to leverage user-intent (as conveyed through keywords), is lost on the Display network. As such, in the last month, Google has begun to take a more audience-centric, Facebook-like approach with the GDN.
Custom intent audiences give you the ability to find “people who want to buy the specific products you offer — based on data from your campaigns, website and YouTube channel” on the Display Network. More exciting than the what, though, is the how. Custom intent audiences can be created manually, using topics and URLs to discover brand-spankin’ new prospects, or you can lean on Google’s machine learning (buzzword of the year). To learn more about implementing custom intent audiences in your AdWords account, check out this column over at Search Engine Land.
#7: Promotion Extensions Simplify Sharing HOT DEALS
The only thing SEMs love more than ad extensions is a good ‘ol fashioned deal. Why not meld the two together?
Although they’d been in beta for a good long while, in October Google finally launched promotion extensions to all AdWords accounts. If you’re not familiar with these wonderful tidbits, promotion extensions allow you to show a HOT deal and a sizeable price tag icon beneath your text ad copy, like so:
The real value of promotion extensions, though, isn’t in what they add: it’s what they subtract.
By shifting the supporting information for your 20% off Christmas sale into a promotion extensions, you can leverage the full extent of your ETA (two headlines and a fat description) to convey the benefits of your offering and append a killer CTA.
#8: If Functions Enable Bespoke Copy
For my money, this is the most exciting change to come to AdWords since expanded text ads launched.
Like promotion extensions in their ability to augment your ad copy to better serve specific searchers, AdWords IF functions allow you to tailor your copy based on either device (desktop or mobile) or audience. Why is this valuable, you might ask? Because your KPIs could probably benefit from reference to that hot, mobile-specific deal you’re running.
More important than the device-targeted IF function is the audience iteration I mentioned. If you have an audience of recent cart abandoners or folk who completed a form fill on your site and never followed up, use IF functions to augment your copy to convey urgency, a special offer, or some other irresistible benefit.
#9: The Impact of Expanded Text Ads (A Retrospective)
Before you berate me in the Twitterverse, yes, I know Expanded Text Ads didn’t come out in 2017.
For most search advertisers they did, however, become useful in 2017. When ETA’s first hit AdWords accounts, they simply didn’t perform as advertised. This was due to advertisers’ inability to write long(er) copy and all of that delicious historical performance data stored in our standard text ads.
Well, months of split testing and CTR-related panic, things finally settled down. Then they flipped entirely. That’s right, expanded text ads, now the text ad option available in your AdWords account, are actually useful.
Our own Mark Irvine pulled data from more than 11,000 accounts and learned that Expanded Text Ads are crushing it. As advertisers continue to adapt to writing more copy, and Google releases more (and more useful) ad extensions, this trend should continue.
#10: Major Changes to Ad Rotation Settings
You’re in the middle of crushing a blog post about what moved and shook AdWords in 2017: I assume you’re no slouch. This leads me to believe that you’re a diligent split tester! As such, you probably noticed that changes to ad rotation settings that Google implemented towards the tail end of the summer.
The plethora of ad rotation options available to advertisers were left on the Oregon Trail to die of a broken leg or dysentery. Now, your options have been streamlined, down to simply “optimize” and “rotate indefinitely.” If you’d been leaning on “rotate evenly,” “optimize for conversions,” or smart bidding strategies, you were forced to completely rethink your approach to budget management. Good times. Today, you can manage ad rotation at the ad group or campaign level (yay!), but the smorgasbord of options by which that rotation can be defined has been scaled back significantly.
#11: Life Events Targeting for Everyone
Way back in June, Bryant Garvin, director of digital marketing at Purple (a mattress company), shared some astounding figures…
- A 21.8% increase in purchase intent and 34.6% in lift consideration among people who were moving.
- A 23.1% increase in purchase intent and 25.1% lift in consideration among people who were engaged or recently married.
How? Life events targeting!
More interesting than Purple’s success, though, is that life events targeting was released to all AdWords users in November. Now, you can target people who are moving, getting married, or graduating from college in your video (YouTube) and Gmail-only campaigns.
#12: New and Improved Quality Score Reporting
Quality Score. We harp on it. Google harps on it. It’s really important.
So, when Google decided to overhaul the way it allows us to reference and report on Quality Score within AdWords, people were stoked.
Now, you can look at current and historical Quality Score for selected search terms, comparing metrics against any previous period you denote in the date range. In addition to seeing Quality Score in earnest, you can also look at the current and historical iterations of the individual components—ad relevance, landing pages experience, and expected CTR—of Quality Score.
#13: Customer Match Expanded
Customer Match is one of the best ways to use search, shopping, Gmail, and YouTube to nurture prospects about whom you know something. Previously, that “something” was limited to email addresses; not a useless piece of information, by any means, but more wouldn’t hurt.
We ask, Google delivers.
Just in time for the holiday, Google expanded Customer Match, allowing you to leverage prospects’ phone numbers and physical addresses in order to serve more relevant ads to in-market segments of your database. Bespoke search ads, so hot right now.
#14: New Demographic Targeting Options (Now 70% Easier to Find!)
In ye olde AdWords, demographic targeting options on the search network were a mixed bag; search advertisers were limited to using gender and age. In 2017, household income and parental status were added to the mix. More important, though, is that fact that all demographic targeting options were made WAY easier to find because the big, shiny “Demographics” button on the vertical page bar in the UI: you can’t miss it, I promise.
Demographic targeting is one of the most useful (and overlooked) features in AdWords. While veteran search marketers implement bid adjustments (and wholesale exclusions) using this invaluable data, your average Joe doesn’t know how to find it in the UI, let alone leverage it to enhance performance. The new AdWords Experience makes it easier to find demographic information and gives you more sets of data to work with. Sold.
#15: Similar Audiences Come to Search
Similar Audiences have been a GDN feature for quite some time, but it took until this year for them to become available on the Search Network. These suckers basically allow you to find users with search behavior that mirrors those in your RLSA audiences but haven’t yet visited your website.
“Why should I care, Allen?”
Because Similar Audiences for Search have greater reach than RLSA while boasting comparably high CTR and conversion rates. If you haven’t worked them into your AdWords account yet, they could be a great way to bolster performance (not to mention blow your boss’s or client’s socks off) in Q1.
#16: Gmail Remarketing
I was personally offended this year when Google eliminated the ability to target domains in Gmail ads. I actively disparaged the usefulness of the medium when chatting with my fellow account managers over soy lattes. That changed a little bit when life events targeting rolled out en masse, but the ability to remarket using Gmail ads was what really won me over (again).
If you’re an eCommerce advertiser looking for a leg up in the new year, the ability to bring a prospects’ shopping cart into their inbox is a gamechanger.
#17: We Analyzed 612 of the Best Ads: Here Are 9 Things We Learned [DATA]
Not everything that happened in AdWords this year was Google’s doing.
Back in August, we analyzed 612 high-achieving text ads to determine their common characteristics. From lexical diversity to sentiment to pronoun usage, we dug into every angle to identify what makes a top-performing text ad tick.
While some of our results were obvious (“Free” and “Your” get a ton of play in ad copy: who knew?) others were really illuminating. Did you know that positive or neutral text ads significantly outperform ads that convey negative sentiment? Or that killer ads rarely pose a question?
No? Well neither did we!
#18: Enhanced CPC Bidding Gets an Overhaul
Enhanced CPC was used by accounts in every industry in an effort to get a leg up on competitors in auctions for the most valuable search queries. Initially, the feature allowed advertisers to boost their bids by 30%, which ain’t nothin’. But this year, Google decided to help advertisers optimize for conversions by eliminating that 30% cap.
If the idea of paying a premium-premium for hyper-valuable keywords doesn’t appeal to you, you can remove ECPC from your account and opt to manually control your bids; used sparingly throughout your account, though, this change has the potential to significantly augment your account performance.
#19: Smart Display Campaigns
The Display network is made up of millions of websites. It’s a big, scary place that lacks the control afforded to you on your run of the mill SERP. That’s why Smart Display Campaigns are so gosh darn neat!
Smart Display Campaigns let you target your ads to audiences and placements roughly tailored to your business. While less unique than, say, custom intent audiences, smart display campaigns will still help you drive conversions for your business; it’s just that instead of a manicured set of keyword and URL-based parameters, you simply trust Google to place your creative in the right spots based on account history, ad creative, and a CPA goal.
#20: WordStream’s New Free Keyword Tool
Shameless self-promotion? No way!
While the AdWords Keyword Planner is a staple of many marketers’ optimization and research methodologies, our MUCH IMPROVED Free Keyword Tool (which hadn’t been touched since, oh, 2011) takes it to the next level.
Our tool tailors recommendations by industry and geographic region, provides personalized competition and CPC metrics based on the historical performance of your very own AdWords account (contextually relevant information FTW), and introduces a proprietary metrical called Opportunity Score, which helps you prioritize the addition of new keywords based on their potential positive impact on your account.
#21: Merchant Center Innovations for Online Retailers
Merchant Center is often viewed as a mythical land. There’s an entire cottage industry of agencies and SaaS offerings focused exclusively on optimizing feeds, for Pete’s sake!
In November, Google announced a slew of subtle changes to Merchant Center in an effort to give online retailers a lift this holiday season (and into the new year).
- An Opportunities feature, designed to help retailers drive more traffic by surfacing low-hanging fruit in your shopping feed.
- The ability to make changes directly within Merchant Center (instead of uploading a brand-new feed.
- Holiday shipping cutoff dates to help last-minute shoppers determine whether or not your wares will be nestled beneath their trees before Christmas day.
#22: Shiny New REPORTS
I love reporting. Know what I don’t love? Spreadsheets. The mere mention of a cell makes my eyes glaze over. I much prefer my data in whirring, colorful, visualization form. Lucky for me, the new AdWords UI is riddled with beautiful ways for account managers to dissect and optimize performance.
Whether you’re looking to adjust your dayparting:
Or performance by device:
Google’s rolled out some sort of visually stimulating way to address your needs.
(Still not satisfied with that Google has to offer? Looking to aggregate your search and social performance into a single report? Check out our brand-new cross-platform success reports!)
#23: Growing Popularity of Voice Search Means Digging Deeper into SQRs
The proliferation of voice search was a hot topic on the PPC speaker circuit in 2016: it came to fruition this year, but how did it impact AdWords accounts?
In. A. Big. Way.
In fact, voice searches now account for a whopping 20% of all mobile search queries on Google. Per our Mark Irivine, the length of search queries has risen, and long-tail searches now account for more than 60% of overall search volume.
This has had a huge impact on the way advertisers’ ad keywords and structure their accounts. If you’re not already optimizing your AdWords account for voice search, dig through your search query reports, uncover long-tail keywords with any semblance of search volume, and add them. This will help lower your CPCs on long-tail keywords that people are actively searching for, terms you’re matching out to at a premium because your phrase match keywords don’t encompass the entire query. Taking this action will help you improve Quality Scores, relevance, and, most importantly, revenue.
#24: ETA’s Get a Little More Dynamic
I’m not a big dynamic search ads guy. I don’t deny their usefulness, it’s just that I’m a copywriter at heart. I actively want to write ads for everything (keep your comments to yourself). Anyway, it took until the middle of 2017, but Dynamic Search Ads finally received the expanded overhaul that hit the rest of your account 9 months beforehand.
If your AdWords account primarily consists of Shopping ads and your website features thousands of product pages, these Dynamic ETA could be just what you need to establish a successful presence on the SERP (outside of your PLAs, of course!).
#25: 25 Most Expensive Keywords (2017 Edition)
I guess there was a time during which AdWords was “cheap.” I have never known this time, personally, but I have seen CPCs ranging in price from a few shekels to somewhere just north of my annual 401k contribution. In fact, this year, we saw average CPCs in the business services, bail bonds, casino, legal, and asset management industries break the $50 threshold. Yikes.
While not every industry saw CPCs skyrocket in 2017, there are certainly a fair number of niches in which advertisers have had to really focus on trimming wasted spend, implementing negative keywords, and optimizing for efficiency as opposed to volume. If only there was a tool that could help small businesses do all of those things (and more) …
#26: AMP Landing Pages Load 5x Faster
Another mobile innovation in 2017 (shocking, I know!).
Per Google, every second it takes for your mobile landing pages to load represents a 20% drop in conversion rate. That’s not very good, which is why Google launched AMP (Accelerated Mobile Page) landing page support this summer.
AMP landing pages load five times faster than your regular old mobile landing pages. Based on reliable methods of calculation like math and science, it would appear that using them means every single prospect will convert on your site.
#27: Showcase Shopping Ads = FREE CLICKS
Niche-y? You betcha, but that doesn’t make this baller new shopping feature any less important.
This summer, Google unveiled Showcase Shopping ads, a dynamic, image and data-rich new take on the product listing ad. Only available in the new AdWords UI, Showcase Shopping ads are served for broad, non-branded search queries with commercial intent. They live above search ads and are scattered among the shopping ads you’re already using. Click on them, though, and magic happens:
Instead of sending a searcher to your landing page, SSA’s bring them to a special catalogue of relevant products. The best part? That click is totally free. You only pay if a searcher clicks on an individual product in your ad and visits your actual website. Free brand-building, an opportunity to convey the depth of your product offerings, and the potential to make a sale: What more could eCommerce advertisers ask for?!