2019 was a year of memorable events. A not-so-gratifying ending to HBO’s Game of Thrones inspired dozens of memes and weeks of animated office chatter. 17-year-old Billie Eilish attracted the biggest crowd ever in the 65-year history of the renowned Reading Festival. The day before Halloween, the Washington Nationals pulled off an incredible Game 7 comeback to secure the first World Series title in franchise history.
Alas, we’re not here to talk about TV, music, or sports. We’re here, of course, to talk about online advertising. More specifically, we’re here to break down the 11 biggest updates and innovations brought to Google Ads this year. With everything from the retirement of an OG search metric to the introduction of brand new audiences, 2019 has given us no shortage of topics to discuss. Without further ado, let’s jump in.
February brought the first of two Google Ads bombshells announced in 2019: the retirement of average position. One of the original search advertising metrics, average position—which officially bit the dust at the end of September—was a basic indicator of auction performance.
Your bid and your Quality Score determine your Ad Rank, right? And your Ad Rank, in turn, determines where your ad lands in the paid search results—it determines your ad’s position.
Here’s the catch: Ad position refers to order, not location. Just because you win the auction and obtain the first position, doesn’t mean your ad is shown at the top of the SERP; it could be shown underneath the organic results. Average position, evidently, fails to tell the whole story.
As a result, Google decided to retire the metric in favor of the newer, more precise ones that were rolled out at the end of 2018: top impression rate, top impression share, etc. Reactions from PPC professionals ran the gamut, but the consensus seemed to be this: As automated bid solutions become more and more prominent, manual bid-to-position strategies become less and less useful.
Bombshell #2: At the end of July, Google announced that phrase match and broad match modifier keywords are now eligible to show for same-meaning close variants such as synonyms and paraphrases. Prior to this announcement, the only close variants that could trigger a phrase match or broad match modifier keyword were plurals and misspellings.
In case you’re prone to getting mixed up by things like match types and close variants, here’s a quick breakdown:
Prior to the update, an ad targeting the phrase match keyword “women’s hair salon” could show for queries like “women’s hair salons” and “women’s hir salon.” Following the update, that same keyword can now show for queries like “women’s hair dresser” and “women’s hair parlor.” Why? Because they’re both same-meaning close variants. The same goes for broad match modifier.
Google’s defense? The intent behind a query matters more than the semantics within a query. Plus, it’s impossible to predict every single variant of each keyword you’re targeting. As long as you keep a close eye on your search term report, add negatives as necessary, and use your ad copy to speak to your prospects’ needs, you should be fine.
With the two bombshells out of the way, let’s shift gears and talk about the unambiguously good news that Google announced in the middle of October: the search network debut of affinity audiences and seasonal event segments for in-market audiences.
As those of you familiar with display advertising already know, an affinity audience is a group of consumers who have all demonstrated an interest in (or affinity for) a particular topic. On the back end, Google is able to create these audiences by looking at factors like search history and frequently visited web pages.
By layering affinity audiences on top of your keywords, you’ll be able to refine your search campaigns and focus on the prospects who are truly interested in what you’re selling. For example, let’s say you’re a marketer at a company that sells all-natural cosmetics. Traditionally, you’d reach relevant consumers by targeting keywords like “organic makeup.” Going forward, you’ll be able to increase ROI by layering the Beauty & Wellness affinity audience on top of those keywords. Pretty neat, huh?
Over the past couple years, few tools have helped search advertisers boost their conversion rates like in-market audiences. With an in-market audience, you can limit the reach of your ads exclusively to the users who are actively searching for a product or service like yours.
If I spend months on end searching queries like “used honda sedan” and visiting websites like Cars.com, it’s safe to assume that Google will place me in the Autos & Vehicles in-market audience. As a result, car dealers and insurance providers can easily connect with consumers like me—consumers who are clearly interested in purchasing a car or something car-related.
Just in time for the holiday season, seasonal event segments will allow you to connect with consumers who are actively researching a product or service in preparation for a specific occasion. Because you know why the consumers grouped in a particular segment are looking for a business like yours, you’ll be able to refine your messaging like never before.
Speaking of audiences, let’s move on to what I thought was the most exciting announcement from Google Marketing Live 2019: the audience expansion tool. Much like a Facebook lookalike audience, the audience expansion tool allows you to grow your display campaigns by reaching new prospects who behave similarly to the users you’re already targeting—i.e., boost impressions, clicks, and conversions without touching your budget.
If, somehow, you’re not already sold, consider the alternative: Throwing more money at your existing audience and hoping it does the trick. Although this strategy absolutely works from time to time, it’s not exactly sustainable. And while I’m not an advocate for putting blind trust in machine learning, Facebook has proved that the lookalike concept works—and works well. At the very least, that should encourage you to take the audience expansion tool for a spin.
Although I wouldn’t go so far as to call this story a bombshell, the second major Google Ads retirement of 2019 definitely sparked some conversation. Back in August, Google announced that, as of October 7, accelerated delivery is no longer available for search and Shopping campaigns. (It remains available for display and video campaigns.) Since that sunset date, search and Shopping advertisers have had no choice but to opt for standard delivery.
The following was Google’s logic (which, for the record, I agree with): For a small or midsize business working with a limited daily budget, accelerated delivery is not cost-effective. Because auction prices fluctuate throughout the day, it’s often best for small-budget advertisers to opt for standard delivery and capitalize on as many low-cost opportunities as possible.
Regardless of your budget, however, there were valid use cases for accelerated delivery. If your Quality Score for a given keyword were lagging behind, for example, accelerated delivery could function as a gas pedal of sorts—a way to get in front of prospects nonetheless. If you’ve found yourself missing accelerated delivery, we recommend using positive bid adjustments for early times of day to (at least partially) make up for its absence.
Numbers don’t lie: Thanks to small screens and low levels of patience (among other things), getting users to convert from their smartphones and tablets is no easy task.
Good news for all you lead gen advertisers out there: In an effort to help you drive more conversions from your mobile search ads, Google recently unveiled the brand new lead form ad extension. With a lead form ad extension—which is not, as of now, available for desktop advertisements—you can collect your prospects’ contact information without asking them to leave the SERP. To put it more succinctly: Begone, friction!
By allowing users on smartphones and tablets to fill out your form without navigating your (potentially slow) mobile website, the lead form ad extension promises to do wonders for your mobile conversion rates. Best of all: If a user is signed into their Google account at the time they see your ad, clicking on the extension will bring them to a Google-hosted form that’s already pre-populated with their contact information. At the time of this writing, the beta version is rolling out to search advertisers everywhere.
Let’s return to Google Marketing Live for a moment. Although this year’s conference was jam-packed with innovations related to Smart Bidding—Google’s suite of automated solutions that use machine learning to optimize your bids for specific conversion goals—one of them, in my opinion, stood out from the rest: campaign-level conversions.
As many of you already know, conversion tracking is an essential part of any successful Google Ads account. By setting up conversion tracking, you let Google know which user actions are most valuable to your business. As your account drives more and more activity and Google begins to collect substantial conversion data, their algorithms become better equipped to optimize toward your account goals.
I repeat: Their algorithms become better equipped to optimize toward your account goals. Prior to Google Marketing Live, there was no way to designate which specific conversion goal is most valuable to a particular campaign. Let’s say you built a brand new search campaign with the intent of increasing free trials. If someone were to click on one of the ads within that campaign and convert in a way other than a free trial (e.g., a newsletter sign-up), their action would still be counted as a conversion—even though counting it is actually detrimental to that campaign.
Now, with campaign-level conversions, you can tell Google, “Hey! This campaign right here? I only care about free trials. That’s the only conversion goal you should track and optimize for. The other goals I’ve specified in my account do not matter for this campaign.”
That’s some automation I can get behind.
While we’ve got Google Marketing Live on the mind, let’s take a minute to talk about the bumper machine—a tool unveiled at the conference that allows anyone with a video shorter than 90 seconds to create a series of YouTube-ready bumper ads.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with the term “bumper ad,” it’s practically guaranteed that you’ve encountered one at some point or another: They’re the six-second ads that play before YouTube videos. According to data presented by Google at this year’s conference, a series of three bumper ads leaves a greater impression on consumers than a single 30-second ad does.
The problem? Few small businesses have the resources to produce sleek, professional videos. Even if a business does have video assets, they’re typically in the range of one or two minutes long. Unless you’re a wizard of some sort, it’s impossible to turn a 90-second video into an engaging, logical bumper ad.
It was impossible, I should say. With the bumper machine—free to all advertisers—anyone with a relatively short video can create a series of six-second YouTube ads just like that. Considering how much time everyone spends on YouTube nowadays, how can you pass that up?
I’m no retail expert, but I’m fairly confident I know one of the major reasons why people still like to shop in brick-and-mortar stores: the ability to touch and try on different products. When I go to H&M and try on a pair of pants, I’m instantly able to picture myself wearing them in different settings—at the bar with my friends, walking down the street with Tha Carter III blasting in my ears, and so on. By allowing customers to get a sense of how their products will impact day-to-day life, brick-and-mortar retailers have a big advantage over ecommerce businesses.
That’s why Google’s bringing user-generated images—i.e., authentic pictures taken by your happy, loyal customers—to Google Shopping reviews. If you use Google Shopping to sell to consumers based in the US, you can register for the Product Ratings program and create a product reviews feed. Using the brand new <reviewer_images> schema, you’ll be able to upload the photos your customers have taken directly to Google Merchant Center.
If you’re wondering how you can go about collecting user-generated images from your happy customers, here’s my advice: just ask. With some simple email automation, you can reach out to everyone who buys something from your online store and (gently) encourage them to submit a review—complete with a picture, of course! If you toss in a little extra incentive—a promo code, for example—you’ll have a library of killer photos in no time.
Since their debut earlier this decade, there’s been no denying the power of responsive display ads—the dynamic, eye-grabbing units that Google automatically optimizes according to web page content and user screen size. For anyone who doesn’t know, here’s how they work: You write some copy and submit a few visual assets; then, Google’s algorithms determine which copy/imagery combination is most suitable depending on the factors mentioned above.
Prior to this spring, “visual assets” meant still images and GIFs. As of March, however, YouTube advertisers can expand their reach by featuring video content in their responsive display ads. Here’s three reasons why taking advantage of this update is a stellar idea:
Last but certainly not least, we’ve got gallery ads—the brand new mobile ad type unveiled at Google Marketing Live and currently available as a beta among select advertisers. Here’s the example Google distributed on the day of the announcement:
As you can see, a gallery ad—which, when triggered, appears at the top of the SERP—features a swipeable carousel of up to eight unique images. Above the carousel is a clickable headline and a display URL, and below each image is a brief caption. Once you have access to gallery ads, you’ll be able to submit three unique headlines for each ad, thus giving you the power to test out different combinations of value props and CTAs.
Google’s early tests indicated that gallery ads drive 25% more engagement (as measured by clicks and swipes) than standard text ads do. Here’s my theory: Although words alone are good at communicating value, words and images paired together are even better. To see what I mean, take a look at this typical text ad from one of Devour’s competitors.
A bad ad? Not at all. Nonetheless, you’ve got to ask yourself a question: If you were in the market for ready-made frozen dinners, which would be more likely to persuade you—Devour’s gallery ad, or Marie Callender’s text ad? I don’t know how your brain works, but if you’re like me, the ad with the carousel of mouth-watering images is going to win every single time. Science backs me up: The human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text, and consumers are more likely to retain content that incorporates visual imagery.
My advice? Adopt gallery ads as soon as you possibly can.
Conor Bond is a Content Marketing & SEO Specialist at Crayon, the software-driven competitive intelligence platform that enables businesses to track, analyze, and act on everything going on outside their four walls.
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