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Responsive Search Ads Are the New Default in Google Ads: What You Need to Know

March 11, 2021

If there’s one constant that we can always trust, it’s the fact that Google Ads is always keeping us on our toes. This rings true as of February 18, 2021 when Google announced that Responsive Search Ads (RSAs) will now be the default ad type when you’re looking to create ads for a Search campaign.

RSA-google-ads-default-header

What does this mean for advertisers and Google Ads moving forward? In this post, we’re going to:

  • Clarify what’s changing for advertisers.
  • Compare RSAs to the former default ad type (Expanded Text Ads).
  • Walk you through how to set up RSAs.
  • Share input, tips, and best practices from the PPC community.

Our hope is to help you to better understand and adapt to this change so your ads can keep performing their best.

What does this change mean?

The change in default ad type from Expanded Text Ads (ETAs) to Responsive Search Ads (RSAs) means that when you click to make a new ad, there are now only two options: Responsive Search Ads or Call Ads.

This doesn't mean that Expanded Text Ads (ETAs) are completely going away (at least not yet—more on that later) or that your ETAs are all of a sudden going to stop performing. On the contrary, having two ETAs and one RSAs per ad group still remains the recommended best practice by Google.

ETAs will still be an option to create as well, though it is a bit hidden. You’ll have to click to create an RSA, and then click the blue text at the top to “Switch back to text ads” in order to continue creating ETAs. So, this change does indicate to us that RSAs have now taken the seat on Google’s throne of the default Search ad type.

rsa-google-ads-default-switch-to-eta

Why the switch?

Google provides a few reasons for the change in the default ad type from ETAs to RSAs:

Machine learning allows for improved performance

We’ve seen a pattern emerge with Google’s recent updates in favor of a shift toward automation. While many advertisers feel this gives them less control over their campaigns, Google takes the stance that machine learning can improve campaign performance in terms of flexibility, clicks, and conversions.

Better adaptability with changing consumer behavior

It’s a known fact that consumer needs and priorities are in a state of constant change, and more so than ever before as the pandemic progresses. Google’s reasoning for the push toward RSAs is that it gives advertisers a better way to adapt to shifting market trends without having to create individual static ads and test them out manually.

Streamlined account management and optimization

Google essentially wants more advertisers to use RSAs (particularly novice advertisers) because it gives their machine learning mechanisms more to work with. This allows Google to make more recommendations related to account performance and helps streamline the account management experience.

A refresher on Responsive Search Ads

Okay, so now that there will be a greater push toward Responsive Search Ads, let’s go over the basics to make sure you’re up to speed. The main benefit of this ad type, which was introduced back in 2018, is that of allowing more variety in ad copy by giving you room for up to 15 headlines and 4 descriptions. Google then takes those assets and dynamically combines them live during each search auction.

Think of the spread of all the different headlines and descriptions within an RSA similar to how songs might shuffle through on a playlist.  Essentially, the RSAs dynamically rotate through various headlines and descriptions to show a combination to best fit the individual searcher’s query each time.

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Image source

Showdown: RSAs vs ETAs

Smell that? It’s the stench of jealousy emitting off the good ol’ tried and true (and former default ad type) Expanded Text Ads (ETAs). Just kidding. But let’s take a look at how the two compare. ETAs only allow for up to three headlines and two descriptions, and those never change position. With the components in your ETA anchored in place, you have slightly more control over your ad copy.

Meanwhile, RSAs give you lots more to play with by allowing you to create up to fifteen different headlines and four descriptions. This sounds great because you’re able to fit various headlines and descriptions to match up better to queries, but the tradeoff is that you’ll slightly lack control on RSAs as you’ll never know exactly which combination of headlines and descriptions Google will choose to serve at any given time.

RSA-defaut-google-ads-rsa-vs-eta

While RSAs give you more headlines/descriptions to play with, the character count for these fields remain the same as ETAs (up to 30 characters for headlines and up to 90 characters for descriptions).

All in all, both RSAs and ETAs have their advantages and drawbacks, so it’s best to test out both.

RSA-defaut-google-ads-RSA-ETA-venn

The pros and cons of RSAs

By dynamically cycling through headlines and descriptions, RSAs clearly have different features and capabilities that set them apart from ETAs. However, like we just mentioned, all that glitters is not gold when it comes to RSAs, as their variety also causes a lack of control in ad copy and their expansive nature may cause you to carve out a little extra time to create these.

While you may be able to whip up an ETA in no time with just a couple of descriptions and few headlines (while avoiding these mistakes), we’ve noticed that RSAs take a bit more time to complete since you have to come up with many more lines of copy. Luckily, Google helps us out by providing suggestions when we’re creating these ads.

You do have a pin option for RSAs for up to three headlines and two descriptions. Here, you can choose a specific headline or description to be guaranteed to show when space on the SERP allows. However, pinning isn’t recommended unless absolutely necessary, as it will restrict the automatic variant testing Google runs through on your Responsive Search Ads.

Here’s a quick pros and cons list to sum up what we’ve learned about RSAs so far:

RSA-default-google-ads-pros-cons

How to set up and optimize your Responsive Search Ads

Okay, so you’ve read through everything and now you’re ready to set these ads up. Here’s the step-by-step on how to create a Responsive Search Ad:

  1. Select the ad group you wish to build out and click the blue plus button to create an RSA.
  2. Fill in the final landing page URL.
  3. Complete the path fields for a Display URL.
  4. Fill in all 15 headlines ( up to 30 characters).
  5. Fill in all descriptions (up to 90 characters).
  6. Hit save.
RSA-default-google-ads-setup

Seems easy peasy, right? Well, we’d like to think so, but there are also a few dos and don’ts of RSAs that you’ll want to keep top-of-mind while creating them.

RSA do’s (best practices)

  • Include three to five ads per ad group with at least 1 RSA.
  • Fill out every single portion of the ad (all fifteen headlines and all four descriptions whenever possible).
  • Include top-performing keywords in your ad copy.
  • Freshen ad copy regularly so viewers have something new to look at.
  • Capitalize the first letter of each word in your copy.
  • Leverage Dynamic Keyword Insertion.
  • Leverage Ad Extensions.
  • Take advantage of the shuffled previews Google displays for you on the bottom right of the screen to see what your ad will look like.

RSA don’ts (what to avoid)

  • Keyword stuffing (Don’t throw keywords in just for the sake of including keywords in your copy if it doesn’t make sense).
  • Mismatch headlines/descriptions (Make sure your copy is cohesive, so ask yourself “Would these headlines/descriptions go together if they were just shown alone?”).
  • Pin three headlines and two descriptions—that defeats the purpose of RSAs!
  • Use repetitive wording.

How to respond to the change

We talked to additional PPC experts in the community to gather some perspectives and action steps to help you respond to this change. These include Mark Irvine, Director of Paid Media at Search Labs Digital, and Brett McHale, founder of Empiric, LLC.

Leverage RSAs to regularly test out a diverse mix of messages

Irvine points out that “the fundamental problem that Google is trying to solve here is not a new challenge to the industry—advertisers should be constantly updating and testing multiple versions of their ads.  Although this is an age-old best practice, a lot of advertisers don't commit to it regularly and their accounts suffer for it.

Ad copy testing not only helps advertisers improve their ads overall, but it also allows Google (and Bing and Facebook) to better match a message to a particular search or user. Constantly creating three plus ads in each ad group just isn't a habit for some advertisers, and Google's Responsive Search Ad type picks up the slack there. In lieu of asking advertisers to write multiple variants of their ads, RSAs automatically take their headlines and descriptions and test out a more diverse mix of messages for the advertiser.”

Continue creating and testing ETAs

While the emphasis on RSAs can encourage more testing and better ads overall, Irvine advises advertisers to continue creating ETAs while using RSAs as a supplement:

“RSAs are a better testing mechanism than not testing at all, but it shouldn't surprise people to hear that a "handwritten" ad can often outperform Google's machine-written variants. Google's change to default ad creation to RSAs is a bold one to encourage their adoption, especially among novice advertisers who might not understand the difference. Overall, I'd encourage advertisers to supplement their ad groups with Responsive Search Ads but to continue to test two to three ETAs in each ad group. This will both allow you to continue to practice and optimize your ad copy while benefiting from Google's machine learning-driven ad copy testing at scale.

rsa-default-google-ads-standard-vs-expanded

A Standard Text Ad vs an Expanded Text Ad (Image source)

Experiment with pinning headlines

While it was stated earlier in this post that pinning isn’t recommended unless absolutely necessary, McHale mentions that the shift toward RSAs as the default ad type may change this up:

“A lot of advertisers want specific headlines in certain positions, and they can essentially make text ads out of RSAs by pinning headlines in the first, second, and third position. This practice is often advised against because it limits the variations that can be served but I've seen ads with pinned headlines (not all headlines, however) perform very well.

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Image source

Use Google’s tools

Google also provides some tips for creating strong RSAs:

  • Use their Ad strength tool. This is a feature within Google Ads that takes relevance, quantity, and diversity of ad copy into account to provide a score (ranging from Poor to Excellent) for your RSAs. It then provides recommendations and ideas to make improvements to your score. For example, your headlines/descriptions may be too short or lacking popular keywords, or your final URL is missing. According to Google, “Advertisers who improve Ad strength for their Responsive Search Ads from 'Poor' to 'Excellent' see 9% more clicks and conversions on average.”
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Image source

  • Use location insertion to increase the relevancy of your ads. If your business serves a broad area, you don’t have to write individual headlines for each city or town. Instead, you can insert code in your headline such as: “We deliver to {LOCATION(City)}.” Make sure to use proper capitalization in your headlines and that your campaign location targeting is set appropriately. Also, be sure to fill out the default text section with words you want to use when the text can’t be replaced by a location.
rsa-default-google-ads-location-insertion

Image source

  • Use countdown customizers when applicable. If you have a time-limited offer, you can set up an ad to say something like “Sale ends in 2 hours,” and then “Only 1 hour left,” and then “Hurry, sale ends in 30 minutes.”
  • Just as it was recommended with the discontinuation of modified broad match, Google suggests using broad match in combination with Smart Bidding to maximize your reach.
  • Use cross-campaign asset reporting to identify which assets resonate best with your audience.

Use RSAs to evolve with Google Ads

WordStream Senior Account Manager Holly Niemec offers an optimistic view of RSAs—as something to lean into as we navigate the changes Google seems to be heaping onto us lately:

"RSAs have evolved into a more prominent fixture in ad performance across many different verticals, as a key conversion driver and also by generating the greatest percentage of impressions. When RSAs were first introduced, they were more so a way of generating traffic and testing headlines and descriptions for Expanded Text Ad iterations. Now, especially with match types getting more broad and a greater shift toward AI and Smart Bidding strategies across the board, RSAs are crucial to make sure you are leveraging the right messaging to the right audience. Since RSAs can take search history & intent into account when showing different headlines and descriptions, they have a big advantage over Standard Text Ads."

Are ETAs being phased out?

The experts we talked to have mixed opinions as to the fate of Expanded Text Ads. Irvine believes they’re not going anywhere anytime soon:

“The good news for advertisers who might be turned off by this change is that Google's shared no plans to end the Expanded Text Ad. Even if it's now a little hidden in the Google Ads interface, it's still supported and easy to create in Google Ads, Editor, and other common tools.

It's also not in Google's interests to stop supporting these ETAs anytime soon. If you look back to 2016 when Google first introduced ETAs, many assumed the 90-character Standard Text Ad would stop serving shortly after. Although Google eventually stopped allowing new Standard Text Ads to be created nine months later, the format never officially stopped serving. If Google hasn't ended an old text ad format after five years, I wouldn't say that ETAs run the risk of going extinct this year either.”

Brett McHale, founder of Empiric Marketing, LLC, has a different outlook:

“While advertisers will still be able to create and run Expanded Text Ads, it’s more difficult to do so. My opinion is that regular Expanded Text Ads will be phased out of the platform in favor of RSA's as it is clear Google wants advertisers to rely more on its algorithm to make decisions. They've already had auto-generated RSA's as an option in the recommendation section for some time.”

RSAs as the default ad type: key takeaways

Just as is the case with any change made within the Google Ads platform, the ultimate impact will become more clear as time goes on, but with the knowledge and tips we have available to us, we can work to mitigate any negative impact on our performance. Let’s finish off with the key takeaways from this post:

  • Responsive Search Ads have replaced Expanded Text Ads as the default campaign type in Google Ads.
  • You can still create Expanded Text Ads by clicking into the RSA creation window and then selecting “Switch back to text ads.”
  • You should still create and test Expanded Text Ads. Having two ETAs and one RSA per ad group still remains the recommended best practice by Google. 
  • The change is in line with the common theme of Google’s latest updates—less control for advertisers and a greater push toward automation.
  • The nature of RSAs does help to build regular testing into ad campaigns, which benefits advertisers, Google, and consumers altogether; and can improve ad performance and streamline account management.
  • You can make the most of your RSAs using features like Google’s ad strength Indicator, Dynamic Keyword Insertion, Ad Extensions, and even pinning headlines and descriptions.
susie-marino

Susie Marino

Susie is a Customer Success Specialist at WordStream, where she consults with clients across a wide range of industries on PPC best practices. Outside of work, Susie loves to get outside for some snowboarding or (once the cold weather melts away) hiking!

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