Responsive Search Ads: The Ad Format of the Future

Neil Robinson
September 20, 2021
This month, Google announced that it would be sunsetting expanded text ads (ETAs) in exchange for responsive search ads (RSAs) - a dynamic ad format that enables marketers to automate their paid search ads. Wondering what that means for your brand? Read on to find out. 

Responsive Search Ads: The Ad Format of the Future

Person uses Google on their mobile device.

Responsive search ads (RSA) are a highly used search ad format in which Google rotates different variations of headlines and description text lines in the search engine results page (SERP) and analyzes which ad assets perform better. RSAs look and feel just like an expanded text ad (ETA), but RSAs are a dynamic ad format. Said another way, Google chooses what copy to serve to the user based on a set of assets that marketers provide when setting up RSAs.

ETAs have been a paid search tactic used by marketers for years, but at the start of this year, their tenure came into question. In early 2021, Google announced that it would be making RSAs the default ad format — a position previously held by ETAs — and many marketers took this as a sign that newer, more dynamic ad formats may take its place. Just as we hypothesized, on August 31, Google announced that starting in June 2022, it will indeed pivot to an RSA-only experience. As of next summer, advertisers will be unable to create or edit existing ETAs in their standard search campaigns.

Ready for the good news? Google was nice enough to give marketers almost a year’s worth of notice to start embracing the newest chapter of its quest for a more automated experience for the advertiser. And while the transition is underway, marketers can rest easy knowing that the existing ETAs will still be served for the foreseeable future.

How should marketers be preparing?

First off, don’t fight it. You may remember when Google went through this same process in phasing out the standard text ad format in favor of expanded text ads. To date, Collective Measures has seen great performance with RSAs over ETAs across clients. Think of it like this: RSAs are an ongoing ad copy test run by Google to maximize results. If we allow Google’s machine learning to do the heavy lifting when it comes to identifying ad copy improvements and facilitating testing, marketers can focus their time on strategy and ongoing optimizations.

But how should marketers prepare for the year ahead? Start small, adding at least one RSA into ad groups to run alongside other existing ads. A safe way to ease into this is to create an RSA that only features your ETA copy. This will allow Google to start mixing and matching different ad copy variations to determine which permutation yields the best results.

When expanding ad formats to include RSAs, marketers can leverage a feature within Google Ads that can help strengthen ad copy. As outlined in the screenshot below, during the RSA creation process, Google can scan the inputted URL and keyword lists and suggest relevant headlines and description text to test. The best part? This feature removes the pain points associated with manually writing ad copy that fits character limits.

The RSA creation process

Additional considerations

As many marketers have long leveraged ETAs in paid search, there might be some hesitancy about going all in on RSAs and losing ETAs. If you’re on the fence, here are a few things to consider:

Am I losing control of my search ads?

There are several advertisers who may be worried about the way in which ad copy will be presented in RSAs, as there may be legal implications if ad copy is out of place. Fortunately, here is a way to control the RSA format through “pinning.”

For clients in highly regulated industries that need to ensure ad copy shows a certain way every time, the use of “Headline & Description Text Pinning” can ensure that the RSA looks and behaves just like ETAs. The downside here is that this defeats the purpose of ongoing ad copy testing for improved performance, so in a perfect world, pinning should be used sparingly. Also, keep in mind that RSAs do give marketers control as Google only serves ad copy that is input into Google Ads. These are not dynamic search ads (DSA) that pull copy from your website to form a search ad. Below is a screenshot of what pinning looks like in Google Ads:

Pinning in Google Ads

Be strategic with ad copy variety

Variety is great, but it’s crucial to be smart about what is added as potential headlines and description texts to avoid unintended ad copy variations.  For example, you would not want three slightly different versions of your brand name to appear as headlines in the search engine results page (SERP). Avoid this by planning out what potential ad versions could look like when adding in options. Work toward scenarios where possible options yield an acceptable outcome.

Website content is key!

More than ever, Google is relying on page content to determine ad relevance and quality score. Ensure that all landing pages are equipped with clear and concise content, strong calls to action, and follow strong SEO best practices. This will ensure that Google can tell that a given landing page is indeed an appropriate destination for an ad, and that ad copy matches the landing page content.

The future is dynamic

The move to go all in on RSAs is another signal from Google that the future of paid search will be dynamic. As we prepare for 2022 and beyond, it’s crucial for marketers to start to embrace this change and begin preparing for the age of automation.

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