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Growth

Google responsive search ads: 2021 update and best practices

Monish Selvamuthu
Monish Selvamuthu

In 2021, Google made responsive search ads the default in Ads accounts. It’s not a huge surprise—they’ve gradually been prioritizing responsive over standard expanded text ads—but there’s a lot to consider if you want to keep your search game sharp. Growth marketer Monish Selvamanthu and Elliott Hasiuk, Principal, Digital Strategy, are here to answer clients’ most frequent questions, and to share best practices for this brave new algorithm-driven world.

What’s the difference between Google’s responsive search ads (RSAs) and expanded text ads (ETAs)?

With an ETA, your ad always appears exactly as written. With RSAs, you create a list of possible headlines and descriptions, and Google uses machine learning to mix and match them, creating different versions of your ad. You should have at least eight headlines and four descriptions for each RSA.

Are ETAs gone for good?

No, they’re just buried more than before, and RSA has become the default. The standard Google recommendation is still two RSAs and one ETA per ad group.

What are the pros and cons of RSAs?

Pros: It’s an easy way to bulk test value props, which is especially helpful for new brands that need market insights to guide their messaging. As you learn which messages resonate, you can apply those insights across your marketing strategy. We also know that Google’s AI is very good at what it does, so it will handle the difficult work of putting the right messaging in front of the right audience. In terms of performance, there’s fluctuation across accounts. But with RSAs, we’ve seen higher conversions, CTR, and spend, plus lower costs per click and per acquisition. So it’s looking like RSAs may have more scale and efficiency than ETAs.

Cons: You’re giving up some creative control. Some brands may struggle at first as they figure out how to preserve their voice while generating mix-and-match options, and each RSA requires more copy than an ETA does. Also, with RSAs, we only see impressions broken out by ad combinations, so it’s hard to know exactly which element drove conversions. With ETAs, it’s easier to match individual headlines and descriptions to KPIs.

If I need to include specific language, like a disclaimer, in every ad, can I be sure the RSA displays it?

We’re not entirely at the mercy of the machines (yet). You can click the pin icon to the right of any headline or description and it will stay in that position across all RSA combos. This does reduce the number of ad versions Google can create, since it eliminates one headline or description slot.

How will the shift to RSA-by-default impact advertisers?

Overall, it will be positive. So far, we’ve been seeing success with RSAs across many of our accounts. But it does mean that advertisers have to change their approach to ad assets. It’s no longer enough to push out two headlines and a description. We need several different messages and value propositions that the RSA can use to generate ad versions. Also, each headline and description has to make sense with any of the others, since you won’t determine the way they’re combined.

Why is Google doing this? Will other advertising platforms make similar shifts?

It’s in line with the general industry-wide shift toward automation and machine learning. Facebook has definitely headed in that direction with initiatives like Power5, AI-based audience building, and iterations of automated bidding strategies.  

Most important: What are some RSA best practices?

As mentioned earlier, you should provide eight headlines and four descriptions for each RSA. As with ETAs, you have to stay within the character counts for each element. Here’s a template you can use to keep everything straight.

Be sure to include keywords, your brand name, or flagship product, and highlight deals or offers, like free shipping or a current sale.

Use variety: Don’t repeat the same phrase in multiple headlines or descriptions.

Some of your descriptions should include direct CTA language (buy now, shop now, check out the sale, explore the collection, etc.).

Finally, it’s still a good idea to write for humans, not algorithms. The algorithms may deliver the ad, but it’s humans who will read it and click on it.