Managing Text Ads in a Post-PLA Landscape

It’s been just seven months since Google flipped the switch on Product Listing Ads (PLAs) in the UK and changed the face of AdWords forever.

Dramatic? Definitely. Deserved? Almost certainly.

The truth is that while PLAs are undoubtedly kicking ass all over the paid search landscape, the humble text ad still has a part to play. But just like Frodo in Lord of the Rings, they will face some dark days in their quest to achieve relevance. So how can text ads compete? Let’s review the situation.

The Challenges Facing Text Ads

Ad preview is now more or less useless.

Remember the days of clients calling up and saying their ad had vanished only for you to discover they’d hit refresh every five minutes for the past hour? After the requisite facepalm moment you could steer them to the ad preview tool if they wanted an idea of how their ad was doing. Well batten down the hatches folks, that gravy train has sailed.

Current ad previews are unhelpful at best and downright misleading at worst. Can you spot the difference in these images:

notice boards ad preview results

Ad preview

notice boards actual results

Actual results

Cosmetic differences aside, we’re seeing just two text ads in the prime real estate and a block of PLAs. While in some cases this is just an inconvenience, for anyone choosing to advertise outside of their own location – e.g. flower delivery companies – this makes it difficult to understand what the search landscape really looks like.

Average position stats are (more) questionable

Before you tell me that average position was always a hot mess and a waste of time to review, let me explain. Say you’ve noticed a dip in performance that can’t be explained by seasonal trends, website changes or a crazy new ad test. Reviewing your average positions can be a helpful indicator that the market place is changing. It’s not something that I’d suggest you optimise for, but it can help to spot general trends.

But now that we’ve introduced a new ad block into the mix, the already sketchy data has turned into a full on up close monet – a big old mess of meaningless data.

Assuming that we ever could say that position equalled the third spot above the organic rankings, does it now equal the top spot on the right hand side? Except sometimes there are still three spots above the organic, and PLAs are on the right. And don’t get me started on mobile ads, where often now we’re seeing just one text ad above organic – below PLAs. So is that position one or two?

PLAs beat text ads to the top spot, but does average position reflect this?

More so than ever we’ve got to steer clients away from talking about top 3 spots, before they do real damage.

CPCs are rising
It may not surprise you that with less available space for text ads, costs are rising. A recent report by Marin found that, in the US at least, CPCs on text ads have risen by as much as 10% year on year. With people suggesting that PLAs steal conversions, it can appear that if you aren’t top, you may as well not bother.
So what can text ads do to fight back?

Tools Available to Text Ads

Extensions are text ads’ not-so-secret weapon

So maybe your text ads aren’t eye-catching snapshots of your product catalogue. But what they (arguably) lack in commercial intent, they can more than make up for in real estate. You have a mind-boggling array of extensions available – and the promise of more on the way:

  • Sitelinks (standard or – even better, extended)
  • Call extensions
  • Seller ratings
  • Location extensions
  • Social extensions
  • Offer extensions
  • App extensions
  • Review extensions

Surely you don’t need me to tell you that using all relevant extensions is an easy way to make your ads stand out. Multiple extensions can be shown in a single ad, giving your lowly text ad some serious ad space.

text ad with extensions

Text ad featuring seller ratings, social extension, sitelinks & image extension (beta)

While some of these extensions only display in top spots, some do appear on the right hand side too. They don’t cost any more, and can hugely impact CTR – such as this case study, which saw CTR rise by 64% following the implementation of sitelinks.

Auction insights to help you understand your market

If we can’t rely on old tools, we have to look to new and better tools to understand how are ads are performing. One of the most helpful new tools AdWords has given us recently is auction insights. (Before you shout that this has been available since 2012, the ability to review data for campaigns, ad groups and groups of keywords has made it that much more useful that I’m going to class it as “new”).

This will show you – albeit for a limited number of impressions – who your competition is along with where your ads showed in comparison to them. Even when average position shows no movement, the auction insights report can indicate that a new competitor is beating you down and stealing your clicks, giving you the knowledge you need to fight back.

Optimise for sensible metrics

Ultimately what happens with any AdWords metric is meaningless – as long as your bottom line is improving. If you aren’t already using your ecommerce data to optimise for profit, now is the time to do it. Even if you don’t run an e-commerce site, you can direct more budget towards the leads that generate the most profit for your business. Keeping detailed records of the progress of leads so you can determine the conversion rate may involve more work for sales staff, but ultimately means a better use of spend. And why wouldn’t you want that?

There’s no denying that PPC is getting tougher and Google’s reaping all the rewards. While it is sensible to look beyond text ads for PPC wins, you don’t need to give up on text ads yet, although it may be time to shake up your strategy.

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