What happens when Google pushes into branding and messaging?

Google branding

If you’re in the business of marketing, you know how important branding is to your clients. And this is true whether it’s a print campaign, direct mail campaign, email campaign or pay-per-click (PPC) campaign. No matter which marketing channel you use, you and your client want tight control over the look and feel of your marketing collateral.

Branding is so important for my PPC clients that my team will spend hours upon hours on images and messaging — and reviewing these with clients — to make sure they’re perfect before launch.

Which is why the thought of Google inching into PPC branding makes me incredibly nervous.

Are automatically generated PPC ads any substitute for personal, hands-on creation, review and approval?

To find out, let’s take a closer look at two recent AdWords initiatives: responsive ads and Ads Added by AdWords.

Responsive ads

If you’ve been keeping up with changes in the PPC world (not easy!), then you’ll know that Google has made some changes to GDN (Google Display Network) campaigns.

Until recently, PPC pros had two ad options on GDN (Google Display Network): display ads and text ads. Generally, display ads are larger and display at the top or side of web pages. Text ads are smaller and can fit almost anywhere.

While we typically set up both types for clients, we often found that text ads converted really well for some industries.

But as of January 31, Google has discontinued text ads within GDN campaigns. Instead, they want advertisers to use new responsive ads.

Responsive ads sound great in theory. Similar to a responsive website, responsive ads can render in different sizes for display on different devices. As described in the AdWords help file:

Responsive ads automatically adjust their size, appearance, and format to fit just about any available ad space. For example, your responsive ad might show as a native banner ad on one site and a dynamic text ad on another, as it automatically transforms itself to fit precisely where you need it to go to meet your advertising goals.

This saves advertisers from having to make the same ad in multiple sizes — which can be quite time-consuming (and challenging for less design-proficient users).

The problem with responsive ads

When Google announced the change, we quickly worked to get responsive ads in place. AdWords gives advertisers four options for creating responsive ads:

AdWords responsive ads options

Responsive ad options

As you can see, these options are:

  1. Scan website
  2. Upload
  3. Stock images
  4. Recently used

We decided to start by testing the “scan website” option. Perhaps not surprisingly, the results were disappointing. We found that the images Google scraped from our client site were not ones we would have chosen. Indeed, sometimes the selected images were buried deep in the site and had little or no relevance to the ad.

Consequently, we opted to go with the upload option, which requires two images and a logo. With the assets in place, it was pretty easy to set up. The process generated three ads: logo, square and vertical.

But again, the end results were poor. Frankly, the ads were ugly. And we didn’t like not having precise control over the finished product.

Of the three types, logo ads were somewhat more palatable. So maybe we could just use logo ads and ditch the square and vertical ads? No such luck. Advertisers must enable all three elements, or none.

Oh well, we thought, at least we still have full control over display ads. If we’re lucky, maybe display ads will be given greater prominence than responsive ads. But no, as we continued our testing, we found that responsive ads are sometimes taking precedence over display ads.

AdWords display ad example

Example of a display ad


Example of a responsive ad

Example of a responsive ad

(Maybe you’re thinking we’re being too picky. But I should point out that our clients have been complaining about responsive ads as well. When responsive ads are rendered on their screens, they call us and ask, “What did you do to our ads?”)

Given this situation, many of our clients have been reluctant to proceed with responsive ads at all. For the moment, we’re encouraging them to stay with it long enough to gather some data. Maybe the data will surprise us. Maybe responsive ads will have awesome conversion rates. Maybe Google will improve the ads. But if things stay the same, and if results are poor, then we’ll have little choice but to pause responsive ads.

To say this is frustrating is an understatement. We painstakingly craft GDN ads, reviewing them carefully with our clients. To have Google elbow its way into this process, and decide it can do better all on its own, is concerning.

Ads added by AdWords

If you’re unfamiliar with the “Ads Added by AdWords” pilot project, you can read more about it in this Search Engine Land article by Ginny Marvin.

Basically, Google is testing a new initiative to automatically add new text ads to AdWords accounts.

So far, according to the article, these ads are being created by real people. But presumably, if the program is to scale more broadly, then the process will become automated.

The ads are built on existing ads in the accounts, as well as landing page content.

According to the AdWords help file, the idea behind the project is to create ad variations that might help with campaign performance. Pilot participants are advised to not pause the ads and let them run indefinitely. Presumably, ads that perform less well will be shown less often.

What’s especially concerning, as noted in this article, is that Google defaults these ads to live! It’s up to advertisers to pause the ads if they don’t want them.

Again, this initiative has me (nervously) scratching my head.

Do auto-generated ads make sense for sophisticated users?

I suppose that if you’re running a campaign without the help of a knowledgeable PPC agency, consultant or in-house marketing team, then Ads Added by AdWords might be useful. If your organization’s approach to PPC campaigns is “set it and forget it,” then these extra ads could conceivably help performance.

But for most PPC pros, that’s not the case. My clients, for example, have a real and enduring interest in their branding and messaging. They care deeply about the look and feel of their ads. This isn’t something they’re willing to leave to an algorithm, no matter how sophisticated. And it certainly isn’t something they’re willing to take outside of their approval process.

I can see other problems with Ads Added by AdWords as well. As a PPC agency, we invest a lot of time in getting to know our clients. We learn about their business. We read up on their branding strategy. We look at what they’re doing in other marketing channels. And we make sure our ads fit in with and support these efforts.

Can Google really take on that role based on what they can scrape from client websites?

And this question goes beyond branding and messaging. Some of my clients are subject to strict government regulations, industry rules and internal company policies. How can Google take these into account?

And then there’s the whole PPC “package” to consider. As stated in an email sent to advertisers selected for the pilot project, ad extensions are one source of new ad content, along with headlines, keywords and landing page information. And we’re glad that extensions are included, of course.

But at the same time, extensions are something we diligently craft, in terms of strategy and content, in close collaboration with our clients. Again, how can Google’s automatically created ads accurately reflect the many complexities and nuances of our decision-making?

And finally, it’s important to remember that client messaging changes all the time. If a university, for example, is having an open house on March 12, will Google know to not run an ad promoting this open house on March 13?

Do you really want Google playing with your branding?

I recognize that a lot of my concerns stem from unknowns. Unfortunately, the details of these initiatives remain murky. Maybe things will become more clear in the coming days. And maybe Google will listen to feedback and tweak these programs as needed. And maybe my concerns (and the concerns of my clients) will be adequately addressed.

But still, I resist the notion of Google elbowing its way into automating tasks that impact messaging and branding. It’s just not that simple.

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