Why AdWords Dynamic Search Ads Work Better Than You Think

I have a confession: I used to hate Dynamic Search Ads.

dynamic-search-adI’m sure some of you still do. For my part, I had used them unsuccessfully in a couple of accounts and decided they were no good.

It wasn’t until a few months ago, when I saw this awesome presentation from Matt Umbro at SMX West, that I decided to give them another shot.

Let me say this: Dynamic Search Ads (DSAs) are not only a lot better than they used to be, they can also perform extremely well when optimized properly.

Let’s take a look at how to run a successful DSA campaign.

What Are Dynamic Search Ads?

Think of DSAs as broad match for your landing pages. AdWords uses details from your landing pages to decide whether to enter an ad into the auction on a given search query. Assuming it judges the search query a good fit, it dynamically generates an appropriate headline and landing page to show.

Creating a dynamic search ad in AdWords

Another good way to think of DSAs is like the text ad equivalent to product listing ads. With Google Shopping, you give Google a feed of all your product information and set bids based upon information contained within that feed. With DSAs, Google grabs the information it needs from your site and you target based upon that information.

Who Should Use DSAs?

Anyone with a huge inventory of landing pages can make use of DSAs. Typically, this means e-commerce advertisers with thousands of items in stock.

Making use of DSAs is especially handy for advertising on sites that have a constantly changing mix of products. No one wants to spend hours every week uploading new products and pausing ones you no longer sell. DSAs will take care of this for you without the associated costs that come with using a specialist advertising platform.

For most lead generation sites, DSAs aren’t necessary, as the total  number of unique landing pages is manageable. However, if you’re trying to increase brand awareness by, for example, making ads for all of the blog posts you’ve ever written, it can still be a worthwhile investment.

Let’s say Search Engine Land went to a subscription model and wanted to advertise for new paying members; manually creating ad groups for each article ever written would be kind of a pain. With DSAs, we could have an ad pop up every time someone was searching for anything related to a previous post on the blog.

What’s Good About Them?

There are a number of benefits to using DSAs to supplement your existing AdWords campaigns. The first and most exciting is that you get to throw those stuffy 25 character-limit headlines out of the window (insert “ooooooh” crowd noise):

A dynamic search ad with a long title

Strategically, DSAs are good as a way to mine for new keywords. Where the keyword planner fails to tell you about that extremely specific term for a Nike shoe that gets 5 sales on 20 clicks each month, DSAs will be right there harvesting data. Having them running in the background makes sure you don’t miss out on changes in user behavior or new keyword trends.

Finally, it’s worth noting that you don’t lose out on anything by using DSAs over regular text ads. All of the same extensions can be used, and you can still use mobile preferred copy in your description lines.

What Are The Downsides?

For starters, you’re offering Google a lot of control over your ads — not only where they’re pointing, but also what they say. PPC managers can tend to be control freaks when it comes to their accounts, and just handing everything over to Google doesn’t sit right with everyone.

DSAs have a higher chance to show for less-relevant traffic, in my experience. Whenever you’re running DSA campaigns, you’ll need to be constantly monitoring your search query reports and creating additional negative keywords.

Given that Google uses your website to match search queries to ads, write headlines and pick landing pages, DSAs also cross the SEO-PPC bridge. In other words, if your website contains poorly-optimized title tags and H1s, matching the right query to the right product is going to be trickier for Google.

How To Set Up DSAs

DSAs are currently available as a specific campaign type in the AdWords interface. Whether you want more than one campaign will depend upon how you manage your budgets. In my case, I typically set up one DSA campaign and use ad groups to break out specific category targets.

Creating a DSA in AdWords

Much like with Google Shopping, make sure you begin with an ad group targeting “All web pages” and set your bids low here. A low bid is important because it stops DSAs from stealing traffic from existing search campaigns (something you really want to avoid).

Once you have your main ad group set up, start breaking out new ad groups based around product groupings. How far you go with this breakout will depend on your business needs and will evolve as you start to learn more about your traffic. I currently have a DSA campaign for an online shoe retailer that breaks out each brand (Nike, Adidas, Reebok etc.) into its own ad group.

With your ad groups set up, you’ll need to add some targeting parameters, which can be found in the Auto Targets tab. There are four separate options for targeting:

  • Category
  • URL
  • Page_Title
  • Page_Content

Here’s how my dynamic ad targets look when set up to target specific products through the site’s URL structure:

Dynamic ad targets for a DSA shoes campaign

There’s also a whole host of pages on my site that just aren’t suitable for advertising with DSAs. In my targeting exclusions, I’m avoiding traffic for my shopper rewards program, the company blog, about us and contact pages.

Excluded DSA targets in shoe campaign

If you feel like you need just a little more info before diving head first into a DSA campaign, here’s a link to Google’s help documentation on the issue.

What Needs Optimizing?

Setting up DSAs is relatively straightforward. However, they tend not to do well without careful monitoring and optimization. Check out this warning from Andrew Lolk about the dangers of setting and forgetting your DSAs.

Negative Keywords

As we already discussed, DSAs are designed to sit in the background and catch any traffic that might have fallen through the cracks of your existing campaigns. This means you’ll need to do the fairly arduous job of adding all existing positive keywords from your account in as campaign-level negative keywords for your DSA campaign.

DSAs can have a tendency to pick up extremely broad traffic if left unchecked. If you’ve set up your negatives properly, these are normally keywords you left out in the first place due to high CPCs or perceived lack of value. Make sure to port over your existing negative keywords and to build a list of broad terms your site might show for. Failing this, checking the search query report will help you trim the fat out of your campaigns.

Search Query Reports

Running regular SQRs is the bread and butter of a successful DSA campaign. First, you’ll want to look for search queries with super low click-through rates by filtering for low click numbers and high impression numbers. The reason for this is that it’s a surefire signal something is going wrong with the ads for these queries.

A search term report for dynamic search ads campaign

We’re getting nearly 6,000 impressions for “classified shoes,” but a quick Google search revealed that our ad was for a particular type of classified shoe — highly irrelevant to our searchers’ needs.

Second, you’ll want to make sure you’re harvesting the data from your DSA campaign. Sort all search queries by conversions and pull out anything with more than 2 to be spun out into its own ad group in a regular search campaign. Make sure to add it back in as a negative for your DSA campaign after.

Ad Copy

You might not be able to control your headlines, but you can control your description lines. Ad testing with DSAs is just as important as with regular text ads — more so even, given that searchers are typically presented with a group of identical headlines. Having an offer than stands out is extremely important.

Optimizing ads is also the best way to think about changing up your DSA campaign’s structure. Compare the search queries for each ad group against your ad copy. Could you write something more relevant?

In my case, I had ad copy that mentioned “Nike” but was finding a ton of search queries for “mens nike” and “womens nike” — even though DSAs were selecting the right headlines and destination URLs for those queries, my description copy looked bland and untargeted.


Just like broad matches, changing bids on DSAs can be a bit of a crapshoot. Sometimes bidding up can help you out in the auction as you rank for higher quality searches. Other times it can suddenly kick the bottom out of a small, profitable campaign. You’ll want to experiment until you find the sweet-spot for each of your ad groups.

What We’ve Learned:

Across our accounts, we’ve seen a consistent pattern from DSAs.

  • A small boost in conversion volume
  • An initially poor CPA and ROAS
  • Above average long term performance from optimized campaigns.

Let’s look at the following data from May 2014 for one of our accounts:

A chart showing DSA with better ROAS than search campaigns

DSAs are currently generating around 5.5% of all conversions in the account. This number has actually decreased over time — from 121 conversions 4 months ago. That’s because we’ve been spinning out our top performing DSA search queries into their own ad groups.

The Return On Ad Spend (ROAS) is also way higher than non-branded search traffic over the past month. That’s mainly because of two factors:

  1. Our ads are more relevant than our competitors’, who are broad matching ads to these product-specific queries
  2. CPCs are much lower due to less competition and lower starting bids

Looking back at our online shoe retailer, you can see the impact that spinning out product specific ad groups had. Our click conversion rate and cost per conversion were markedly better than for our generic targets:

DSA conversion rates and cpas by ad group and target

Finally, make sure you’re using mobile preferred ads. While my conversion rate from desktops and laptops is okay for DSAs at 0.51%, from mobile devices it’s at a paltry 0.07%!

Device data showing poor mobile DSA data


Dynamic Search Ads, when optimized, can be a great way to push a stagnant e-commerce account into new territory without spending hours on keyword research. We’ve enjoyed an average lift in conversions for all of our clients that utilize them and recommend that you try them out. I’d be particularly interested to hear your experiences, good and bad with DSAs in the comments below!