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Getting to grips with Google’s responsive search ads: Benefits & best practices

Expanded text ads are now sunset, so it's time to get to grips with Google's responsive search ads. In this article, we'll look at what RSAs are, how they work and how you can maximise their performance.

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Whether you're ready for it or not, responsive adverts are the future - when it comes to Google, at least. Last year they announced the sunsetting of the Expanded Text Ad, sending the PPC industry into a frenzy - and, now, that time is here.

If you're a little late to the responsive advertising party, there's still time to get yourself accustomed to the new standard in Google advertising - and we're here to help.


What are responsive search ads?

What are responsive search ads?

Responsive search ads (often referred to as RSAs) are a new, innovative form of advertising that uses machine learning to test a wealth of different text combinations.

As opposed to the previous ETAs (expanded text ads) which were static, these adverts allow you to upload multiple different headlines and descriptions, and Google will serve different combinations as it learns about the advert and the audience. 

With 15 different headlines and 4 descriptions, the number of different possible combinations for your advert span into the tens of thousands. Allowing many different ad combinations to be tested all within one ad, it makes A/B testing your adverts easier than it's ever been before!

How do responsive search ads work?

How do responsive search ads work?

To set up your responsive search ad, you'll need to provide the text assets in the form of your headlines and descriptions.

From there, Google will proceed to test the different variants and, over time, its AI will learn which combinations work best for different audiences. You'll always have the option to edit your text as usual, and Google also offers the opportunity to 'pin' certain headlines and descriptions so they'll always show. More on that later.

How to create responsive search ads

How to create responsive search ads

RSAs are the new default so, once you've done your keyword research and set up your campaign, all you need to do is start creating an ad as normal and you'll see the new responsive layout.

Responsive search ad headlines

You can add up to 15 headlines to each RSA. When your advert is served, Google will display a combination of any 2 - 3 of them each time.

Google ads in the SERPs

In the above screenshot from a search for "trainers for girls", Headline 1 is outlined in blue, Headline 2 is in purple and Headline 3 is in green. Google will choose to show two or three of your headlines. In this example, it's chosen to only show one description for each ad.

Make sure that you add as many headlines as you can - we'd suggest a minimum of ten - and keep them unique. Headlines that are too similar won't be shown together. We'd recommend including your keywords in at least three headlines, and combine this with a few CTAs and features and benefits too.

In the above example search, the main keyword was "girls' trainers", and a variant of this term has been shown for one of the headlines in each ad. The other headlines are a mix of brand keywords, offers and calls to action.

Responsive search ad descriptions

You get to add four descriptions in total, and up to two will be shown on any one advert.

Don't forget that each description needs to stand independently from any others, as you can't be sure which will be shown together. Try to highlight a different feature or benefit in each description. For example, you might talk about your pricing, offers or finance packages in one description, and your years of experience as a business in another. You can try breaking them into more than one sentence too to get a few shorter messages across.

What are the responsive search ads character limits?

Your headlines can be up to 30 characters long, and Google will show 2 - 3 headlines per ad. Your RSA description can be up to 90 characters long, and up to two may be shown at a time.

Responsive search ads best practice

Responsive search ads best practice

Now you know the basics, here are a few tips for further responsive ads success:

Pin your assets (sparingly)

Pinning headlines and descriptions is an optional feature which allows you to have more control over your ads. You can choose to pin headlines to a certain position (but bear in mind that sometimes only two are shown). Google will generally encourage you not to pin because it wants the flexibility to test as many different combinations as possible, but we've seen some success pinning different elements.

For example, you could test pinning your keyword-rich headlines to position one and a CTA in position two, allowing your other features and benefits to show when three headlines are displayed. It's also really useful if you have essential legal information or branding which you need to always show.

But, pin too much and you defeat the point of the responsive search ad. Google has a wealth of data and AI technology at its disposal - so don't be afraid to let it do most of the work for you.

Keep it unique

If your ad copy is poorly thought out, it's very easy to wind up with an ad combination that doesn't make sense, so it's crucial to write headlines and descriptions that are unique and work independently from each other. Content that is too similar will be wasted, as Google will disregard redundant, repetitive assets and they won't be shown.

Test everything

Responsive search ads are a great learning opportunity, and you can use them to test the strength of your ad copy and the learning capabilities even further. Because they already contain multiple combinations, you're limited to up to three RSAs per ad group, and we'd recommend taking advantage of all three. Try testing different landing pages, ad copy character counts, upper and lower case titles - even the smallest of changes can have a surprisingly large impact!

Use ad extensions

You can still use all the usual ad extensions with responsive ads - site links, call-outs, snippets and more. Utilise these for maximum exposure in the search results!

Don't forget about mobile

Google will shorten your ad copy in some instances - for example, for users searching on mobile. For the best user experience, we'd recommend pre-empting this by including some shorter headlines and descriptions which are tailored and optimised for mobile devices. 

Measuring responsive search ads

Measuring responsive search ads performance

As you're entering your ad copy, you'll see that it provides you with a measure of the ad's strength and a few tips for improvements as you go along. We'd recommend aiming for at least "Good" here, but bear in mind that Google's recommendations can be taken with a pinch of salt, particularly if you're using the pinning feature. 

Ads measurement

Once your ads are up and running, you can find out how your individual assets are performing. At the ad level, click on 'View asset details'. Here, you'll be able to toggle between a list of all the headlines and descriptions with some details of their performance, and the best-performing combinations. 

The Google Ads assets report

The data at asset level is limited to impressions, not clicks. But, if you've had assets running for a while and they're not starting to receive a decent number of impressions, it's a good indicator it's time to change things up. 

Benefits of responsive search ads

Benefits of responsive search ads 

They may take a little getting used to, but we think the benefits of RSAs outweigh the negatives. We've already seen RSAs start to outperform ETAs in ad groups, gaining more impressions and ultimately more clicks and conversions - which can only be a good thing! 

They're also a great timesaver. Yes, you'll need to spend some time on the initial setup, but once you have all your assets prepared, taking advantage of machine learning can save hours of manual testing and analysis. 

Don't forget, it's okay to still be learning as you go - Google is too!

And, if you need some extra help with your PPC account, find out more about our Digital Marketing Services.

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Emma Williams

Digital Marketing Manager