Responsive ads for the Google Display Network: 6 months in

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At the Google Performance Summit in May 2016, Google announced responsive ads for display, which subsequently rolled out to advertiser accounts in July.

Since we’ve been able to use responsive ads for six months now, I’ve included some of the most commonly asked questions below to cover some of the advantages, disadvantages and results seen to date. I’ll also look at what’s up next for responsive ads and how you can best use these across your AdWords campaigns.

So, first things first. What are responsive ads?

To be honest, responsive ads do what they say on the tin. These display ads adjust automatically to fit into available ad space across the Google Display Network (GDN). The size, appearance and format of the ad will be tailored to match the look and feel of the web page, your targeting and the campaign goals that you have set up.

In theory, this should mean a more natural and visually pleasing ad experience for the user (I’m sure we’ve all seen our fair share of ugly GDN ads in our time!) and better campaign performance for the advertiser. A win-win situation!

What are the key benefits of this new format?

  • The “one size fits all” approach should save advertisers time and money, as they no longer need to make multiple variations of the same ad in different sizes (200 x 200, 120 x 600 and 300 x 50, for example). To set up responsive ads, you need to upload assets within the AdWords interface including a business name, logo, an image, a short headline (max. 25 characters), a longer headline (max. 90 characters), a description and a final URL. You also have the option of selecting advanced options like custom URL parameters if you so wish.
  • Google will optimize the creative assets based on past performance — so as the ads gain more data, you should see incremental improvements in performance.
  • When responsive ads are displayed in a “native” format, they will be eligible to appear on the native inventory that is now available on the GDN.


  • Ads will be able to adjust to the type of device used. With the rise of ad inventory available on mobile and tablet devices, this will give advertisers more freedom to appear across these placements and to ensure their ads are shown, harmonizing with screen size and page content.

Hang on. Surely there must be some disadvantages?

  • If you are a fan of ad testing (and let’s face it, who isn’t?), you may not be happy with the options available for responsive ads. Previously, you could split out performance by text and image ads and look at metrics for each ad size individually. This allowed you to adjust bids for ad formats or optimize your best-performing ad sizes. Now, this will no longer be possible.
  • Make sure you remember that not all uploaded creative assets will appear when ads are displayed. For example, your ad could be displayed without the description or within the image, if Google believes that this will improve the ad performance on a given web page.
  • Technically speaking, you will still be able to test different ads by uploading different creative assets, but you will not be able to know with any degree of certainty exactly which format, size or image were shown at any one time.

How are they performing so far?

At Merkle | Periscopix (my employer), we’ve been pleased with results seen to date.

For one client within the Property sector, when split-testing between the old and new ad formats, we saw an amazing

  • 10 percent increase in click-through rate.
  • 59 percent increase in conversion rate.
  • 19 percent decrease in cost-per-acquisition.

One thing to note is that we initially saw poor performance from responsive ads when we compared to standard ads and found ourselves quite disappointed. On average, we found that we needed to run the new ad sets for around two to three weeks before they started to outperform the old ones, allowing us to transition to running responsive ads only.

As I mentioned earlier, Google will optimize responsive ads based on historic data; so you will need to allow their algorithm to build up performance knowledge, which is why we saw them take a few weeks to gain traction. This is why we run standard and responsive ads in tandem for a few weeks before switching over completely to responsive.

For this reason, we have found that a phased transition works best, following the steps outlined below. By following these steps, we have managed to avoid any large fluctuations in traffic or conversion volume.


What’s next for responsive ads?

Google have confirmed that as of January 31, 2017, advertisers will no longer be able to create new standard text ads or edit existing ones. For this reason, I would urge you to get testing this new feature ASAP to ensure you’re not left behind after the final cutoff date.


For those running Dynamic Remarketing campaigns, don’t worry, Google hasn’t forgotten about you! This feature is still in beta but should be available across your AdWords accounts. The principles are exactly the same as the normal responsive ads, but the images displayed with be taken from the feed and will vary depending on what the user has previously looked at on your website.

At some point in 2017, Google will also be rolling out responsive ads for Gmail Ads campaigns, allowing us much greater flexibility across these campaigns, too. Rather than setting up separate ads for each of the different templates available (or just sticking to one template type) like single image ads or a catalogue-style ad, you will be able to upload multiple assets, and Google will combine them into a variety of ad sizes and formats. Although again, the downside is that it takes away some of the creativity and testing ability from the advertiser. However, it will also make it much easier to set up and launch these campaigns in the future.

We’re also getting wind of some responsive ad testing and updates and would expect this to continue throughout Q1 2017, with new features cropping up as they begin to refine the assets needed.

A few parting words…

In summary, it looks like Google has recognized the need to make Display (Display, Remarketing, Dynamic Remarketing and Gmail Ads) campaign setup easier for advertisers, as well as the underlying need to have ads that match the look and feel of the web page on which they are displayed, ensuring a positive and beneficial ad experience for the user.

When weighing up the pros and cons, I’m positive that these changes will benefit our various Display campaigns in the long run, improving both campaign performance metrics, brand positioning and finally, the user experience for those viewing the ads across the GDN.

The only negative for me is the limitation this now places on creative testing, but we can only hope that Google may listen to our requests here and launch something to help us out a little.

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.

About The Author

Anna is a PPC Team Leader at UK-based digital marketing agency, Merkle | Periscopix. With 4 years’ experience in the industry, she oversees strategy on a number of accounts that sit within her team. She is also actively involved in client work in an Account Director capacity, with a particular focus on B2B. With a background in languages and a previous career as a translator, she’s also interested in international expansion and global strategy.


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