The rise of Responsive Search Ads - What digital marketers can do

January 18, 2023

Google is turning off ETAs and switching to RSAs. Here’s how you can effectively manage the transition to RSAs while improving ROAS.


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The rise of Responsive Search Ads - What digital marketers can do

At the end of June 2022, Google will “sunset” expanded text ads (ETAs). While it will still display ETAs, you’ll no longer be able to create them. Instead, advertisers will have to use responsive search ads (RSAs) for campaigns.

In fact, they’ll be the only standard Google search campaign available.

The shift marks another transition for digital advertisers to new ways of working – with the deadline approaching, you’ll have to move fast.

In this article, we explain what the shift to RSA means. We describe how you can seamlessly manage the transition and share some best-practice tips and expert guidance on how to optimize campaigns.

The end of Expanded Text Ads 🏁

Google has announced that digital marketers will no longer be able to create ETAs from the end of June 2022. But why?

Google claims it’s down to the changing way we search – with an estimated 15% of search queries every day never seen by Google before.

The shift is also about incorporating machine learning and AI into search. Put simply, Google thinks the algorithm that powers RSA stands a better chance of connecting you with a customer – and they could be right.

“On average, clients using RSAs saw an increase of 13% in clicks, 16% in conversions, 6% in conversion rate, and a decrease of 2% in CPA,” Google reports of its own experiments.

The shift to RSAs shouldn’t be news if you’re a digital marketer. It’s been the default option in Google Ads since 2021. Since then, Google has been making it harder and harder to set up ETAs.

Since launching in 2018, RSA has had mixed reviews. For example, a 2019 A/B test by Josh Colbeck published in Econsultancy found that “there were only a small number of campaigns in which the Responsive Search Ads performed better than the Expanded Text Ads”.

Some digital marketers are skeptical of the change. “I think the shift is bad news for marketers that want to eke maximum performance out of their campaigns,” says Alex Bussey, Digital Marketing Specialist at Red Evolution.

While it’ll make it easier for beginners to roll out semi-successful ads, handing control of your headlines over to a machine learning algorithm will significantly impact your ability to focus your messaging,” Bussey says.

The system changes the headline and description to find the winning combination, measured in CTA and conversion rate.

While marketers may not like it, the change is inevitable.

If you’ve never used it before, RSA works simply. Google automatically serves an ad headline and a description to a user from a set of up to 15 headlines and 4 descriptions.

The system does all the work, making it perfect, right?

Not so fast… Some digital marketers prefer the control of ETAs. This is why Google is giving a little back, enabling users to “pin” specific headlines to descriptions. Doing so means they’re always displayed together.

This is especially important in regulated markets and for specialist products and services that face controls on their ads.

Can I still use ETAs? 💻

While from 1 July 2022, you’ll no longer be able to create new ETAs, you’re still able to use existing ones.

That means Google will still display your ETAs for the foreseeable future (although it’s highly unlikely to be forever!). If you’re worried about the impact the transition to RSAs could have on your advertising, we recommend creating the ETAs you think you’ll need before the deadline and pausing them. Some agencies are already taking this step.

“We have had to shift our digital marketing plans to testing our ETAs hard over the next few months, at least whilst we still can,” says Meg Baldwin, Digital Manager at Group of Seven. “We are also introducing some evergreen ETAs that we can use in the future whilst we focus on testing and improving our RSAs.”

OK, so you don’t need to create hundreds for each ad group, but having a selected few enables you to test combinations and compare their impact with RSAs.

If you’re familiar with the system, this shouldn’t take long and could help you improve digital marketing efforts.

What does the end of ETAs mean for digital advertisers? 📢

The shift to RSAs will affect digital marketers in several ways.

  • You’ll have less control over your ads – Google’s algorithm will make decisions about how your ads are displayed. This will reduce (but not entirely remove) control over ads.

  • You’ll have to learn a (slightly) different way of working – Creating RSAs is a slight change from creating ETAs. Don’t worry, we go into detail below.

  • You’ll need to get creative with copy – RSAs need more copy to work, including 15 headlines and 4 descriptions. That’s a lot more words and work.

  • Pinning is crucial to performance – By pinning certain headlines to ad copy, you can (sort of) use RSAs to create ETAs. It’s essential for those in regulated markets who require ad approvals.

  • ETA impressions may fall – It’s understandable that Google will want to accelerate the shift to RSAs, so you’ll likely see ETA impressions fall. Monitor the key indicators to see the impact.

  • RSA impressions may rise – RSA ads aren’t new; you may already be using them. You may see a boost in performance after 30 June.

  • You should review and refine ad groups regularly – OK, so this should be standard for everyone but if you’re shifting to RSAs, monitor performance and review and refine ads as necessary.

5 things every advertiser should do to deal with the end of ETAs

You may already be using RSAs in combination with ETAs or be totally new to the system. Whatever your experience with ETAs and exposure to the platform, here are 5 things every advertised should do before 1 July 2022:

1. Activate responsive search ads (if you haven’t already)

RSAs are the future (whether you like it or not), so it’s a good idea to get started ASAP. You should aim to create RSAs for each ad group that you have.

When creating RSAs, you’ll need to generate more content than you have for ETAs, including:

  • 15 headlines
  • 4 descriptions

While you can refresh your existing ETAs, you should go further. Why? Because Google can – and will – use different headlines with descriptions (unless you add pins, something we describe later).

It’s critical that all headlines and descriptions work together – and that involves a lot of testing. If you complete all available options, that’s thousands of potential permutations you’ll need to review.

Our advice: put some time aside to do this before launching RSAs!

2. Prioritize ‘pinning’

We’ve mentioned it a lot, but “pinning” should be a priority for any digital marketer.

Google enables you to “pin” certain headlines to certain descriptions. This essentially overrules the algorithm.

At a minimum, the system will display two headlines and one description, and in some cases can display up to three headlines and two descriptions, but no more.

Pinning can help you to achieve several things:

  • You can ensure there’s a CTA for every ad
  • You can pin headlines to specific positions to avoid repetition or customer confusion
  • Leave space for the Google algorithm to work

Some experts have suggested you can effectively use pinning to create RSA ads that are as controlled as ETAs. One way to do this is to leave spaces blank (removing the option for Google to swap out fields).

In the short term, this may work, but there are implications for ad strength (which we talk about later). It may also impact the success of your ads, so be careful. Why is this the case? Because Google is confident in its algorithm to learn and develop. Pinning removes the power from the system, which could harm you.

3. Understand ad-strength

Ad-strength is Google’s mechanism for providing feedback on ads and helping to shape them for customers.

You can see Google’s calculation of the strength of your ad. It will show you a range of feedback about how effective it considers your content to be.

“RSAs are significantly different from their older cousins and require a different approach,” says Bussey. “You want to think about high-impact copy that gets the message across in 30 characters and stands alone. I’d also recommend spending some time working out how to game the 'ad strength' system.”

While you’re creating your ad, you’ll be able to see whether it’s excellent, average, or poor. The system also provides some guidance on how to improve your ads.

The system will offer advice on how to improve your ads in real-time as you’re writing them. Experienced digital marketers may be tempted to override the advice, but it’s worth listening to any feedback from the channel owner.

Google will make several suggestions, including whether you should:

  • Add more headlines or descriptions for better performance
  • Add unique headlines and descriptions
  • Unpin some assets
  • Include more keywords in headlines or descriptions

RSA template

Should you listen to them? It’s up to you ­– but you should never ignore them. If you’re having issues with the system, there could be several reasons why your ad strength isn’t showing, including:

  • The final URL is missing
  • Missing ad group
  • Missing keywords in an ad group

Ad strength can, and will, change. It often happens when the keywords for campaigns have changed, so we advise you to regularly review it.

4. Focus on performance

Digital marketers are judged on the performance of campaigns, and we’re not going to lie, there is less information about the impact of RSA campaigns.

RSA is about serving users with dynamic ads, but its dashboard doesn’t provide a huge amount of information on the combinations that are generating the most clicks. This can make it a challenge (read: impossible) to leverage these insights to other channels.

We can see the success of each ad unit, but not the specific combination.

You might think clicking on “Asset Details” will give you more information. It does, but it’s missing critical data for you to be able to assess impact.

Going down a level, you can check out an Asset Performance Rating. You can see which of your ads is classified as Low, Good, and Best.

You can use the performance rating system to sketch out what you think are the best-performing permutations, but it’s certainly not simple to see.

“The shift to RSA's from ETA's is an interesting one. I imagine some marketers will be skeptical as with any sudden and uncontrollable change made by Google. However, the results we have seen for our clients have led to an increase in CTR and CVR and a decrease in CPA across the board, so there are clearly benefits of the change,” says digital marketing expert Anna Simpson.

5. Prepare stakeholders and customers for the transition to RSA

If you’ve not used RSAs before, you’ll have to learn some new skills. If you’re using ETAs alongside RSAs, you’ll already be aware of the challenges.

Responsive search ada

If you’re working for an internal group of stakeholders or external clients, you should advise them of the change and prepare them for the potential impact.

Here are some of the key things to communicate to stakeholders and customers:

  • The change is happening – from 1 July, you won’t be able to create new ETAs
  • Performance may dip initially, but as the system improves so will your ads
  • You’ll need to create more assets for digital ads and need client approval
  • You’ll need to regularly review and refresh ad creatives
  • It’s critical that experts ensure every ad has a CTA
  • You’ll have less information on campaign performance and successful ad permutations

The future is bright for RSAs 💡

We’ve focused on some of the challenges digital marketers face with the ETA switch-off, but there are positives.

RSA harnesses the power of machine learning to help improve ad placement. Over time, the system will learn about you, your customers, and the search terms that matter. This should translate into more effective ads, delivering greater CTAs and a higher ROAS.

Channable provides the perfect platform for managing RSAs, enabling you to generate, test, and implement effective ads. Learn more about Channable here.

Interested in learning more about RSAs and how to leverage them in your ad strategy? Register for our live webinar in collaboration with Google and get all the ins and outs from experts.

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Lawrie JonesFreelancer Writer & Journalist

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