In his book examining the rise and, well, further rise of Google, In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works and Shapes Our Lives, author Steven Levy recounts a period in the early days of the company when top Googlers were still trying to figure out how best to monetize their search product. According to Levy, at one point founder Larry Page had thought that all advertisers should need to do is "give their credit card number and point Google to their website." Rather than go through the painstaking process of keyword generation, "Google would choose them."
With the official release of the Dynamic Search Ads (DSAs) beta today, Google has made that vision, if not a reality, at least a possibility. Practically though, DSAs are no substitute for a well-built term list with carefully tailored ad copy and negatives, but they can be a useful tool, even for sophisticated advertisers.
RKG has been experimenting with these "keywordless ads" (as we knew them until recently) for the better part of the last couple years and we've learned a few things along the way. Here's our read on this significant new AdWords product.
What are Dynamic Search Ads and How Do They Work?
To the average Google user, a Dynamic Search Ad will appear identical to a standard AdWords text ad. Behind the scenes though, DSAs are being triggered by a very different process. As their name suggests, DSAs are targeted dynamically based on how Google assesses the content of your website. With DSAs, an advertiser can literally provide Google with their domain address, a credit card number, default bid and copy and leave it to Google to run their paid search program.
Such a hands-off strategy isn't likely to work out so well though, even with Google's top-notch search technology powering things. Every advertiser has site content on which they will not wish to advertise: contact information, customer support, job listings, user forums, out-of-stock products, etc.
Fortunately, Google has provided us with the ability to include or exclude specific pages for DSA targeting. When adding a dynamic ad target we are given four options, which can be used in combination, for limiting the content that can trigger ads:
CATEGORY - Google will automatically categorize the pages on your website based on content themes and these categories will be available in a drop-down menu when adding a DSA target. A couple of caveats: not all pages of your site will be categorized, so targeting all categories individually will not ensure full domain coverage. Also, the category listings are a bit vague and it can be unclear which pages will fall where under Google's categorization.
URL - If your site's URL structure allows for it, targeting by URL can help you avoid the ambiguity of category targeting. This option lets you tell Google to show DSAs only for URLs containing a specific text string. For example, if the ecommerce side of your site is on a subdomain (store.example.com), you can limit DSA targeting to that subdomain. Similarly, if you only want to target certain product categories and those categories are reliably referenced in your URL (store.example.com/books/), it may be a better option than relying on Google's categorization.
PAGE_TITLE - Like URL targeting, page title targeting allows you to show DSAs only for pages with a specific string in the title. This can be useful for product category targeting when your URL structure does not allow for it (www.example.com/products/widget-xyz123), but category information is contained in the page title.
PAGE_CONTENT - Page content targeting will look at all of the content on the page to determine which should trigger DSAs and is more useful as an exclusionary tool (more on that below). Since text can repeat across many pages, some of which you want to trigger ads and some of which you don't, it may prove difficult to reference page content reliably in order to include only desired pages.
All four of the targeting options above are also available as a means to exclude certain pages from triggering Dynamic Search Ads and this is where referencing PAGE_CONTENT can be quite valuable. Your site text for a temporarily out-of-stock product is likely to be unique to those pages and referencing it may be the only means by which you can ensure you are not sending users to an unavailable product via DSAs.
Google recommends initially targeting all of your web pages, to ensure full coverage, and then applying exclusions. The CATEGORY, URL and PAGE_TITLE options can all work for excluding certain categories and subdomains just as well as they work for including them. It's really up to your preference on which way you want to approach it, but be aware that exclusions are set at the ad group level, which could make one scheme more practical than others.
Just like a keyword-driven paid search campaign, advertisers can also use negative keywords to prevent Dynamic Search Ads from triggering for undesired search queries. Chances are that you'll want any negatives you have running across the rest of your program to apply to your DSA ad groups and then some.
Ad copy for Dynamic Search Ads is very similar to that for keyword-targeted ads with the key difference being how headlines work. Since there are no keywords, we cannot rely upon keyword insertion for headlines, as is common for keyword-targeted ad groups. Instead, DSA headlines are dynamically generated by Google:
Thankfully, Google has gone through the trouble of making sure DSAs can be tracked by a slew of the major tracking providers, including RKG. Because landing pages are dynamic, you won't be providing Google with a specific URL wrapped in tracking. Instead, Google offers new URL ValueTrack parameters to pass your destination URL into your tracking code appropriately.
Naturally, DSA landing pages are set up in this way at the ad group level, but we can still analyze individual URL or search query performance by running a report in the AdWords interface or by examining our referrer logs. Reporting in the Adwords interface also includes Google's categorization of each query, which should help you in creating segments using category targets. There is also a separate option to view performance by category alone.
Best Practices and Real World Use
It's pretty clear that even Google expects Dynamic Search Ads to complement rather than supplant keyword-targeted ads (for now at least). The way they can best do this is by covering temporary gaps in keyword coverage and revealing otherwise overlooked terms.
For an advertiser selling tens of thousands of SKUs with a great deal of turnover, it can be difficult to ensure that all appropriate new keywords are added the moment each new product goes up. DSAs can serve as a stopgap until the proper keyword additions get made.
In other cases, even if you've been extremely timely and diligent with your keyword build-outs, chances are you've still missed some variation that isn't being captured by Google's broad matching. Scouring search query logs will do you no good because your ad never appeared before the user to generate a click. DSAs can get your ad out in front of users for relevant queries and allow you to later add the best terms to your keyword-targeted program.
In the early days of the beta test, we conducted a study for one client that found that 63% of traffic from Dynamic Search Ads was generated in cases where we did not have a keyword that matched the query exactly nor did we have a keyword that had ever been broad matched to the query. Because we have been adding keywords found through DSA-matched queries along the way, it is difficult to assess these levels over time or across more clients as the beta progressed, but we should note that Google has said that DSAs do not trump existing keywords.
If you are continually pulling out the best terms generated by DSAs and adding them to your keyword-targeted campaigns, it stands to reason that you may need to consider having a different efficiency goal in mind for DSAs. While it's certainly possible to keep the efficiency of a DSA campaign right in line with the rest of your PPC program, it may ultimately benefit you more to view it as an investment towards your keyword-targeted campaigns.
The more cautious-minded advertisers out there may want to wade into these new waters slowly though. Through restrictive targeting, exclusions and negatives, tight budgets and close monitoring, DSAs can be made very low risk and the results you see should be encouraging. Start by targeting only product level pages in your best converting categories. Google asserts that 70% of queries have no exact-matched keywords and, within that segment, you're bound to find some high quality traffic you would otherwise miss.
Another high-level strategy is to add a site-wide target at a conservative bid with appropriate exclusions, and then layer on additional, more finely targeted ad groups and copy with bids corresponding to their expected performance. This approach is similar to the best practices for running Product Listing Ads and ensures wide coverage, but with a preference towards better quality traffic.
Lastly, we should note that we've heard some negative reviews of DSAs in the past and we understand where that perception might come from. Some advertisers simply don't receive very much quality traffic when running DSAs. In certain cases, this may be due to the site needing to undergo extensive SEO efforts to improve Google's view, the benefits of which would extend far beyond Dynamic Search Ads. If Google can't sufficiently determine what a page is about or its quality, it's unlikely to match queries to it and have the confidence to serve ads to it.
Additionally, we've heard negativity about queries with low commercial intent being matched to DSA landing pages. In much the same way that broad match has to be refined with negatives, DSAs must be maintained with exclusions of page content and keyword queries. Additionally, different pages or categories of pages on the site require different bids to maintain efficiency levels. With proper management, DSAs can be ROI positive and provide incremental revenue.