Ah, 2015 — this year, paid search became a three-ring circus again, with Yahoo on the scene in a bigger way, Google AdWords turned 15 and Bing reached profitability.
After a renegotiated search deal with Microsoft that gives Gemini volume worth paying attention to (maybe), Yahoo also announced a pending-regulator-approval deal to serve Google search ads on Yahoo properties.
2105 was also the year the scales tipped and Google announced that more search volume is coming from mobile than desktop for the first time.
Come along down memory lane as we reminisce about the biggest things to happen in paid search in 2015, in no particular order.
From The Engines: Alphabet, Profits & Deals
Google rang in Q3 as part of the newly formed conglomerate called Alphabet, and revenues beat analyst expectations. The company called out mobile search as a particular driver for strong growth. Remember, in Q1, the company surprised with the news that YouTube TrueView clicks has been behind the declining CPCs all these quarters, not mobile?
Microsoft said search contributed more than $1 billion to the bottom line in its latest earnings report, with revenue up 29 percent, thanks in part to the launch of Windows 10. This fall, Bing Ads executives said the company is all in on search, pointing to integrations into key Microsoft products like Windows 10 and syndication deals with AdMarketplace, Gumtree.com and others, not to mention a 10-year deal with AOL.
Yahoo Gemini became the “platform that could” possibly become a player. It’s certainly become one that agencies are starting to pay attention to (Several shared their thoughts with Marketing Land last month). Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer reiterated that “Mobile search continues to be a critical area of investment for us” on the company’s third-quarter earnings call. Despite these assurances, there’s quite a bit of skepticism in the market, and there’s word that the Yahoo board is now looking to spin off the company’s core business rather than its Alibaba stake, which only adds to the confusion.
Apps For All
Not only is the app install ad market continuing to heat up, but both Google AdWords and Bing Ads launched apps. This may not seem particularly momentous, but apps have been high on PPC managers’ wish lists, and the devotion of engineering resources by the platforms to make it happen this year is yet another signal of how important mobile is to the way we conduct and earn and build business.
Google got its Android app for AdWords off the ground in March. Bing Ads followed up in April with an app for iOS.
Bing Ads released its Android app in September.
Google recently announced it is taking sign-ups for its iOS app beta.
Also worth a mention is word from Bing that Bing Ads Editor for Mac is on the way and should start showing up in beta early next year.
The Keyword Complement: Audience Targeting
There were several updates that brought audience targeting in search a bit closer to par with features available in display.
In June, Retargeting Lists for Search Ads got access to Google Analytics, allowing the use of some dimensions for building lists of users who clicked on an AdWords ad based on the Google Analytics cookie rather than the AdWords cookie.
Then in early October, Google made waves by introducing Customer Match to AdWords. Following on similar capabilities already offered by Facebook and Twitter, Customer Match lets advertisers upload their email lists for ad targeting. Google opened up customer targeting on search, YouTube and Gmail.
A couple of weeks later, Bing Ads announced that retargeting was available for text ad and product ad campaigns. Bing Ads retargeting utilizes the Universal Event Tracking (UET) code that the company launched in 2014. Bing Ads had made solid improvements to the way advertisers set up and implement UET, just ahead of the retargeting rollout.
At the same time Google made its Customer Match announcement — during Ad Week in New York City — Yahoo made a retargeting announcement of its own. Yahoo retargeting works with native advertising campaigns only, though.
And speaking of expanding reach to audiences through native advertising channels, Bing Ads began testing units on its MSN.com property in July, and Google brought Gmail native ads out of beta at the beginning of September.
New Ad Copy Features Revolved Around Extensions and Snippets
As the engines constantly test new ways to improve (theoretically quality) click-through rates, this has increasingly meant ads crammed with ever more extensions and snippets — even if advertisers don’t set them up themselves.
Roughly a year after debuting Callout Extensions, Google added Dynamic Callout Extensions to automatically pull information about the business and products from a website into text ads.
At the end of August, Google rolled out Structured Snippets to let advertisers highlight specific features of their type of business or products. Since then, we’ve seen Google implement a special use case for Structured Snippets with headers to feature Black Friday and Cyber Monday promotions, likely a hint of more variations to come.
On the ad customizer front, Google added message customization based on a user’s location. So a retailer could promote deals in specific stores to users around those locations, for example, among other uses.
And, finally, in a bit of a throwback, Bing rolled the image extension out of beta in November.
The Definition Of A Conversion Got More Nuanced
What’s a conversion, you ask? Well, you might need to be more specific. Google’s definition of a conversion became more closely tied to its automated bidding tools. Starting in October, Google changed the conversions columns to include only those conversions that are set for optimization: i.e., optimized conversion actions.
Also with that change, Estimated Cross-Device Conversions became simply Cross-Device Conversions, as we are presumed to have all bought into the methodology by now. Later that month, Cross-Device Conversions were rolled right into the main Conversions columns, as well, and became available for automated bid strategies.
Closing out the year, Google launched Smart Goals in early December. Smart Goals are designed for advertisers that don’t or can’t have conversion tracking on their sites. It aggregates conversion data from the thousands of sites that opt to share data with Google Analytics and, with machine learning, identifies visits deemed most likely to convert on the advertiser’s site.
Smart Goals have been somewhat controversial for a couple of reasons: 1. Why wouldn’t you have conversion or goal set up? 2. Why would you trust Google to make the right call? But in the bigger picture, it points to the increasing sophistication of (and our reliance on) machine learning in paid search and beyond. Just look at how much the conversations about Google’s automated bidding strategies have changed in the last few years, from contempt to acceptance. That’s not to say there isn’t healthy skepticism, but the conversation has certainly changed.
Vertical-Specific Ad Programs
This spring, Google rolled out new vertical-specific mobile ad formats for automotive and hotels. We also saw Google build out its Compare product in the US — adding auto insurance and mortgages to its existing credit card solution — and go after the local services market with Home Services Ads (HSA).
Google has its work cut out in its challenge to Yelp (and Amazon, and likely Facebook, among others) in the home services sector, many local search experts told us. Interestingly, Google recently switched up the ad unit for Home Services Ads, doing away with head shots of the service providers. They now show benefits in bullets and ask for a ZIP code and job type.
More Ads On The Screen
Not only are more of Google’s own ad products popping up with Compare and HSA, more AdWords ads began appearing on the screen in 2015, as well.
On mobile, Google started showing three ads on some queries. Three ads nearly always take up the entire mobile screen. However, you’ll notice that depending on how many ad extensions show on an ad, two text ads can also take up the whole screen. So the move to three ads may have more of an impact on mobile ad click growth (which we know did grow), rather than doing more damage to organic.
Many reports of four topline text ads showing on desktop began popping up this fall — most, it seemed, from overseas. Google confirmed with us that it has been running a small test but said it wouldn’t be permanent. Something to keep an eye on in the New Year.
Retargeting Came To Shopping Campaigns
Shortly after Bing Ads announced that its UET-enabled remarketing could be used on Shopping Campaigns, Google followed up with an announcement of its own: RLSA for Shopping Campaigns with new shopping remarketing lists.
Product Listing ads continued to be a boon for the search engines and advertisers, as click growth and spend far outpaced text ads among retailers running both ad types.
Google released a Manufacturer Center to gather product data directly from the source. Several other tools were added for Shopping Campaigns, which Frederick Vallaeys summed up nicely in his roundup last month.
Bing also launched several updates to Shopping Campaigns ahead of the holiday push.
Google finally released its drag-and-drop Report Editor this year, and in early September brought video campaigns into the main AdWords interface, to be managed alongside search and display campaigns.
We also got access to some more reporting data and dimensions reports from Google and industry-specific visualization tools from Bing Ads.
What else happened? Final URLs became a bee in everyone’s bonnet and a time suck of un-proportionate payoff for many. But they’re here, and once AdWords Editor finally catches up, we may forget destination URLs ever existed. Probably not. Speaking of Editor, version 11 took hold, with its benefits tempered by awkward navigation.
And of course there’s the Google Buy Button, formally “Purchases On Google”. The announcement made waves this summer, but the product itself can’t be counted among the biggest things to happen in paid search, yet. The experiment going on with select retailers on some queries on Android has flown well under the radar this holiday season. The program faces numerous back-end challenges like order processing which have not been in Google’s wheelhouse. We’ll look to see how the experiment progresses in 2016.
And that’s a wrap. Happy holidays to all, and here’s to a successful 2016 in paid search.