Google Ads turns 20: The most important trends and changes of the past 5 years

Google ads is now 20 years old. At its 15 year milestone, we chronicled AdWords’ evolution into a $60 billion business. We were still talking about Yahoo as a player in search, enhanced campaigns ushered in mobile as a marketing must-do just two years prior and ads-only Google Shopping was three years old.

Fast forward five years and a rebrand later, ad revenue has more than doubled (the ads business generated more than $135 billion last year), Yahoo surrendered search ads to Microsoft, mobile is ubiquitous, free listings are back on Google Shopping — and AI and machine learning have transformed the way Google Ads works and the way advertisers work with it.

Here’s a look at some of the biggest changes in Google Ads over the past five years that point to what’s ahead in the next five years.

Rise of audiences

several years after Facebook and Twitter had launched their first-party targeting products, Google launched Customer Match in the fall of 2015. This marked Google’s leap into audiences beyond standard website retargeting.

It then introduced similar, affinity, in-market and interest audience targeting. This year, it introduced predictive audiences based on purchase or churn probability that are powered by the new Google Analytics 4.

One of the most substantive changes of the past five years occurred in 2017, when Google began allowing Google users account data to be used for YouTube targeting, including demographic and search behavior information from users signed into Google. The new targeting signals helped boost YouTube’s ad revenue, and also opened up the ability to combine signals from Search and YouTube in Google audiences.

Decline of keyword (match types)

The way Google defines close variants of search queries over the past several years has been significant. Google’s evolving use of machine learning to match users’ search queries to the keywords advertisers buy has forced advertisers to rethink everything from campaign and ad group structures to ad copy to keyword management.

Now, the effects of privacy changes and regulations are further complicating keyword management. Last month, Google began limiting the search terms it reports to advertisers. Only queries that are searched by a “significant number of users” are reported. Some advertisers

With the expansion of close variants, advertisers have adopted a negative keyword management approach to keyword optimization. That means search terms reports had become critical tools. Advertisers have reported losing visibility into 20% or more of the queries that drove users to click on their ads.

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Automated campaigns and ads

Based on the results it saw from Universal App campaigns, 2018 ushered in the era of fully-automated ads and campaign types in Google Ads.

“No longer is automation limited to certain aspects of campaign management — such as bidding or dynamic headlines. Now, every facet of a campaign — bidding, creative and targeting — can be automated based on a few inputs from the advertiser,” I wrote after Google introduced automated Smart (for small businesses), Local and Smart Shopping campaigns that year.

The other big change with these campaign types is that they automatically run across multiple Google owned and operated properties. More on that below.

2018 was also the year responsive search ads (RSAs) came on the scene. RSAs use machine learning to predict the best combination of ad titles and descriptions to show a user based on historical data and various signals available at the time of the auction. Advertisers enter several variations of titles and descriptions and hand over the reigns to Google algorithms to assemble the winning combinations. In August, we reported Google was testing making RSAs the default Search ad type.

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Surfaces across Google

While “Surfaces across Google” is an option specific to Google Shopping — opting into Surfaces across Google allows retailers to show their products for free (organically) on Google Images, Google Shopping, Google Lens, and Google Search — it captures a broader theme.

And that is the expansion of surfaces on which Google now shows ads. While there are still pure Search campaigns in Google Ads, nearly every other campaign type now automatically runs ads across multiple channels, as we mentioned earlier, and Google continues to expand where ads can appear on its properties.

Here’s a look at the various campaign types in Google Ads and the channels and surfaces they run across:

  • App campaigns run on the YouTube home feed and in in-stream video inventory in addition to Search, the Google Display Network, YouTube, AdMob and Google Play.
  • Smart campaigns run across Search, Maps and Display.
  • Local campaigns run across Search, YouTube, Display and in additional places on Maps.
  • Discovery campaigns run across the YouTube home feed, Gmail promotions and social tabs and the Discover feed.
  • Smart Shopping campaigns run on Search, Shopping, Display, YouTube, and Gmail. They also take inventory priority over standard Shopping and Display remarketing campaigns.
  • Showcase Shopping ads, the multi-image Shopping ads run on Search Images, YouTube and Discover.
  • Shopping campaigns are eligible to show in Search, Images, YouTube and Discover when opted into the Search Network.
  • Buy on Google/ Google Shopping Actions ads enable users to buy products via Google’s universal checkout surface on Shopping, Google Assistant, Search. Soon their ads will show on Images and YouTube as well.

Online-to-offline

E-commerce has surged this year due to the pandemic, but Google is also well-positioned to dominate the online to offline economy as my colleague Greg Sterling wrote in June. This is the result of more than a decade of groundwork.

Despite some early challenges, Local Inventory Ads have become popular vehicles for retailers to promote their products to nearby searchers, and increasingly, they measure the impact of those ads on store visits and store purchases. This year, Google announced automated bidding optimization for store sales.

In response to changing consumer behavior amid the pandemic, Google has added several features to Local campaigns and Local Inventory ads to emphasize buy online pickup in store (BOPIS) options including curb-side pickup badges.

Expect to see Google continue to invest heavily in online-to-offline capabilities.

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