Will Google's Search Ad Previews Break the Click?

Probably Not, but Big Adjustments Lie Ahead for Search Advertisers

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Search ad formats are in a constant state of motion. Since sponsored ads first appeared on the scene, tweaks to how ads appear and what makes people click have kept marketers on their toes.

In recent history, search ads have gone from being called "sponsored" to being called "ads." Ads now have reviews and extensions. Last September, "instant search" changed the way search results appear. As you type, ads and search result listings became visible.

Earlier this week, Google made a related change: Google Instant Previews. Scrolling over a listing gives you a glimpse of what comes after the click, meaning more transparency for users and fewer clicks for Google.

Some context: Five years ago, Google tried video previews, but that didn't last long for a variety of reasons, the biggest being a drop in click rates. People clicked on videos less because they viewed the spots in results pages -- a small problem when you have to make money from people clicking on ads.

The bulk of Google's revenue stream is still dependent upon generating clicks from ads. People click on many ads when searching. Depending on the vertical industry segment and position in the purchase funnel, they may click four or five times (or more) in one search session.

It's a big move that will result in some major adjustments for some of Google's biggest advertisers. Then again, if you're a big search advertiser -- an eBay, Expedia or LivingSocial -- Google is a big part of your business so you just have to roll with the punches.

You have to admire a company that tests things out by playing around with other people's billions. Increasingly, though, they're not alone: Facebook has become famous for its on-the-fly tweaks with little or no notice given to the advertisers

The reality for most advertisers is they just don't have the time or inclination to keep up with unstable ad formats. Can you imagine the hoopla if dead tree media advertising turned its formats upside down every few months? Don Draper would have jumped out a window a long time ago.

I'm not a fan of many "offers" and "extensions" that have been introduced of late. They are adding clutter to an increasingly untidy search experience. Extensions like "reviews" (good or bad) tend to interrupt the purchase process.

Of course, this is yet another involuntary ad change that will require advertiser action with little or no time to prepare. First, it's time to revisit just your landing page optimization strategy. I'll bet your landing pages aren't optimized to be previewed, are they?

Despite Google's announcement that previews will not be a consideration in that magical decision-making algorithm that we call the "quality score," now's the time to make sure concise imagery and messaging lives in your search campaigns.

If you've been putting off building some new landing pages, now's the time revisit them. Chances are, top performing pages will continue to do so as long as messaging, keyword groups and landing pages are dialed in.

While you're reviewing the short term impact of ad previews, remember that messaging elements still have to draw the searchers attention. Previews, as well as, instant search seek to speed up the search-to-find process. Even though we are talking about mere seconds and fractions of seconds, catching the eye with the right message and compelling landing page will make a difference.

Of course the ads will survive. Only the largest advertiser's agencies will be able to form the blue ribbon action committees necessary to keep up with things like preview optimization. Then again, these are the same agencies trying to charge a six figure fee to do an eye tracking study on a five page landing "experience" so it's no wonder there's no love lost between Google and its agency clients.

Two questions come to mind whenever I see new formats appear; one, is it really necessary to invest heavily in something that may or may not have a significant impact on my marketing efforts and two, how many changes do you really need to make?

Yet, if people click on ads at a lower volume because they don't have to take action to see the landing page anymore, previews may go the way of that YouTube video of a Dodo you used to be able to preview in search results.

Kevin Ryan is CEO of the strategic consulting and project management firm Motivity Marketing. He tweets at @KevinMRyan.
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