Responsive Search Ads (RSAs) allow advertisers to enter multiple headline and description options that Google can combine in creating a personalized, relevant ad for each searcher. Google tests different combinations of the headlines and descriptions provided to learn which combos perform best in capturing shoppers’ attention and clicks.
“The ability to run and test multiple combinations of headlines and descriptions simultaneously using machine learning saves advertisers valuable time from repetitive A/B testing, as well as improving overall performance by showing the best combination possible.”
— Josh Brisco, GVP, Acquisition Media at Tinuiti
In this post, we’ll explore how responsive search ads work, their advantages, how to create them, and some helpful tips for making the most of them in your Google advertising campaigns.
Google’s Responsive Search Ads were introduced in beta in 2018, and have grown to become the leading Paid Search ad format available in Google Ads. Similar in some ways to another popular ad type—Dynamic Search Ads—RSAs aim to best answer each searcher’s query through headline and description combinations based on their search.
Responsive Search Ad optimization is done in real-time, continually working toward achieving the best performance outcomes from the provided ad elements. The more headlines and descriptions entered, the more Google Ads can test and learn which combinations work best for different searchers. With the ability to input up to 15 headlines and 4 descriptions for Google’s machine learning to mix-and-match in serving up the best ad, over 43,000 ad variations are possible!
Expanded Text Ads (ETAs) were the former standard ad format for Google search campaigns, with RSAs officially taking the throne when ETAs were sunset in June 2022. While ETAs created before June 2022 are still served and reported on—and can be paused and resumed—new ETAs cannot be created, and existing ETAs cannot be edited. If you still have lingering, stale ETAs in your account, take some time to transition to RSAs.
“The rollout of RSAs has saved advertisers countless hours of having to test combinations of ad messaging, but the effort doesn’t stop here. We’re seeing clients being rewarded with CPC—and ultimately, CPA—savings with creative RSA approaches and analysis.”
— Austin Winkler, Paid Search Specialist at Tinuiti
Note that you can only have up to 3 enabled RSAs in any given ad group, so use your slots wisely.
Thanks to Google’s continual advances in machine learning and automation, RSAs offer advertisers and searchers alike a host of benefits. Let’s explore some to keep top-of-mind…
RSAs allow advertisers to input up to (15) 30-character headlines and (4) 90-character descriptions. Each RSA constructed from the provided elements will include up to 3 headlines and 2 descriptions.
Google can test and run all possible combinations of these elements to see which are the best performing configurations for which searches based on the query, device type, and available user-specific signals, like past search history and clicks. This means you can bid farewell to more manual A/B testing, with Google’s Machine Learning/AI testing all possible outcomes to save advertisers valuable time and variable consideration.
“The RSA ad format offers a huge improvement in how we run and test messaging. Even though AI/Machine Learning is involved, we still can guide the machine to fit our client goals. We have seen crafted and tested RSA formats ultimately help with efficiency.”
— Austin Winkler, Paid Search Specialist at Tinuiti
Ad Variations testing is an option that allows for pointed A/B testing for RSAs. This lets advertisers test one asset versus another, or an asset group versus another asset group.
Thanks to their extensive headline and description options, RSAs give you the needed space to highlight many unique characteristics or selling points of your brand or product.
Similar to the approach you might take when crafting a well-optimized product description, think of a variety of compelling things that might entice a prospective customer, or be related to their search query. Try not to simply ‘say the same thing a different way,’ instead highlighting totally different (or complementary) aspects of your product or business.
Let’s say you’ll be creating RSAs for a line of lip balms. Think of all the different types of shoppers for whom the products you’ll be advertising would be a good fit. Now, think of the ways each of those different customer personas will be searching, including the keywords they’ll be using. Ensure that you have at least one headline for each of the most important, relevant, and/or likely queries.
If you prefer to start with an outline before crafting your final ad copy elements, consider taking notes as you go about each of the selling points you want to be sure to account for.
Sample notes you might take to help in building unique headlines for your lip balms…
Mention they’re tinted in at least two headlines
Highlight the three key ingredients in separate headlines
Include that they’re cruelty-free
Consider relevant Brand selling points or taglines
Consider including compelling offers / sales (new customer offer, product category sales, etc.)
Container is fully recyclable
Variety of scents including unscented
The variety of relevant value propositions you highlight gives your ads an opportunity to compete in more auctions, helping your message reach more customers by showing up for more searches.
“Showing an optimized search ad with the right message to the right audience has the potential to boost the CTR and lower CPCs for Search campaigns. If done correctly, this can help advertisers improve their ROAS and reduce wasted ad spend.”
— Josh Brisco, GVP, Acquisition Media at Tinuiti
In addition to highlighting different selling points of your product—as we explored above with the lip balms example—pump up the variety by also exploring headlines and descriptions of different lengths, and including different types of callouts and offers.
Seeing what types of messaging result in the most clicks and conversions can not only help in optimizing your campaigns, but also in learning more about what’s most important to your customers. This can greatly influence your current and future advertising initiatives, and can even help in shaping the future of your business.
Note: Smaller scale advertisers may benefit from including less possible combinations to serve at first, as the required impressions for the RSA to optimize may be out of reach for many clients.
RSAs can be created in a few simple steps…
In your selected campaign, navigate to the ‘Ads & Assets’ tab in your Google Ads dashboard
Click the plus sign (+) alongside ‘Responsive search ad’ to create a new ad
Select an ad group to add your new ad to
Enter your RSA’s Final URL or landing page you’d like to direct users to with your ad
Input up to 15 different headlines (minimum 3)
If you currently have ads running, Google may suggest additional headlines that may improve performance (based on keywords in your ad group)
Input up to 4 different descriptions (minimum 2)
If you currently have ads running, Google may suggest additional descriptions that may improve performance (based on keywords in your ad group)
Click ‘Save New Ad’
Google will then review your RSA and launch it once approved.
By their design, RSAs will test all of the headlines and descriptions you provide in different positions to see how their placement within a given ad impacts performance. If you want to maintain a bit more control over messaging—ensuring that all users are shown a given headline or description—you can opt to pin those in your ad in whichever position you choose, but this may result in a loss of eligible search volume.
Remember that while up to 3 headlines and 2 descriptions can show in RSAs, not all ads will include all elements. Depending on a variety of factors—including device screen size and competitiveness of the respective SERP—a given RSA may only include 2 headlines and 1 description (at minimum). With this in mind, you won’t want to pin essential (legal, brand guidelines) assets to ‘Headline 3’ or ‘Description 2’ as they may not always show.
Before you sit down to create your first RSA campaign, keep the following specs in mind to ensure you have everything you need for a successful launch.
Headlines to provide: Minimum of 3, Up to 15 (Recommended minimum of 5)
Descriptions to provide: Minimum of 2, Up to 4
Headline Character Count: Up to 30 characters (Aim for varied lengths)
Description Character Count: Up to 90 characters (Aim for varied lengths)
Display URL paths shown: 2 (optional)
Final URL: Where your ad will lead
How many headlines will show in each RSA: At least 2, up to 3
How many descriptions will be displayed in each RSA: At least 1, up to 2
Let’s explore 10 actionable tips advertisers can employ to see the greatest success from their RSA campaigns…
The greater variety of assets you provide, the more options Google has to work with in assembling your messages into highly relevant ads, which can significantly improve performance. RSAs allow you to upload up to 15 headlines, providing ample opportunity to experiment with different phrasing, value propositions, and CTAs.
We suggest including a focus keyword in two or more of your headlines, with at least three headline options that do not include a keyword. Remember that you’ll also want each to be distinct enough so that if two are shown in the same ad, they aren’t repetitive. For example, unless you were pinning one of the options, you would want to avoid including “Free Shipping” and “Ships Free” in the same ad.
Sometimes short and sweet is the best answer! Give Google the opportunity to experiment with the performance of short, mid-length, and long headlines and descriptions by providing a mix of each.
Don’t try to maximize the character count in every headline and description. Remember that each headline, description, and image is just a part of the recipe—they don’t all need to be running at full capacity to convey your message when they’ll be working together.
Responsive search ads show up to two descriptions at a time, so you’ll want to include a minimum of two complementary options. That said, we encourage you to take advantage of all 4 description slots to get the quickest learnings about what works best for your brand. The more work you put into maximizing your RSAs from the beginning, the greater head start Google has on testing combinations, and the sooner your campaigns will be optimized.
Take the space you’re given to tell your brand story, and what makes your product the right choice for a given shopper’s wants and needs. Share additional products or service benefits and features, special offers, a problem your product solves for, activities for which your product is a good choice, shipping and return information, and more!
Think of your headlines and descriptions as foundational pieces in your wardrobe that can be mixed and matched to create a wide variety of outfits and looks for different occasions—an ad copy version of a wardrobe capsule collection. Google is doing much of the same work when crafting the perfect ad based on query and user signals as you are when crafting the perfect look from your closet. Make sure each ad element is strong enough on its own that it will be eye-catching regardless of what else it’s paired with.
Don’t be shy or mysterious! Be clear and concise about the action you want shoppers to take. A strong CTA helps your ad stand out in a busy SERP, providing clarity of desired action. You can also use CTAs to convey immediacy for products with limited availability or an expiring sale price.
The option to pin is a very valuable feature, but it’s important to consider that the more you pin, the less impression volume you’re going to see in nearly all cases. We recommend using pinning as intentionally as possible to achieve the desired effect, relying on Google to craft the most compelling ad for each searcher without excessive requirements in place.
As for what to pin? Certain things may require pinning, such as legal disclaimers. Many advertisers also choose to implement pinning for testing different ad themes. Others leverage pinning to test multiple RSA units in an ad group. This is all to say that pinning is useful and effective, and can be used both practically and creatively. However, given that RSAs are dynamic by nature, over-pinning can put up concrete guardrails that prevent the ads from operating as intended.
Use RSA Asset Reports across tactics—brand or non-brand, new or existing users, etc.—to determine which assets are boosting campaign performance the most. For directional purposes, we can assume that more impressions likely lead to a performance boost when this asset is shown.
Higher Ad Strength has more to do with the potential reach increase (number of ad auctions you’re eligible for) you could see, rather than suggesting higher CVR or CTR.
Frequently replacing low-volume or non-serving assets with new concepts, CTAs, or value propositions ensures you’re giving the algorithm new and exciting reasons to serve your brand’s ad. Combine the replacement using Google’s Ad Variations tool to set up an easy-to-use A/B split test that will provide you with valuable insights, and just might impress your boss or client!
Combination reports are useful in evaluating what the bulk of your users are seeing in their messages. If you find that two similar headlines are often shown together in a resulting ad, try pinning both to the same headline position. This will create a mini-test that guarantees the two assets won’t show in tandem.
It’s worth noting that current RSA Asset Reporting is limited, with impressions and ‘strength’ being the primary measures of performance success at this time. Advertisers also have insight into the most commonly served combinations of headlines and descriptions, which they can leverage to continue refining their campaigns, providing Google with more of what’s working to choose from.
Use Ad Strength as a general guide to creating the right components that make up an effective RSA, but use your ad’s performance and your client goals when determining success. Use your own testing methodologies to optimize towards desired outcomes (e.g. CVR improvement, % new customers, etc.).
Try RSA versions built to suit different target audiences or customer types. For example, ‘New Customer RSA’ can feature brand value-adds and percentage-off first purchase assets. ‘Research-Centric User RSA’ are best armed with less ‘buy’ CTAs and more ‘Learn More / Newsletter Subscribe’ CTAs.
RSAs are the progression beyond Expanded Text Ads that advertisers needed to meet each user where they are in today’s complex search journey. Want to learn more about how RSAs and other Google advertising options can help you reach your business goals? Stop by our Paid Search services page, or contact us to chat with an expert.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by Greg Swan in May 2018 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.
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