Changes and Game-Changers: 2016's Online Advertising Year in Review


Some things stay the same—your Starbucks order each morning, what TV show you’ll watch tonight on Netflix, or even your favorite treadmill you use at the gym.

What always changes, however, is the paid media space. In 2016, we saw tons of changes happening fast. If you (or your agency) didn't keep up with AdWords updates, you may be a little behind this year.

But don’t worry! We’ve compiled some of the biggest changes in 2016, and added our predictions for game-changers in 2017.

What changed in 2016?

No more right rail ads

If you do a Google search on your desktop, you probably noticed the disappearance of right rail ads. In early 2016, Google decided to eliminate texts ads in the right rail on desktop.
With the elimination of the right rail came the addition of a fourth ad slot for what Google deems “highly commercial queries,” such as the home search seen above. On mobile however, you see only two or three ads at the top page of the results.

So how does this impact searchers and advertisers? For searchers, this means the desktop and mobile experiences are more similar, creating a more seamless cross-device experience. For advertisers, the space becomes more competitive. No longer can your ad show above the fold if you’re not in positions 1, 2, 3 or 4. As competition increases, advertisers have to bid higher for that top position and become more intentional about creating quality, relevant ads.

Expanded Text Ads

If eliminating right rail ads wasn’t enough of a change for you, Google decided to “go big or go home” when it expanded its standard text ad format to create the largest text ad in AdWords history. It more than doubled the headline space and character limits. It also went from one headline with 25 characters to two headlines with 30 characters each, and the description character length went from 70 to 80 characters.

Before (Standard Text Ads):

After (Expanded Text Ads):

This change allows advertisers to include more details and information in their ads to invite a more qualified audience. These ads also take up more real estate on the SERP, so the ability to show in top positions becomes increasingly more important. Since searchers learn more about the product or service before they click to the site, advertisers have seen higher click-through rates with the launch of this new format. In two of our case studies, covering the launch of ETAs in October through December 19th, 2016, we’re seeing expanded text ads performing better than standard ads:

  • Home Builder Client: 10% increase in CTR, 60% decrease in CPC, 30% increase in CVR.
  • Ecommerce Client: 20% increase in CTR, 15% decrease in CPC, 30% increase in CVR

Although results vary by client and by industry, these case studies align with early reports indicating an uptick in overall performance with the launch of ETAs. Importantly, as of January 31st, 2017, advertisers will no longer be able to create standard text ads. That means you have a little over a month to create new ads in the expanded format, so hop to it!

Google starts showing ads in Local Finder

Since April, businesses that have problems ranking in Google’s Local Finder Results (the 3-pack) have had an increased chance of showing ads if users click on the “More places” link located at the bottom of the local results pack. The link takes users to a Google Maps results page, where ads are eligible to appear on the left hand rail; these ads are automatically generated from AdWords location extensions. The change came along with Google making Maps a core Google search site—as opposed to part of Google’s search partners, which advertisers could opt out of if they wished. The moral of the story? Use AdWords location extensions if you aren’t already!

Changes at Search Discovery

Search Discovery expands into Advisory Services

In 2016, Search Discovery’s media team recognized that in-house client side teams were becoming increasingly sophisticated and needed an entirely new form of services from us as an agency.

We offer the exact thing most agencies protect as if their life depends on it—our knowledge. This past year, we worked with in-house teams to teach them the best practices and tricks of the trade on how we get amazing results time and again.

In reality, we’ve been playing this role for some time but, in 2016 we officially expanded our service offerings to include these advisory services (if this sounds like your cup of tea, don’t hesitate to contact us for more information!).

Search Discovery Becomes a Google Premier Partner

This summer, Google unveiled a new Premier Partners badge. Only roughly 4% of North American agencies receive it, and Search Discovery was one of them! The badge is based Google products expertise, managed monthly spend, and agency performance. Google says it also looks at a number of other factors such as implementation and client retention before granting a specialization. The premier badge is a dynamic logo that showcases agencies’ specializations in each Google product (Search, Display, Video, Shopping and Mobile.)

Search Discovery Attended the Google Partner Summit

Search Discovery attended the 2-day Google Partner Summit this year. Many of the speakers included Google’s leadership team from product, marketing and sales.

A few key takeaways:

  • Video will take the spotlight in 2017
  • Don’t forget about the micro shopping moments of your customer journey
  • Team building is the key to success and top results
  • This great photo!

2017 Predictions for Online Advertising

Agencies will become more than just an execution arm

As in-house teams become more sophisticated, and ad platforms become increasingly democratized and accessible, agencies are going to need to offer something more to justify their value. The unique skills of a search, display or social marketer from even just 2015 are becoming more and more commoditized and automated. There are two ways we can survive:

1) Leveraging cross practice expertise
2) Teaching in-house teams how to evolve

To gain a competitive advantage in the marketing ecosystem in 2017, our clients are going to need to be sophisticated. Attribution, data-driven decision making and automated reporting are often discussed and touted but rarely executed well due to limitations on the client side. In order to succeed, agencies will need to stop worrying about sharing their secret sauce, and start educating their clients on how to evolve and reach levels beyond best practices in siloed channels.

Agencies need to establish trust with their clients by sharing their knowledge and, in some cases, helping their clients bring that knowledge in-house. This will help them achieve the levels of integration necessary to leverage tactics already available to us in 2016, but that have still felt just out of reach for our clients.

At the same time, clients will need to be more trusting of their agencies by allowing access to data—of course with proper security precautions!—in order to better leverage data for faster, more impactful decisions.

Voice Search

As kids have begun asking Santa for a Google Home or Amazon Echo for Christmas this year, we’re seeing that voice search and the use of digital personal assistants has grown undeniably in 2016.

Young people are of course adopting these technologies—a recent Google study showed that 55% of teens ages 13-18 use voice search every day. But digital personal assistants are also now used by the majority of smartphone owners.

Voice search has us thinking about the differences we should expect compared to traditional text searches. For example, will voice search provide insight into a user’s search intent by giving us more long-tailed, “natural language” queries from which to derive context? What about voice search in combination with a digital personal assistant?

Voice search trends in 2016 were about more than how advertisers can best utilize a single search query. 2017 may be the beginning of a new age in predictive response all together—one where a personal assistant will use signals like local weather or time of day to provide answers to searches before we need to utter a word. The implications for analytics are interesting, too.

Publishers Podcasting

Podcasting has been around for over 10 years, and it’s finally getting the respect it deserves. From 2013 onward, podcasting listenership has increased steadily year-over-year, and grew the most between 2015 and 2016.

Whereas podcasting was previously embraced by indie projects, recently large mainstream publishers have begun to test the waters, creating news and update-focused podcasts. 2016 saw new podcast offerings from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and 2017 already has ESPN lined up to launch in January. Bottom line: the big boys are investing, and podcasting is here to stay.

Why do we care? Podcasting presents a unique opportunity for advertisers and marketers because it’s primed for growth and relatively untapped. Apple’s podcasting app is integrated across its entire ecosystem, providing convenient access for new adopters. And the rise of smart cars and smart home systems providers further avenues for listening growth.

Podcasting captures an audience that’s young, educated and tech savvy. Podcasting ads are difficult to skip, and users are actively engaged with the selection and download process, making them more invested in the overall experience of podcast listening. Standing in the way to podcasting’s growth among advertisers is a lack of measurements standards and listening metrics. We anticipate big growth in measurement technologies over the next year. After all, necessity is the mother of invention.

Integrated digital to become more important in understanding customer journey touch points

Advertisers hear this a lot: "today’s world is so much more than winning a visitor over with a trendy, scroll-happy landing page. It’s about relationships." Really?

Yes! Relationships and understanding your customer’s journey aren't a new concept. But what’s new and different is all of the technology and tools available today to help marketers turn a prospect into an advocate.

All companies want two things: new customers and repeat customers. What does that mean for 2017's marketer? Getting creative with messaging, digital channels, KPIs for different touch points in the customer journey and most importantly...understanding the customer.

For example, instead of asking how to appeal to visitors who have downloaded a white paper, think: "how do I appeal to visitors who have downloaded a white paper and need to schedule a demo with my fellow sales rep?" Instead of asking what ad copy to write, think: "what sort of message do I use on the 325x50 space I have?" Instead of trying to hit all channels, think: "what channels are they visiting most?"

Reframing advertising decisions in terms of the customer journey is easier than ever to achieve, and the results are worth the effort.

In conclusion

2016 has been an exciting year for paid media. Several AdWords changes have thrown advertisers a curveball, but adapting to these changes has proven fruitful. Here at Search Discovery, our organization has not only adapted to these technical changes, but also expanded our service offerings to stay ahead of the advertising curve and offer a better experience for our clients.

As we head into 2017, pay attention to trends in agency advising services, voice search, podcasts, and an increased emphasis on customer journey-centric marketing.

We can't wait to see what the New Year will bring. See you in 2017!


About Search Discovery

Search Discovery is a digital intelligence company that empowers organizations to make better, dynamic and transformative business decisions. We're focused on delivering results for our clients through digital analytics, SEO, digital media, and technology.


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