Why I Hate Ad Extensions

OK, “hate” is a strong word. If I were appropriately British, I’d probably soften this to “Why Ad Extensions Are Sometimes Found Wanting.” Being Canadian, all I can do right now is say, “Sorry, I got you to click even though I feel toward ad extensions an emotion a mere 10 percent short of hatred.”

Like a “Get Rich With Real Estate Seminar”

Like those seminars that tell you how to spend all your time buying undervalued homes and flipping them or renting them out, there are endless touted benefits to ad extensions, and there is an eerie consensus as to how awesome they are.

Back in the day, people had the time or inclination to track down a Google scientist or outside heat-map expert to talk about elements of the search engine user experience. Now, it seems, we’re reduced to shifty statements like my friend Melissa Mackey’s point six: “One really cool thing about sitelinks is that most searchers can’t tell the difference between PPC sitelinks and organic sitelinks.” Really?

I’ve been guilty of similar myself, undoubtedly.

Evolution in SERP Layouts…Fueled by Big Data

I understand, in part, why ad extensions emerged. It’s a slightly different line of reasoning from why multifaceted search results pages replaced the ol’ 10 blue links, but it runs in parallel. On the organic side, 10 blue links wasn’t only boring, it didn’t respond well to the fact that users might be searching for different information classes. If the intent suggests they’re probably searching for news, a video, or an article by a trusted author, juggle the results to put the right information classes on the page, in a visually interesting layout.

For now, the ad space does only a mediocre job of sorting intent into commercial intent classes. But we are witnessing some major attempts to do just that, such as the ascent of Product Listing Ads (PLAs).

Extensions related to local businesses, too, offer a powerful way for Google and advertisers to work together to serve up more appropriate page content in light of a user’s probable intent. And when it comes to click-to-call extensions, Google has created a powerful tool to help us better attribute call-generated leads.

Ad extension innovation is facilitated by Big Data. The genius of today’s SERP page layouts is partly in the ability of the search engines to learn conclusively about user preferences for different ways of displaying relevant listings by testing new ideas against a massive global user base. This has led to what feels like a rapid series of innovations in the SERP space. The search engines may actually be throttling their pace of innovation, just so our innately conservative heads won’t explode.

Despite the iterative goodness, as a general trend, it feels like the motivation behind extensions is twofold: (a) benefitting Google and advertisers alike via a Putin-like pretext for expanding our borders, i.e. grabbing more screen real estate in relation to less lucrative organic search click-throughs; (b) giving deserving businesses various means to stand out from the pack.

Great! But is it possible that there is ever a dark side to something that makes an unholy alliance of major stakeholders more money in the short term? Let’s see.

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Extensions Make You Stupid

Many of us claim our job is cerebral or “hard.” But have you reviewed any recent scans of “your brain on extensions”? It could be that extensions are setting you on a path to cognitive decline.

Let’s review what “hard” is. “Hard” might be higher-level programming jobs at top companies with extremely tough interviewing standards. Famed rant poster Steve Yegge once wrote about why engineering-driven organizations have such high standards. An excerpt:

“If you want a job at a company [with high standards]… It doesn’t matter if you ‘know how to program.’ They’re going to test you on algorithmic complexity analysis, advanced data structures…searching and sorting, internationalization techniques, network protocols, OS-level memory management, parsing and semantic analysis, recursion and mathematical induction…combinatorics, programming language theory, machine architecture, discrete math and logic…filesystems and storage…mobile and wireless protocols, and Internet standards and technologies.

If you’re lucky, that is.

If you’re unlucky, they’ll ask you to derive the outline of their Ph.D. thesis on fault-tolerant massively parallel machine-learning systems…”

Yikes, right?

Fortunately, you don’t need to be a top-tier programmer or math Ph.D. to run a PPC account for profit. You get a pass on some “hard stuff” that others make their living doing. But digital advertising auctions are complex enough that there is significant scope to move closer to the hard end of the spectrum.

“Having a ball,” to me, is finding the space to work out complex problems on my own, to determine which tools or yet-to-be-developed algorithms might help us beat the competition in the auction.

Even relatively simple-sounding puzzles like “which ad won” can lead to marvelous debates in our field – debates around which statistical measure or approach is the best for one’s purposes. Brad Geddes, for example, talks about something called “profit per Impression.” Heard of it?

Another puzzle that stimulates my brain relates to bid-position-volume-ROI tradeoffs. Google quietly fed that addiction by making a true A/B test possible on such matters, with their creation of the AdWords Campaign Experiments tool.

Attribution modeling is another puzzle that takes us deep into the mysteries of causation vs. correlation.

Ad extensions, by contrast, have been sold to us on the basis of “set this up because it’s pretty-looking and we told you to.” Google could easily do them justice by employing the Cookie Monster to flog them: “Extensions goooood. Me like extensions nom-nom-nom-nom!!!!”

If PPC was your second choice of profession after interior decorating or cookie-monstering, I suppose that might be a pretty galvanizing way to spend your days.

I’m teasing. But really, but it’s a serious concern. In our field, we need to be able to distinguish our added value from mere tablestakes activities like just enabling something that isn’t really amenable to testing…or makes your listing look so bad by comparison if you don’t enable it that you pretty much have to follow along. Monster-see, monster-do.

My friend Lisa Sanner, in a recent presentation, likened ad extensions to hair extensions: they’re pretty-looking, but there’s a chance something can go very wrong if it isn’t done right. But then she actually said, there’s very little chance of anything going wrong with ad extensions, unlike hair extensions.

Agreed, your listing might look “too plain” if you don’t add certain extensions, such as SiteLinks, Seller Ratings, etc. So in the parlance of hair extensions, PPC is now a strangely superficial world in which only losers don’t walk around with big extensions. If you’re not Mariah Carey or at least trying to be, then everyone will laugh at you. That’s the opposite of the real world, I hope.

Don’t even get me started on whether we’re actually looking at any of the stats on extensions like SiteLinks – or whether it even makes sense to. How actionable are these metrics? How much A/B capability do we have in this area? What is the opportunity cost on the time spent, if you could test and iterate extensions to your heart’s content?

Top 11 Things I Hate About Extensions

To review, here are some drawbacks and pitfalls I see in the current ad extensions arena:

  • Where is the testing? Where are the key performance indicators (KPIs)? It’s impractical and/or irrelevant to test them; you can’t get actionable feedback.
  • Therefore, extensions make you stupid.
  • As a gladiator in a Big Data arena, you’re often armed with little or no data. So, you’re Marvin the Martian taking on Darth Vader. [I’d love to see that one. Darth Vader: (Heavy breathing. Slowly approaches.) Marvin: “50 percent off Bieber tickets, man – back off or I’ll be very, very, angry!”]
  • Google conveniently comes out with an announcement that ad extensions have a magical relationship with the already magical Quality Score. O! Is that a carrot I see before me?!
  • Eligibility for whether a typical extension is served with your ad is a black box controlled by a Google algorithm, so the only advice we can give is “just put it in there.”
  • Even the micro-decisions in terms of how your extension shows are black boxes – you can enter long lists of SiteLinks, and the system will choose to display the most relevant or the most popular ones. This contributes further to a “just throw everything in there” mentality rather than a “set up, test, and respond” mentality.
  • The outsized benefit of screen real estate and trust cues means that some advertisers will be forced to consider how to game extensions. That will force other advertisers to follow suit to jam square pegs into round holes.
  • Many extensions come out in beta and therefore induce a dependence on Google reps. The pace of product releases is also making it hard for these reps to provide the best possible information.
  • For the global market, the pace of release is an issue. In the exotic, remote nation of Canada, the delayed availability of seller ratings extensions has been particularly painful.
  • Chasing extensions could pull your attention away from your core strengths, like, you know, managing the account.
  • Ad extensions are glitzy, like Vegas, as opposed to serene, like a 120-mph drive along the German Autobahn. (Wasn’t the serenity and straight-shooting image the whole rationale for why consumers embraced Google in the first place? Isn’t it a stretch to claim that all these visual distractions for commercial purposes are just “better information”?) Is it just me, or does it sometimes feel like Google is spamming itself?

What changes would I propose to Google, or to advertisers? I’ll have to save most of that for another day. But maybe some of these extensions are so good that some types of advertisers will need much more access to data to properly manage them. That might have to come through custom software and reporting facilitated through the AdWords API. Let’s recognize the management headache (and promise) of this new stuff for what it is: Big Data that needs to be met with appropriate solutions. 

Ad extensions? Like any basic practice we’re all compelled to follow in our industry, by all means comply. However, don’t expect to win any Nobel Prizes for your efforts on that front. I mean, an interior designer never won any awards for making sure a bedroom had a bed.

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