This year, a lot went on “under the hood” in search marketing. Our PPC experts were busy all year responding to and anticipating changes in algorithms, interfaces and options. But what did those changes mean beyond the analytics screen? What changes for PPC in 2016 had impact that could be felt all the way up to the C suite?

Omni-Channel Marketing and Its Attribution Challenges

For years now, companies have marketed on multiple channels (PPC, social, text ads, video, print and offline) but in 2016, multi-channel finally evolved into omni-channel, the pursuit of one consistent, seamless experience for customers regardless of what medium with which they’re engaging. This level of integration offers significant benefits, but it also poses a challenge: how to determine what components made the most impact on a sale.

We found that while businesses continued to seek our expertise regarding the tactics of omni-channel marketing, they were especially interested in how to apply their unique business considerations to sales attribution and how to determine which channels or consumer touchpoints are weighted as the most valuable.

Technical Manager Daniel Vardi agreed, “The main thing I saw this year was the proliferation of different ways to reach people online and identify these people across multiple platforms.” He noted that new tools allow increased cross-channel tracking, but because there’s no one-size-fits-all attribution model, the tools are no substitute for careful account analysis.

Account Manager Ashlee Andres noted that major search companies are responding to this trend. “As has been the trend for the last several years, mobile continues to be an important part of search. This year though, Google took a big step in performance management with mobile in that they’ve started including cross-device conversions in reporting of total conversions. This is huge. Not only does this add value to a channel that could have been undervalued if you were excluding it, but also gives insight to a whole new section of users.”

Programmatic—But Problematic—Advertising

Between 2012 and 2016, programmatic display advertising grew at an average rate of 71% a year, as companies embraced the real-time bidding adjustments made possible by programmatic vendors. However, according to a report by Zenith Media, growth for the next 2 years will likely average 28%, as demand begins to plateau partially because of the potential drawbacks of programmatic advertising.

One issue is ad fraud: the likelihood that an ad will be “seen” by a bot rather than a human. A 2014 study reported in Adweek found that 11% of all digital ads were served only to bots – but that figure rose to 17% for programmatic ads (a 55% increase). Even Facebook felt the pain of bot fraud in 2016, shutting down a programmatic ad buying service after finding that non-native, non-video ads had mostly bot traffic.

Another problem that was highlighted by this year’s election is that the more automated a programmatic system is, the less control a brand has over where its ads appear. Thus, a programmatic vendor could be running a company’s ads on a pantheon of different sites, some of which run counter to brand values or are under fire for serving “fake news.”

How do you get the efficiency benefits of programmatic advertising without wasting spend on fraudulent activity or undermining your brand? As Daniel Vardi put it, “You still have to make sure [programmatic tools and programs] are set correctly and make adjustments to improve the performance of the tools.” We’ve noted before, when it comes to PPC (or any digital marketing): “set it and forget it” is not a good strategy.

Instead, find a trusted partner that knows which programmatic vendors allow the most control, offer the most customization, provide the most detailed reports, and allow that partner to tend your programmatic display advertising with the same care they show your other digital marketing.

So Long, Side Rail

Since early 2016, Google has removed the side rail of ads, added featured content to its search results page.In 2016, Google made quite a few changes to its Search Engine Results Page. The most noticeable change, of course, was the removal of the side rail for PPC ads.

What kind of results did we see on our end? Ashlee Andres reported, “If you were the type of advertiser who liked to show on the side rail, this could have negatively impacted you. What we have seen, though, for most of our clients, is that it really added value to the fourth ad spot.”

Ashlee continued, “[The loss of the side rail] forced advertisers who didn’t traditionally show in the top three results to shift their strategy, or risk all of their ads showing below the fold, at the bottom of the SERP. While the results of this weren’t as perilous as many people predicted initially, it did require digital marketers to really evaluate, or reevaluate, their strategies and look in-depth at the effect of position on their ads. These changes put an even bigger emphasis on shopping, which I think is where the industry as a whole is heading.” Indeed, product listing ads (PLAs) continued to own more of the search landscape – not just on Google, but on Bing as well. For businesses with an eCommerce component, a robust PLA strategy was essential this year.

Text Ads Expanded, Organic Space Shrank

Another trend seen on both Google and Bing was the debut of expanded text ads (ETAs). Instead of allowing only 25 characters for a headline and 35 characters each for two description lines, these new ads concatenated two 30-character headlines into one mega-headline, then allowed 80 characters for description text.

For SEM practitioners, this was a huge deal, as Google hadn’t made any major changes to its ad copy structure since 2000. Additionally, having 80 contiguous characters for description text allows for more natural, searcher-friendly verbiage than two 35-character lines.

Google ETAs went from beta testing to public use in late July, with thoroughly mixed results. Some advertisers saw increased click-through rates (CTRs) and increased costs per click (CPCs) but a decrease in conversions, resulting in a much higher cost per acquisition (CPA). Other advertisers saw the inverse – lower CTRs, lower CPCs, higher conversions and lower CPAs.

Of course, regardless of the results, ETAs are our new reality: after January 31, Google will no longer show standard-length text ads. Bing, interestingly, has announced that they have no plans to discontinue standard ads following their introduction of ETAs earlier this month. In fact, they recommend running both types of ads simultaneously.

However, the crucial impact of ETAs for marketing leadership wasn’t so much on the PPC side; it was the fact that with ads taking up more and more of the real estate on Search Engine Results Pages, the amount of space left for organic search results started getting smaller and smaller.

Connor Wrenn, SEO Manager, noted that we’ve seen just such an effect in the first few months following the introduction of ETAs in beta: “The addition of expanded text ads reduced the relative visibility of organic search results.”