Six Things I Learned From Google PLAs In 2013

compass_google_shopping_finWhile I’ve been using Google Adwords regularly over the past few years, it wasn’t until last year I got involved working on Product Listing Ads (PLAs) for Google Shopping placements. If you’re at all involved in B2C e-tail, you’ve likely heard some noise about this channel over the past few months, some bad, most of it good. As someone who comes from a background of optimizing, analyzing and implementing product data feeds in the affiliate channel, I’ve been both saddened and inspired by how far Google and participating e-tailers have come in curating this giant mess. Saddened, because they’re taking market share from other smaller niche Comparison Shopping Engines(CSEs), inspired because they’ve made significant advances in this product over the past year.

So what kind of growth did PLAs and Google Shopping see in 2013? The sample data in this infographic from Marin software suggests a 300% increase in the ratio of PLAs to traditional texts ads between October 2013 and December 2013.  Keep in mind this is not volume of clicks, but a percentage of total clicks.  Did you buy a gift via Google Shopping last year, maybe even from your phone?

If you’re looking play in this arena, I’d like to share a handful of fundamental optimization pieces one should know about before (and after) implementing Google PLAs.  So without further adieu, here are my tips and thoughts on this process, in somewhat of an order.

1. Mobilize –  Some businesses are expecting to see 40% of PLA clicks occurring on smartphones by the end of 2014. While it’s a no brainer for a variety of reasons, ensure your commerce site is mobile (phones, phablets & tablets) friendly for both Android and Apple devices BEFORE launching a PLA project.

2. Track It – Double check that conversions are tracking accurately between Google Adwords and Google Analytics, also be sure the accounts are linked to each other. There’s some excellent additional data available when this two tracking pieces are working in tandem including transaction ids (so you can look at new vs repeat customers) and products/skus sold at the campaign and ad group levels.

If you have mobile checkout flow for your site (vs. just responsive design), ensure these tracking codes are in place here as well. This is a common mishap with with all types of tracking pieces (affiliate conversion tracking, etc), so double check all marketing channel conversion tracking while you’re at it.

If you’re new to Adwords,  keep in mind that Google Analytics and Google Adwords have different reporting logic and cookie durations. The main difference is that Google Adwords will report a conversion on the day the click actually occurred, while Google Analytics will report that same conversion the day the conversion occurred.

2. Feed It – Ensure the product feed you are submitting via Google Merchant Center has every relevant field populated. Google won’t let your products in the door unless your feed has met certain criteria. You can review the full feed spec here. Because you’ll likely invest in a feed solution to begin with, ensuring every last possible detail is accurately included in the feed will save you time and money in the long run. Don’t cut corners here. This process is even more important with apparel or other items with genders, colors and sizes as variables. It’s also a good idea to use the Adwords attributes [adwords_grouping] and [adwords_lables], more on this later.

Aside from having a low price, an important factor in PLA ranking is consistent data quality.  Not only will your ads appear more often for top converting queries, you’ll likely end up paying a lower CPCs where compared stores in your niche with low quality feeds. Doing the leg work ahead of time by optimizing the product feed will make a big difference in the long run.  

3. Strategize – Spend extra time planning adgroups and product targeting. If you followed step 2 above, there are extensive targeting options at your disposal. This is usually best done by using adgroups to either mirror your product taxonomy, segment by brand, or by average product margin (and therefore available ad spend). Sometimes two or three of these criteria will match up nicely. If you’re selling less than 50-100 products, you may want to consider creating an ad group for each individual product. You can set targeting criteria by navigating to the targets tab and clicking the green “add product target” button. This is where the fields like labels, grouping and brand will come in handy.

4. Don’t Obsess – When all systems are go, don’t repeatedly check for your listings in Google shopping search, and then not click on them. Of course clicking on them costs money if you’d like to incur those fees. Say a  large company has been working towards the goal of launching PLAs, then an email is sent around to employees informing their listings are live, but not to click on them as they’ll cost money. You could get potentially hundreds of impressions with 0 clicks right out of the gate, possibly harming your quality score. Make sure all the switches are flipped to on, and let it ride for a few days.  It will take time to build up clout here, especially if you’re a new advertiser in the system.  

What I’ve also noticed is that your PLAs are likely to be tested first in the widget on the main Google search results page, rather than the Google Shopping page.  I’ve seen plenty of instances, where at least early on, a PLA  will appear in the widget, but then upon clicking through to “Shop For [product name] on Google” link, the listing cannot be found on that page. Google is obviously doing a lot of testing  with price elasticity, CPCs, account trust, store trust, etc. Don’t overanalyze your results right away, give it some time. Yes, it will cost more at first, but will help you make better data driven decisions later on.

5. Pay Attention To Keyword Queries!  I’ve actually spoken with businesses running PLAs that didn’t know they could view the keyword queries that triggering their ads. Once you have a dozen clicks or more, go to the Keywords tab and click on the details button below the chart and select search terms – > all. Download this report and have a look.  I think there are some folks that click the keywords tab and see there’s no data, and just move on. Don’t be that person.

If you followed step 2, this report will likely show many desirable keyword phrases related to your products. If not, you’ll need to either go back to step 2, or start adding negative keywords. You can use the same variety of negative match modifiers available with traditional Adwords search results text ads. If you have a product that isn’t performing well (high cost, low conversion), you can use negative keywords at campaign or adgroup levels to prevent that product from surfacing. It’s best to start with exact match here to ensure you don’t inadvertently remove other products as well.

6.  On Price Points and CPCs – Having the lowest price available for a particular product is likely the most important ranking factor, however price isn’t always the determining factor with the consumer.  One thing that I’ve discovered is that high CPCs won’t get your products the best placement.  However, keep mind that CPCs here will likely be much higher than with the same product in traditional adwords text ads, mainly because a user using Google Shopping shows much more intent to buy when compared to users clicking on text ads.

Google Shopping search will likely maintain and grow it’s dominant position and the most used shopping portal in the world.  If you’re selling retail goods online, get google PLAs on your roadmap now before it’s too late. If you’re a retailer interested in launching Google Product Listing Ads (PLAs), feel free to get in touch with me. mikekansa [at] gmail.

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