GDN Kills Off Text Ad Creation – Say Hello To Responsive Ads

While in the process of writing a larger piece about advertising on the Google Display Network (GDN) I learned that as of February 1, 2017 you can no longer create your own text ads in GDN. The only option you have if you want a text only ad to display where it can is to create at least one Responsive Ad. Read more from AdWords here.

My first thought was something along the lines of “surely you can just input text and no images into the responsive ad area and get around it that way” – nope. You can’t save a responsive ad without entering images:

GDN Responsive Ad Image Upload Requirement


For the purpose of this post, I created an ad for Neptune Moon. Above is what happened when I tried to save the ad with just my logo and text. Cannot do it. Hmmm…

My biggest concern was that by having to create a full responsive ad that included images, that the responsive ads might be shown in favor of actual specific image ads I created and added to an ad group. I spoke with AdWords about it and information was also shared via Twitter on this topic to hopefully help clear this up – according to AdWords, responsive ads will not supersede any image ads you created. Instead, they are intended to “fill in gaps” if you didn’t upload all the sizes and of course, now cover text only ads completely.

AdWords Responsive Ad Tweets Image


AdWords also provided a link to a hangout (about 28 minutes in length) where this product is discussed – you can find it here. I watched the hangout and here are my key takeaways:

Why is AdWords doing this?

Two main reasons were provided during the Hangout – (1) it is hard for advertisers to make image ads generally and specifically for all of the available sizes and (2) responsive ads provide advertisers “access to native ad inventory” What does “native ad inventory” mean – essentially native ads are meant to be stealth ads in that they are designed to fit in as best as possible with a site’s look and feel, as opposed to ads you create specifically with the look and feel you choose for the ad design.

Responsive ads, since they are generated on the fly each time they are served, allow AdWords to take the basic elements you entered and configure them in native ads, as well as what I’ll call “traditional” ad formats (the sizes listed where you can create and upload your own distinct image ads + many other unique sizes).

Images are required for all responsive ads

When you provide your URL, the ad creator will scan your web site and come back with possible images from your site that could be used. It looks like this:

Add images to AdWords responsive ads

If you don’t have images on our site and/or if AdWords determines they are of poor quality, you can either manually upload other images  or you can choose one of the stock photos AdWords will let you use in ads for free. Here is what they provided based on scan of my web site:

Notice the stock images provide dimensions – which are gigantic for web ad usage, for what it’s worth. The image they found from my web site has similar dimensions to the stock photos, but it is the “hero image” on my home page. The largest “traditional” image ad has a width of 728 pixels, which is less than half the size of most of these. Most ads shown on sites are a lot smaller than that too. Plus, these images will not work on the skyscraper ad layouts…

And, adding the images themselves is clunky. You have to have all three image types uploaded in order to save your ad. But there is zero guidance on what size your images should be. The “square image” only says it should be 1:1 (or square). I tried choosing my logo image, which is square and it would not let me do that – notice all the options but Logo are grayed out/not selectable:


Responsive ad square image upload attempt

Responsive ad square image upload attempt – denied

The only way I could get past this and save my ad was to let it use the landscape image and crop it to also be the square image:


Landscape image as square image too

It only let me use the chosen “landscape image” to also be the square image (cropped of course)

This needs some refinement.

UPDATE: There are image size recommendations, but only when you get to the Upload screen:

  • Landscape image recommended dimensions 1200 x 628, 600 x 314 minimum
  • Square image 1200 x 1200 recommended, 300 x 300 minimum
  • Logo 1200 x 1200 recommended, 128 x128 minimum

It seems if you let the wizard grab images from your site or use stock photos, the cropping for the square image is ghastly:

Weird cropping options for stock or grabbed images

This is your only option to crop one of the stock images provided/available

It would seem this puts folks who can’t or don’t want to make their own images specifically for GDN ads at a disadvantage and responsive ads are clearly aimed straight at this audience.

What do the ads actually look like?

When you preview your ads, you only see about 3 variations. In the hangout they talked about there literally being “thousands” of available configurations? In the hangout they showed this for ad formats (which is consistent with what I saw when I previewed the ads I was making):

Responsive Ad Type Previews from AdWords Hangout

My previews looked like this:


AdWords responsive ad native ad format preview


AdWords responsive ads image ad preview


I am not totally clear on the “thousands of formats” claim from the hangout. I get that there could be some minor variations on the “standard” ad sizes, but I am skeptical about there being that many permutations. Especially as someone who works with clients who serve ads on their sites. It is generally done by plugin and site owners are pretty particular about where they want ads to be on their sites as well as the sizes and/or formats too. Would like to see more hard data on this. They did have a slide that showed “just some of the variations” of ad sizes that could happen with responsive:

Sample of responsive ad layouts

Sampling of different AdWords responsive ad sizes from AdWords Hangout

Problem for at least some advertisers is that without being able to preview all of the ways the responsive ad might render, it could lead to issues for clients ranging from control issues to legal ones. Some clients insist on approving every single piece of creative that will run for them, while others have guidelines and messaging and let their designers and/or PPC managers have some freedom to iterate and test ads.

There are also, of course, industries where there are legal and regulatory issues that are no joke. It seems to me that this type of advertising is a non-starter for them. The risk is not worth it. I don’t think this is something that AdWords took into consideration when making this the only route to be able to run text ads on GDN.

What is the main reason given to use responsive ads?

Throughout the Hangout, they kept talking about a particular statistic “responsive ads have seen a 15% increase in reach versus text ads”. I have some questions about this. On its face, it sounds impressive. But if what it is really saying is that when you compare GDN campaigns that were only running text ad(s) against what happened for them when they ran responsive ads, I’m surprised the increase in reach would only be 15%. I put this question back to AdWords and if I get more specifics, I will update this post to share what I learn.

Will/are responsive ads being prioritized?

This Hangout answer was really interesting to me. The answer was multipart. First part of the answer said that responsive ads were “not being prioritized in the auction” right now. I took that to mean that they should be on equal footing with other ads you create in your account. They did say though that AdWords is absolutely prioritizing this as an offer to advertisers and are encouraging them all to take advantage of it, going so far as to call responsive ads “next gen” ads.

What Is The Bottom Line?

AdWords is clearly marching forward toward greater automation. With the pilot program of AdWords creating and running new ads in accounts (see my post on that here) and now this, I just don’t see this train slowing down. Both of these programs are predicated heavily on advertisers letting AdWords optimize for clicks or conversions. The ads “Added By AdWords” require it and Responsive Ads definitely recommends it. In fact, the words “machine learning” were used more than once in the hangout relative to letting AdWords optimize things for you.

When I was talking with someone from AdWords this week, I said to him that I get where AdWords is coming from introducing more and more of these types of automations. I am certain that anything they can do that will either lower the bar for entry into AdWords advertising as a whole or encourage search advertisers to expand into more Google channels makes sense for their bottom line. I also think that these kinds of “wizards” will be very much welcomed by quite a few advertisers who find AdWords to be too complicated to run or who don’t want to regularly spend on professional management – whether that be agency, consultant or in-house people.

For those of us who do manage paid search professionally though, this is for the most part, not awesome. Yes, we are pretty serious control freaks and it can be fun to point that out, but we are often that way for very good reasons. Some of those reasons have to do with our own ways of thinking about things and ideas about account structure and data integrity (I’ll come back to that in a second). But, we also deal with a myriad of business situations that can and do also require extremely high levels of control over what is put out on an organization’s behalf. This is not a trivial matter.

Back to data integrity too – this “advancement” comes at a pretty significant cost in this area too. At least as far as discrete data for your ads is concerned. Remember when the Hangout guys talked about “thousands of versions of your ad” that responsive ads can create? Hope you don’t really want or need to know which ones actually were served and clicked. It is, from what I understand, just in one giant bucket for your responsive ad. You can’t even see if the text ad outperformed any visual/image ads.

Can You Work Around This?

As of this post, it would seem that you cannot work around this. Your options within GDN are now:

  • Create individual image ads and upload them so that only those ads will run, BUT text ads are off the table
  • Create individual image ads for every available ad size AdWords lists and create a responsive ad to be able to have text ads show when appropriate – BUT this means other visual ads for sizes that are not the 20 that are available for direct upload can and will display
  • Just go with responsive ads for everything (which when you read the AdWords help pages is definitely what is being pushed, along with strong prompts within GDN setup screens)

Like all things AdWords, those of us working in GDN will adjust to this new scenario. And, sometimes AdWords will adjust their features to allow for working around them and/or opting out, so that may still happen. I think that pressure would most likely have to come from big spenders in the highly regulated industries rather than PPC pros, but you never know!

I will update this post when and if more information on this becomes available.

Have you used Responsive Ads? What were the results you saw? I imagine there will be a wide range of experiences with them. As always, sound off in the comments or hit me up on Twitter (@NeptuneMoon).

UPDATE 2/15/17: James Svoboda (@Realicity) told me that he was able to successfully create a GDN text ad by copying an Expanded Text Ad and pasting it within AdWords Editor. He was able to make edits to the ad in the GDN campaign as well. I suspect that this loophole will probably eventually get plugged in an Editor update, but for now, it seems to be a workaround.


  1. I wish they could provide us with granularity of metrics into the sizes of the ads that the responsive ads fit into and be able to “opt out” or bid down on certain sizes.

    If a responsive ad works well (converts well for direct response campaigns) for 728×90 but horribly for 320×50 or a native ad unit, I’d love to know.

    Of course we can create ads for those sizes, but if they are helping us “automate” the process, we’d love to get more granular on those to optimize.

    • Neptune Moon says:

      I totally agree on having access to this information. I don’t think it will happen though.

      For now, the best way to track this is to upload all of the available ad sizes so that they will be served when inventory for their size is available. Responsive ads should just fill in for “other sizes” and text ads.

  2. This is a bit frustrating to be honest. Adwords is making us rely on their automation and data mining to improve our campaigns. This sounds great at first, but Google has a tendency to slowly charge more and more for a service once someone is totally relent on it.

    What are you thoughts on actually losing control of our campaigns, even if it’s something “small”?

    • Neptune Moon says:

      I think this march toward greater and greater automation is not going to change course. I hope that certain aspects will come with (or have added back after feedback) options to opt-out of some “features”. I prefer to control things manually and insert my own preferred level of automation for tasks that I deem appropriate.

      Google wants to continue to remove barriers to entry or objections advertisers might have regarding the complexity of AdWords, so…


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