Understanding Responsive Search Ads

If you’ve been following our blog posts lately, you’ll notice that we’ve been talking a lot about Google updates and the push towards automation (which is happening in full force whether advertisers like it or not). But we have not yet discussed one of the most talked about features Google introduced this year – responsive search ads (RSAs). We’re here to help you understand everything you need to know about this new feature, show you how to implement it in your campaigns, and give you our personal opinion based on previous experience and the results we’re currently seeing!


What are responsive search ads?

Responsive search ads are a new advertising format that is designed to increase ad relevance for users.

Google began rolling out RSAs in 2018; Microsoft followed suit just a few weeks ago, so both giants have now made RSAs available to marketers, although the feature is still in the beta stages.

Here’s how they work: when you create a traditional search ad, you write your headlines and descriptions together to create one single, static ad. But when you write a responsive search ad, you write up to 15 different headlines and 4 different descriptions, which are used as distinct parts. Google/Microsoft will then take those parts and combine them in different ways, automatically testing and optimizing to achieve the highest performing combinations based on the search query that are then served to the user. One responsive search ad can contain up to 3 headlines and 2 descriptions…the pairing possibilities are endless. Responsive search ads rely on Google’s/Microsoft’s machine learning. Over time, the platform learns which combinations are most relevant to the search term.


What you should know about responsive search ads (fast facts)

This is the largest ad format available, twice as long as expanded text ads. Each RSA has space for 3 30-character headlines, 2 15-character path fields in the display URL, and 2 90-character description fields (300 characters total).

The more space you take advantage of, the more Google/Microsoft can optimize. If you’re going to use RSAs, write 15 headlines and 4 descriptions and use most, if not all, 300 characters – don’t just come up with 2 headlines of 15 characters each and think that will be enough to see a boost in performance. Don’t cheat and make them all basically the same, either. Take the time to offer unique value propositions to potential customers. This will increase the likelihood of your ad being shown.

The somewhat scary reality of RSAs is that you don’t know what combinations will be used, or in what order. In order to avoid the possibility of confusing users, you need to ensure that every individual piece you write makes sense in any order. They need to be able to understood individually or when combined with any other headline/description.

Microsoft recommends using expanded text ads as a baseline for your responsive search ads rather than creating entirely new copy in order to avoid impression and click loss in the learning phase.

If you need something specific to appear in every single ad that is shown (a disclaimer, for example, or a slogan) you can “pin” a headline or description to a certain position by entering it into Headline position 1, Headline position 2, or Description position 1. This prevents other headlines or descriptions from being shown in its place, which reduces the combination possibilities. Google does not recommend this for most advertisers. 

Don’t write more than 1 RSA per ad group (the limit is 3). Because Google is already testing elements of your ads against each other, adding more than this will slow optimization. 

How to set up RSAs in your Google Ads account

Step 1 – Select “Ads & extensions” from the menu tab on the left. 

Step 2 – Click “+” and select “Responsive search ad”

Step 3 – Enter the final URL and display path texts. (A preview will appear to the right, but this only shows potential ads and does not accurately reflect
possible combinations.)

Step 4 – Enter your headlines and descriptions (min. 3, max. 15 for headlines and min. 2, max. 4 for descriptions). 

Step 5 – Click “Save”. 

For more detailed instructions on how to edit live RSAs and pin ad copy, see Google’s guide to RSA’s. 


How to set up RSAs in your Microsoft Ads account

Step 1 – Click “Campaigns” (top of page)

Step 2 – Navigate to the Ads tab and click “Create ad”

Step 3 – Select an ad group

Step 4 – Select “Responsive search ad”

Step 5 – Enter landing page URL in the Final URL box. 

Step 6 – Enter headlines and descriptions (min. 5, max. 15 for headlines). 

Step 7 – Click Save. 

For more detailed instructions on how to edit live RSAs and pin ad copy, see Microsoft’s guide to RSA’s. 


How RSAs fit within the overall push towards automation

Google’s/Microsoft’s AI will now automatically test all possible ad copy outcomes – that’s essentially why RSAs exist. The claim the search engines make is that this will improve performance, save time, increase relevance, etc. Really, this takes AB testing copy out of the advertisers’ hands…which remains to be seen if this is as beneficial as Google and Microsoft claim it will be. With responsive search ads, you don’t get a choice in how your ads show up. Sometimes this works in your favor, but sometimes it doesn’t, and there’s really no way to control it. Generally, we like control, although we do realize that there are instances where the machine knows better than we do, and this may be one of them. But then again, it may not be!

So our stance is neutral – for now. We’re actively testing this new feature, like we believe any marketer should. So far we haven’t seen any significant positive or negative results. We haven’t completely committed to them, though… the word is still out on RSAs! Follow us on social media to see updates about our thoughts in the coming weeks and months. 



Have questions about RSAs? What are your thoughts about whether or not this will actually increase relevance as much as Google and Microsoft claim? Tell us what you think or what your accounts’ performance has shown so far in the comments! As always, send us a message if you are interested in how paid search advertising and AB testing can grow your business online. Empirical360 has managed over 15 million dollars in ad spend on both platforms. We know how to help you get better results through data-driven marketing!

Shea Antonucci - Author

Director of Content Marketing

Shea is an expert content writer and is a classic literary nerd! She loves writing highly engaging content and has a knack for making it convert!