Use Caution With Responsive Ads in AdWords

While doing some month-end analysis from April, my client came across a larger than usual discrepancy between Google Analytics sessions and AdWords clicks for a GDN-targeted campaign. While differences are pretty standard, this one was much larger than usual so we dug as deep as we could with no success.

We escalated it with a Google rep who got it in front of a Google Analytics specialist. They dug deeper and determined that the discrepancy was due to our targeting of and that many clicks on Gmail ads are simply opening the email (in the promotions tab) and not clicks to the website. This was somewhat of a surprise to me since we had a separate campaign running for Gmail Sponsored Promotions where I expected that behavior, but this campaign was focused on GDN at large.

Further digging showed that the clicks were coming from our ad groups with text ads and had begun around April 13th. Here’s how drastic the change in behavior was:

As you might guess, a 65% CTR on a GDN placement with 899 clicks is somewhat suspicious. Having it be a Google property? Not good.

What Happened?

In reviewing the change log, there weren’t any new ad creatives added. It was existing responsive ads that had accrued the clicks. These ads were added on January 31st, yet suddenly on April 13th started getting treated like GSPs.

It seems that AdWords adjusted their system to allow responsive ads to work as GSPs.

Why That’s A Problem

A user seeing a text ad (or responsive ad) on the GDN would get sent to the website after clicking. Therefore, the ad is designed to get the click and the landing page takes it from there to conversion. However, with a GSP, you write the text copy knowing that they’ll expand the “email” and see your additional creative, which then convinces them to click through to the landing page. That’s a big difference.

Since the user experience is different, the ad creative should be different and that’s why GSPs use a separate ad type. I’m not sure who thought it was okay to use responsive ads as GSPs but I hope they reverse course. In the meantime, I recommend you go check on any responsive ads you may have out in the wild because they too might be behaving funny since April 13th.


I took it up with a Google rep and was able to get the click charges refunded. He was very understanding of the situation and I appreciate the timely resolution. (Are you listening, United?)