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Master Product Listing Ads (PLAs)

Published: December 3, 2012

Author: Joey Muller

Today’s post is by Joey Muller of Sum Digital.
After nearly six months of declining Google Shopping-related traffic, changes to the Google Shopping model, and an industry-wide scramble to recoup lost revenue, ecommerce advertisers are showing signs of resilience. There is evidence of lower CPCs, higher profit margins, and rising spirits across marketing departments that not long ago scrambled to answer the question, “Where did our Google Shopping revenue go?”
October 1st marked the completion of a six-month transition from free listings to Google’s pay-to-play solution known as Product Listing Ads (PLAs). While many advertisers have already transitioned, some folks are just learning about PLAs for the first time. Let’s do a quick recap of how we got here and then look at some best practices for mastering this new solution.
What are PLAs?                                                        
PLAs appear in the sponsored results of www.google.com and require advanced bidding and advanced data management expertise. They consist of an image, title, description, price, and URL, and serve a single purpose: to better connect consumers with retailers and products. Like traditional text ads, we manage bids and campaign structure using AdWords; unlike text ads, we manage ad copy inside a product feed. For example, to change an item’s price, we change the product feed.

PLA example
Examples of PLAs

While not new, PLAs have come to define the new Google Shopping experience. That’s right – the old Google Shopping experience is now defunct!
In the old Google Shopping, retailers enjoyed free traffic from Google’s organic products listings, in some cases bringing in 30% or more of total online revenue. This was a sweet deal for retailers. However, with the new model, there is no free lunch. Gone are the days of easy organic product listings; they’ve been replaced by a complicated, multiple-touch system where success depends on smart bidding, proper account structure, and a healthy product feed.
To master PLAs, you must first master Product Feeds.
Filling in your feed with data requires time and forethought. There are required fields: id, title, image, description, url, and GTIN. There are recommended fields: Google product category, product type, additional image link, sale price, and sale effective date. And there are optional fields: brand, mpn (manufacturer part number), gender, age, AdWords grouping, and AdWords labels.
The more fields you maintain, the more bidding control you will have in AdWords, but the more likely you will encounter failed uploads. (Every time you make a change to the feed, you must re-upload it.) Just be sure to check the Status area of the feeds tab of your Google Merchant Account to see how your last upload fared (see screenshot below).
PLA upload feeds
Google recommends that to keep things fresh, we re-upload our feeds every one or two weeks. Between choosing the right fields, monitoring status messages, and uploading often, it is practically a full-time job just to keep product feeds healthy. If you’re a large retailer, you know just what I mean!
Set up AdWords for PLAs.
On the AdWords side, there are four steps to get started:
1. Create a dedicated PLAs campaign. Do not mix PLAs with other search campaigns, else tracking will get very confusing very quickly. (Decide on an Ad Group structure that makes sense for you—making this decision is probably worth another blog post all by itself, but let’s skip it for now.)
2. Create a new Product Extension on the Ad Extensions tab. This is where we tell AdWords which Google Merchant Account to reference for our product feed. If you have already specified the AdWords customer ID for your AdWords account in your Google Merchant Center account, you will see an available merchant account id in AdWords.
3. Create a new Product Listing Ad from the Ads tab. This goes into each ad group in your PLAs campaign, and you can copy and paste this for all ad groups in AdWords Editor. Promotional text is optional, but if you have free shipping or a 100% guarantee, do mention it here.
4. Add product targets in the Auto targets tab and set a bid for each target (more on this below).
Focus on Product Targets.
First, create an All Products target. This is a catch-all that enables full coverage for every product in your feed. Since you don’t have any control over what Google will show, you may want to set a relatively low initial bid.
Next, think about your top-performing products and create a target for each one. You can do this at the brand level (brand=Sony), at the brand + product category level (brand=Sony, product_category=Laptops), or at the individual SKU level, where product ID matches a single SKU (id=SVE1113FXW). Bid differently on these targets according to your economics (average order size, gross margin, target ROI, etc.). Note that for any bids that are lower than your catch-all, all products bid will probably be superseded by your all products bid. Also note that at the end of the day, even if you are using product-id-level product targets, Google still controls which user queries are mapped to which PLAs. Don’t think that using product-id level targets is similar to using exact-match keywords; it is not the same.
Each time you set a target, be sure to click Validate. If you enter values exactly as they appear in the feed—punctuation included—your targets will validate.
Tip: The most recent version of AdWords Editor now supports targeting individual product IDs. This means you can take your entire feed and upload it into AdWords as follows:
1. Open your feed in Excel.
2. Remove all columns except id.
3. Add a new column called Max CPC and enter bids for each id according to your economics.
4. Copy your columns and paste them into AdWords Editor. (There are additional nuances here—it took us several tries to get it right—but once you nail it, the ability to bid at the SKU level is a very powerful thing.)
Where do I put my keywords in AdWords?
True or false: keywords play no role in PLA campaigns. True! It’s hard to fathom, but in this case we just leave it to Google to match queries with products. This illustrates the importance of optimizing your product feed. Take time to put important keywords in your titles and at the beginning of descriptions, and remember Google will bold-face matching search terms in your PLA.
Negative keywords, on the other hand, do play a role in PLAs. Run search term reports to see what queries are triggering your ads and use this data to build a solid negative keyword list (see screenshot below).
adwords search term report
Put it all to good use.
That’s it – now you can work on bid optimization, as usual. Good luck!
Joey Muller CPC Search– Joey Muller is a certified Google AdWords Professional at Sum Digital, a digital marketing agency in San Francisco. Joey has generated millions of dollars in revenue for ecommerce, gaming, healthcare, and IT companies. Joey received his BA in Cognitive Psychology from Dartmouth College. See Joey’s LinkedIn profile and follow him on Twitter @jmthefourth.

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