Has advert transparency decreased over the last decade?

Rob Laver | 3rd November 2023 | Google Ads

The digital advertising landscape has changed significantly over the past few years, so much so that anyone exploring it for the first time would barely believe how it functioned a decade ago. A glance back at what Google Ads (or AdWords as it was known back then) looked like in 2013 shows how far we’ve come:

No shopping results, no imagery, significantly shorter copy, and ad formats that weren’t yet mobile friendly sticking out on the right hand side! Fast forward to how the same search query looks in 2023:

Quite a difference.

It would be completely reasonable therefore to assume that campaign optimisation options and reporting visibility had progressed at a similar rate. What may surprise you, is that advertisers back in 2013 probably had more control and transparency over where their ads displayed than we do in 2023. So what are the reasons for this, and how should it impact what we think of as a successful paid media campaign?

Why is there less transparency vs 10 years ago?

There are two key reasons for the movement towards less transparency and reporting for advertisers:

1. A greater focus on user privacy online generally

In terms of user privacy, the Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal and the introduction of GDPR/cookie consent management were the two major drivers of change in the industry. You can see below via Google Trends that both topics really started to pick up interest around the same time, causing a general flurry of media stories and consumer concern:

While the outcome of this was mostly good news for users (despite the obvious frustrations with the actual deployment of consent management), it does mean that a certain amount of targeting options and importantly data tracking got removed.

What this means in practical terms for the setup and reporting of paid media campaigns is that a certain percentage of users won’t be part of the website analytics data we rely on to optimise, and those that we can see are at greater risk of being lost due to multi-device usage. This just means that more assumptions have to be made, either by us humans or by the advertising algorithms. The value of campaigns needs to be measured not just through direct response anymore, but by overall impact.

There are other privacy related factors when it comes to paid media, such as the number of people using ad blockers. According to a Statista the usage of ad blockers in the UK was 36% in 2020, although interestingly that was down from 47% in 2016 so perhaps a trend that is on the decline. It is nevertheless a relatively high percentage and makes the pool of users available to target smaller, which increases competition:

Source: Statista

When it comes to targeting, options are also becoming less granular. Some of this is due to the shift towards automation, which we’ll cover further below, but looking back at some of the targeting available on Facebook for example 7-8 years ago, your options really were quite exhaustive, even down to estimated income level. Now, the detailed targeting section is very hit or miss, and reliance on first party data has increased massively.

2. Ad networks shifting towards automation

Google Ads released a new campaign type in November 2021, called Performance Max. The idea was to automate targeting across Google’s network of placements, and create responsive adverts using assets you provide. Below is their representation of where your adverts might appear:

While most advertisers ignored it for the first six months or so, it became apparent that Google were going to start pushing this angle pretty hard. During 2022, Smart Shopping and Local campaigns were automatically “upgraded” to Performance Max. So what were/are the downsides? Well, the inability to opt out of certain ad types or placements for one, but also the complete blackout on reporting – there was no indication of what search terms were being targeted, what the breakdown of clicks were in terms of search vs display vs video, and on what placements. It was a ‘tell us what you need and we’ll sort the rest’ type of system. There have been a couple of minor improvements recently, such as the addition of brand negatives, but reporting and control still remains very limited.

Why use it at all then? The primary motivation is that it does tend to perform pretty well. Add that to the fact Google are likely to “upgrade” more campaign types in the future to Performance Max, it’s best to get ahead of the game now and make it work for you. One advantage of taking this approach is that you are effectively accepting that targeting and reporting is going to be a bit less granular moving forward. And that opens you up to a multitude of Google alternatives to reaching your target audience – be that another major player like Amazon or Tik Tok, or something more experimental like digital out of home ads.

The bottom line

What’s the key takeaway then? Well, we would say that it’s recognising that targeting and reporting often isn’t as detailed as it was ten years ago, but that might be a good thing in the long run. By adjusting your expectations away from tracking every single user behaviour, you open your business up to a greater range of tools to reach your target market, with a longer term but potentially much bigger return on ad spend. We think that makes it an exciting time for advertising.

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