How Much Did Countdown Ads Play Into Search Advertisers’ Strategies This Holiday Season?

  • Many advertisers have seen great results using the countdown customizer in AdWords, but just how many utilized them during the holiday season? Columnist Matt Umbro sought to find out.


    At the end of 2014, I wrote that dynamic copy needed to be an integral part of paid search advertisers’ 2015 arsenal. I spoke to the positive results I had seen with Google AdWords ad customizers.

    Then in June, I presented a case study of the AdWords countdown customizer that showed the CTR and conversion rate to be higher on dynamic ads than on their static ad counterparts. Needless to say, I’ve seen great results with dynamic copy.

    As a follow-up to these posts, I wanted to see if advertisers made use of countdown ads this holiday season. As a reminder, here is what a sample countdown text ad looks like:

    A countdown text ad

    A countdown text ad

    Along with the countdown customizer, I looked at Shopping ads to see if advertisers were using Merchant Promotions. This feature allows Shopping ad units to include a “Special offer” link, which opens a pop-up that contains the promotion. In this pop-up is a countdown of how much time is left until the offer ends.

    A Merchant Center Promotion that dynamically counts down to the end of the sale

    A Merchant Center Promotion that dynamically counts down to the end of the sale

    On a daily basis from Nov. 23, 2015–Jan. 1, 2016 (a total of 40 days), I reviewed the text and Shopping ads for 10 unique queries. I recorded the total number of ads and how many of them made use of the countdown features.

    For example, a sample search may have yielded 11 text ads and eight Shopping ads. Of the 19 total ads, I recorded how many times a countdown was utilized. The 10 queries I used were a mix of generic and specific terms:

    • snow boots
    • cubic zirconia engagement rings
    • superhero t shirts
    • square picture frames
    • queen bed sheets
    • baseball batting gloves
    • martin guitar strings
    • kitchen window curtains
    • ceiling fans
    • gas grills

    All searches were conducted on a desktop computer between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. ET from Massachusetts. Additionally, searches were conducted through Chrome, Firefox and Safari.

    Finally, ads with dates and/or events were not counted in this study. An ad may have referenced a sale ending on a specific date or a Black Friday promotion, but if a countdown was not used, the ad was considered static.

    The Results

    Over the course of 40 days, I saw 5,992 total ads. Of the 2,975 Shopping ads, 358 had a countdown (just over 12 percent). Of the 3,017 text ads, zero made use of countdowns.

    Let me repeat that: I did not see one text ad utilize the countdown feature.

    Image of ad breakdown

    The ad types breakdown

    Of the 5,992 combined Shopping and text ads, 5.97 percent of them were dynamic. In other words, roughly one out of every 20 ads made use of a countdown.

    Here’s a breakdown of the Shopping countdown ads, sorted from the highest percentage of countdowns to lowest.

    Image of shopping ad breakdown

    Shopping ad breakdown

    The top three queries all saw at least a 21 percent ratio of countdown ads to all ads. “Queen bed sheets” led the way, with just over 30 percent, or roughly three out of 10 Shopping ads which contained a countdown. On the opposite end, “martin guitar strings” didn’t see any countdown ads, while “baseball batting gloves” and “ceiling fans” saw very few.

    In looking at specific dates of interest, we see that the number of Shopping countdown ads vary. (Please note that the shipping dates are from FedEx.)

    Image of shopping ads by date and event

    Shopping ads by date and event

    It’s no surprise that many of the major holidays, including Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, saw low percentages of countdown ads to all ads ratios. The rationale is that shoppers have most likely bought before the actual holiday arrives.

    The top four highest percentage dates all occurred between Nov. 25 and Nov. 30, including the three consecutive days after Black Friday. This makes sense, as generally, merchants offer sales through this whole Black Friday/Cyber Monday period. It is surprising that Black Friday only saw four countdown ads.

    Main Takeaways

    The data are extremely telling of advertisers’ strategy during the holiday season and willingness to adapt to dynamic features. Most alarming is the lack of countdown text ads.

    As I stated in the opening paragraph, I have seen great results with the AdWords countdown customizer. Beyond the case study, I’ve worked with many clients who have benefited from the urgency it provides.

    And don’t just take my word for it. Read what others have said about the benefits and impact the feature provides. Google also presented a case study for Rosetta Stone that showed an 8.7-percent increase in conversion rate with the use of the countdown customizer.

    Having reviewed the data, I’m amazed that the text ad countdown feature is rarely being utilized. I understand that advertisers are including time-sensitive offers (such as “Take 20% Off On Black Friday”), but a countdown is a highly effective way to encourage an action sooner rather than later.

    My thoughts are that advertisers either don’t understand how to implement the feature or don’t believe the effort is worth the reward. Regardless, both are poor excuses.

    When the feature was first introduced, it was confusing to implement, but Google now makes it easy. All you have to do is type “{“ when creating your ad, and the feature will automatically pop up.

    Image of countdown ad

    Setting up a countdown customizer ad

    Furthermore, countdown ads can now be duplicated in AdWords Editor, meaning you don’t have to manually create each one. In terms of the effort being worth the reward, start by creating countdown ads in your top 20 impression ad groups. This way, you are implementing the ads where you know there will be traffic.

    Another takeaway is that advertisers know about Merchant Promotions but aren’t utilizing the feature more. I am a little more sympathetic in this case, since you do have to sign up for the feature. However, once you do sign up, it’s easy to create and schedule promotions with little effort.

    Final Thoughts

    I know I’ve written about countdown ads in the past and continue to harp on them, but it’s because I’ve seen what they can do. Dynamic ad copy is necessary to stand out.

    It’s not just about the message, but how visually appealing you can make your copy. Though countdowns aren’t images, they have the ability to draw attention away from Shopping ads or make specific Shopping ads stand out.

    As an industry, we need to embrace these countdown features to provide better, more dynamic ads.

    [Article on Search Engine Land.]

    Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.

    (Some images used under license from


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