On September 30th 2019 Google Ads removed the Average Position metric and thousands of search marketers quietly wept into their third cup of coffee.
We were warned of this upcoming change, every day when we logged into our Google Ads accounts and hovered over the average position column the below message would pop up.
Over the last year, our notification centres would regularly spring into life to remind us that average position would soon be no more. But still, we were in denial. But . . .
What is Google’s Average Position and why do we care?
So, maybe you aren’t involved in the day-to-day management of a Google Ads account or perhaps this just isn’t an important metric for your campaigns. But if you’re wondering what all the fuss is about and what it means for the future of Google Ads – keep reading.
The Average Position metric explained
Inside the Google Ads platform, you can view a range of metrics related to campaigns, ad groups and ads. Google advertisers regularly check their campaign metrics to see how ads are performing, create reports and make adjustments as necessary.
In Google’s own words the “Average Position metric helps describe how your Ad Rank compares with other ads. Ad Rank determines the order in which ads appear on the page.”
Average position was a misleading name for this metric which denoted rank as compared to other ads not actual position on the Search Engine Results Page (SERP).
How the Average Position metric was used
Since the earliest days of Google AdWords average position was a core metric which advertisers relied on to understand and improve their search ad performance.
For example, a client might have an ideal rank range where they’d like their ad to rank in the search results – say between 1.8 and 2.6. If a campaign fell below the minimum then you’d either manually or via automated scripts increase the bid for an ad click. If an ad was ranking higher than required then you would reduce the max bid per click.
Targeting in this way allowed for cost efficiencies. For example, if a particular campaign was expected to have a higher conversion rate an advertiser might be willing to spend more on clicks for this campaign in order to maintain an average position of 1 to 1.5.
On a campaign which was less likely to result in immediate conversions, an advertiser could decide to save some cash and bid less in order to appear in position 2.2 to 2.9.
Advertisers would also target average positions to align with business goals. A market leader might want to protect themselves from competitors bidding on their brand. So, they’d adjust their bids to ensure they always appeared in position 1 for brand searches.
These are just some of the many ways in which advertisers utilised average position.
Google’s Average Position metric has become less relevant
So, if average position was so useful why has Google got rid of it? Well, the fact is that the average position metric has become less and less relevant over a number of years.
In the past, ad slots on Google SERPs were fairly reliable. You had right-hand side ads and top of page ads. Then Google removed the ads on the right-hand side. But you could still rely on three or four ad placements above the organic search results.
However, slowly the number of ad slots available became less reliable as Google began to favour relevancy of results irrespective of whether they were organic or paid.
This meant that sometimes you’d have just one or two ads at the top of the page or none at all. Other times you’d have an ad followed by an organic result followed by an ad etc.
Therefore, while average position used to give a fairly reliable indication of where your ad appeared on the SERPs as ad slots became more uncertain the difference between average position and the actual location of your ad widened.
At the same time, that ad position was becoming less relevant, conversion tracking was becoming more common, last-click attribution models were becoming less popular and more options for bidding on search ads were being rolled out.
For years the vast majority of bidding for search ads was done manually by setting a Max Cost-Per-Click (CPC) bid. Then Google introduced Enhanced CPC Bidding.
Enhanced Cost-Per-Click allows Google to automatically adjust bids for clicks that seem more or less likely to convert while keeping your average CPC below the limit you set. Although Enhanced CPC Bidding was only available to accounts with conversion tracking in place it was heavily pushed by Google until it eventually achieved mass uptake.
Next, Google started introducing various fully automated Smart Bidding strategies.
With the move away from manual CPC ad positions became less important. No longer did you need to target a position based on which campaign was more likely to convert. Google knew where your conversions were coming from and made the adjustments for you.
But what if you are more focused on long-term business goals such as brand protection or new market dominance rather than simple conversion metrics? What if your conversion data is inaccurate or you are in an industry where a conversion might take many years?
Well, don’t panic…
Here’s what’s replacing the Average Position metric
Prior to the February 26th announcement that Average Position metric would be going Google had already introduced two new concepts – Absolute Top and Top Ad Locations.
There are a host of metrics related to the top and absolute top locations but the following four are probably the most useful:
- Top Impression Share: top impressions ÷ eligible top impressions
- Absolute Top Impression Share: absolute top impressions ÷ eligible top impressions
- Top Impression Rate: Percentage of ad impressions that appear above organic results
- Absolute Top Impression Rate: Percentage of ad impression in the first ad position
Other relevant new metrics are as follows:
- Search Lost Absolute Top Impression Share (budget)
- Search Lost Top Impression Share (budget)
- Search Lost Absolute Top Impression Share (rank)
- Search Lost Top Impression Share (rank)
You can find more details on Google top impression metrics here.
Bid adjustments informed by impression share metrics should actually be more reliable than those using the average position metric. This is because they are calculated based only on eligible impressions and hence take relevancy into account. In theory, meaning you won’t be throwing money away on an ad which never had a shot in the first place.
So, what do we do now this change has actually happened? In a nutshell, start moving away from manual bidding strategies for the majority of our campaigns. In the case of brand campaigns and those where ad location is essential, we need to start using the above metrics for manual bidding or move to target impression share bidding.
Should we be worried about these changes? Well, the conspiracy theorist in all of us should be wary, but not worried. These changes while necessary could still be seen as part of a systemic shift by Google which is taking control away from the advertiser.
In general, we need to move with times or the times will move without us ;-).