Why You Should Preview Your Paid Search Text Ads – and How

When I first got into paid search, I wanted to see my ads in action. I got excited. I mean, I just created an ad from scratch. I know it’s not hard to

  • put a headline and description line together
  • tie it to a campaign, ad group, and keyword
  • add some targeting
  • and get it to show in the Google Ad Preview Tool

but I was proud.

My work was published and on display. I was on the top of Google! It used to take us months to do that.

After I was done drooling over my first ad (it was for a real estate agent), I got to thinking: seeing my ads in action for different search queries and in different situations might be advantageous. It could help me answer questions like:

  • What extension combinations are showing?
  • How do the results differ on mobile vs desktop vs tablet?
  • What competitors are showing up with me?
  • What ad elements are getting truncated?

And so on.

In our line of work, it’s easy to get lost in spreadsheets, screens full of numbers, and even the graphs that represent our ads and how people interact with them. There are a lot of benefits to seeing your ads in action, and how our potential customers see them in context. These are some of the things I’ve learned just in the past year.

2 Reasons You Should Preview Your Text Ads

Competitive and Market Research

I’m competitive. That’s a characteristic that bodes well for anyone in search marketing, not just to get the top spot, but to deliver the best ROI possible.

There are lots of ways to enhance our clients’ ROI through ad copy. One thing I like to do is refresh and highlight any monthly specials/incentives that my clients might be running. But before I ask a client what upcoming specials they might be running, I try to figure out what my competitors are offering and more importantly, if they are using those offerings in their ad copy. Previewing ads help us gain meaningful insight into our competitors’ short term and long term ad copy strategy.

  • Are they updating their ads regularly?
  • How often? (SEMRush and SpyFu both have tools that show ad copy updates as well)
  • Which ads?
  • Is their messaging aggressive?
  • Do I need to report them to Google?

Anybody can run an auction insights report and see which competitor domains are showing up for similar searches (only on 2-4% of the available impressions… thanks, Google). But what the auction insights report doesn’t tell us is the messaging competitors are using in their ads and the specific promotions they are pushing.

I’ve had competitors directly call my client out on a branded search with a $25 Visa Gift Card offer just to sign up for a free demo. This is something our clients should know about and we need to create a strategy around these tactics to combat it. I certainly don’t want to have to explain why our CPCs jumped 300% for branded terms and our leads dropped because a competitor was buying our client’s brand name and offering a $25 Visa Gift Card just to get sign ups for their free demo.

Here’s a more specific example:

Someone searches for “honda civic lease deals.” We preview the search using Google’s Ad Preview Tool and we see the hypothetical results. Our main competitor is offering an $89/month Honda Civic Lease, which is highlighted in their ad text. We can use that information. Let’s ensure that we at least matched their lease price offering in our primary marketing area.

We can take it a step further and, for our PMA/extended locations, we can recommend our client drop the monthly lease price by just $5 to earn help earn business and entice customers to drive a bit farther, but to save $5 per month for 3 years ($180 during life of the lease).  We can check back each month and see what competitors are offering on all their specials and at least match or undercut them to earn more high intent, low funnel paid search clicks to boost ROI.

I understand that it’s difficult to manage this type of search market research for all clients and coordinate ad copy updates, landing pages, and so on. But hard work is its own reward.

Preview and Combat Truncation

Recommendations on Twitter from SEO expert about ad truncation

Truncation is my biggest pet peeve. We’ve all seen it happen: your ad is automatically clipped because it’s too long to display in a given placement. Your headline 2 gets cut off, rendering your perfectly crafted CTA useless.

Depending on the device and extension combination, truncated text can happen on our display URLs, sitelinks (especially mobile), headline 2, structured snippets, and even descriptions.

Example of truncation

Mobile Sitelinks vs. Mobile Preferred

I always make sure my sitelinks are optimized for mobile devices and aren’t truncated since there is less real estate on mobile. The character limit for mobile sitelink is between 18/25 and 23/25 characters depending on the character’s width (“M” is bigger than “I”), but the only way to be sure  your ad isn’t truncated is to get it to show on mobile, like this:

Example of truncation with a search of "chevy dealer near me" entered

Direction for establishing extension tips

4 Different Ways to Preview Your Paid Search Text Ads

There are several ways to preview your paid search ads:

Google Search

This is a simple live search. When you create a paid search campaign, you set your targeting – the geographic area where your ads will be eligible to show. Two factors go into targeting, both found at the campaign level under settings on the AdWords UI.

First, you have to tell Google where you want your ads to show. For example, if you’re an Elizabeth City based marketing company that specializes in local businesses, then you’ll want to set your targeting around Elizabeth City.

A google map example of ad placement in North Carolina

The second thing to remember is your location settings. The default location setting is to show your ads to people in, searching for, or who show interest in my targeted location. In other words, if you have a searcher that uses a regional term in their search query like Chevy Dealer Elizabeth City, then – even if they’re in California – your ad will still be eligible to show because that user is searching with a locational keyword qualifier, Elizabeth City. That searcher is showing interest in my targeted location.

Locations option setting

The other location settings option to keep in mind targets only people in my targeted location. This option looks strictly at people in our target area regardless of any locational keyword search qualifier. If you want to see your ad via a live Google search, you’ll have to be in that purple area or get creative with your browser settings.

Google AdWords Preview Tool

This is a great tool available for free to anyone with or without an AdWords account. You can find and use it here. Preview Tool shows you how the Google search engine results page (SERP) displays for any Google search. Both paid and organic results display.

The coolest feature of AdWords Preview Tool is that you can get results to show from anywhere in the world just by telling the tool where you want the hypothetical search to happen. I can be in Raleigh, NC, and if I search for something in Mountain View, CA, I can see if my ad is displaying correctly on desktop, tablet, and mobile 3,000 miles away.

View of Ad Preview Tool for "Used Car Dealership"

Google AdWords Preview Tool’s other features:

  • Language targeting: See how your ad appears to people with their default browser language set to a specific language.

Directions for language targeting

  • Device targeting: You can see how an ad displays on different devices, e.g. mobile (including different OSs) vs. desktop vs. tablet.
  • Share feature: Generate a link to share the preview with someone (I’m more of a screenshot guy, but this is a nice option to have).
  • Extension description: If you’re logged into your AdWords account, a description on why one extension showed over a different one will populate.

Example of an ad extension explanation

  • Negative results: Gives you reasons for why an ad did not preview, such as a conflict.

Example of a negative result for a paid search ad

Typical Google AdWords Ad Preview Conflicts

If you’ve used the Google Ad Preview Tool, you’ve probably run into instances where you get the red alert and your ad doesn’t show. Don’t panic… yet.

Here are the reasons that commonly come up.

Device type: You’ve excluded mobile traffic at the device level, or you’re trying to pull a call-only ad when the device type is set to desktop – you need to adjust your settings.

Example of setting search terms

Limited by budget: If your impression share loss due to budget is high, or it’s close to the end of the day and you’re running low on daily budget funds, your ad might not show. If you desperately need to get an ad to show on the Ad Preview Tool you can add budget or update your ad schedule or do both. You’ll have to wait for AdWords to register the changes. (If I’m limited by budget but not completely spent for the day, I’ve been known to rapid-fire click the preview button until an ad shows – it works often enough to recommend trying.)

Low ad rank: Increase your bid if you can (the account in the example below is a non-profit, so we’re capped at $2), or improve your quality score.

Image of a low rank warning

Just made a change: I touched on this above, but if you make a change to the account, you’ll have to wait a few minutes for AdWords to register it. You’ll most likely get a generic conflict explanation until the updates are approved.

Your ads are not scheduled to run: You have an ad schedule on and you’re previewing outside of that schedule.

Location Issue: There are two possibilities to keep in mind when you’re previewing and you get a location based conflict.

Image of an incorrect location warning for the ads

The first one is obvious. Either your location settings on the AdWords preview tool interface is set to a location that you currently aren’t targeting, or you don’t have that locational based qualifier I mentioned above.

The second conflict has to do with your location setting (the options shown above as well) and the location based qualifier used in the search.

Take the keyword “+hyundai +dealer +jacksonville” with the intent of targeting only people in Jacksonville, NC (not Jacksonville, FL). If you have the stricter location setting on (targeting people only in my location) and your location selector on the Google Ad Preview Tool is set to Jacksonville, NC – the search “Hyundai dealer Jacksonville” won’t show your ad (see below).

An ad preview and diagnosis interface for a dealership search in Jacksonville, NC

Preview tool will say your “ad is only set to show to people in your location.” Then it references Jacksonville, FL, even though the location setting is set to Jacksonville, NC.

If you type in “Hyundai dealer Jacksonville NC” – the tool displays the ad correctly.

I’ve only had this issue with locations where a sister city has the same name, in which that city is also more populated, and the search in the preview tool doesn’t include the state in the search. The preview tool defaults to the more populated city and essentially has a brain fart.

If you change the location setting to the less restrictive setting (people in, searching for, or who show interest in my targeted location) – the ad will display correctly. If you travel to Jacksonville, NC, and do a live Google search for Hyundai dealer Jacksonville with the restrictive location setting on (like I did), it’ll work too.

Changing a location setting from the main ad preview page

Negative keyword conflict: The negative keyword conflict happens when you have a negative keyword applied at the account, campaign, or ad group level. I would use the Keyword Diagnosis tool to check your keywords in bulk, but if you do get lucky, the ad preview tool will let you know you have a negative keyword preventing the search to trigger the ad.

Example of a negative keyword conflict

Drawbacks to the Google Preview Tool

  • It’s just Google Text Ads. We can’t see display ads, ads on Google Maps, or video ads.
  • You can’t click on the ads or hover over the links to see landing pages.
  • No Google Search Partners previews.

Bright Local Search Results Checker

One alternative to Google is Bright Local Search Results Checker, a free tool I use a lot. You can find it here.

This tool gets you localized search listings in a much more realistic Google SERP environment. The beauty of it is that you can click on the links (keep in mind you pay for the clicks if they are ads).

So, if you’re setting up and testing custom call tracking features that require a live click to really verify that the call tracking number updates correctly, you can use the Bright Local Search Results Checker instead of updating your targeting and location settings.

You can also use it to report ad violations. In order to report a competitor ad that isn’t playing nice (maybe they somehow got the ability to use your trademarked terms in their ad copy), you need to grab the URL attached to your competitor ad that also has the Google Click ID (GCLID) on it. You can’t grab this without clicking on the ad. Once you have the GCLID URL, you can fill out this Google ad feedback form. Hopefully, Google will disapprove the ad that violates the trademark or other policy.

Feedback form for Google AdWords to leave comments and make complaints

Preview Google Maps Ads

You can also preview ads on Google Maps using Bright Local. This is great for sale pitch screenshots and peace of mind because there isn’t anything on the AdWords UI to easily get info on Google Map ads yet.

Google maps ad preview

Bright Local Drawbacks:

  • Won’t give you conflict explanations for why your ads or extensions aren’t appearing.
  • Doesn’t let you preview your ads on mobile or tablet.

Bing Ads Preview Tool

This tool is very similar to the AdWords Preview tool. I use it as a sales tool.

A lot of clients are hesitant to add their accounts to Bing even though Bing touts 21% of the desktop search market share in the US. When I plead with them to add just their brand name and major, high intent, low funnel category campaigns to Bing, they’re still hesitant. I’ll even rattle off that Bing CPCs and CPLs are typically lower, conversion rates are higher, and UX metrics like time on site, bounce rate, and pages per sessions are all better on Bing when compared to Google. They still say won’t pull the Bing Ads trigger.

Then I show them a Bing SERP preview.

We see multiple competitors showing up for their brand name in their backyard, pushing their only organic listing down. That usually turns them around.

My Wants For A Preview Tool

I’d love to be able to tweak my demographic and personal settings and see how the SERP results change for things like gender, age, income level, and other audience segments. If that exists, please let me know!


Previewing your ads can be a powerful optimization technique as well as a sales tactic. Encourage your Paid Search team members to get their heads out of the spreadsheets once in awhile and take a look at where the ads meet the user.

I’d love to give you a free paid search audit. Seriously, it’s like my favorite thing (Editor’s Note: Seriously, it’s like his favorite thing). Feel free to reach out to me. If you have any questions or paid search tidbits, to discuss hit me up at Mike@reunionmarketing.com.

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