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Your Comprehensive Guide to Google Deep Linked Mobile Ads

By March 24, 2017 No Comments

This is the first in a two-part series about deep linked advertising on Google. In this post, we will review the different concepts involved. Part 2 will cover how to configure everything using Branch, and offer an alternative approach to mobile app ads.

Google earned $90 billion in 2016, and not surprisingly, over 88% of that came from internet advertising. As you might expect from a product with annual revenue equal to the total GDP of Sri Lanka, Google ads come with a dizzying array of configuration options. There are dozens of campaign types, objectives, and ad formats available, and the majority of them can be jury-rigged to work with mobile apps. But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Some configurations are more effective than others, so if you’re an app developer looking for the most cost-effective way to spend your precious advertising budget, how should you start?

We’ll start with a brief overview of Google’s ad brands (if you’re an AdWords veteran, you may want to skip to the next section).

AdMob

AdMob allows you to show ads in your app. Or in other words, if you want to make money, start here. AdMob used to be a standalone product but is now being rolled into Firebase.

AdSense

AdSense is the equivalent of AdMob for advertising on websites.

AdWords

AdWords is how you buy ads from Google. These are the ads that show up in Google search results, on YouTube, inside the Play Store, in apps (via AdMob) and on websites (via AdSense), amongst others. As an app developer trying to acquire new users, AdWords is your portal into the world of Google advertising.

Within AdWords there are a number of “Campaign Types” based broadly on format.

Search Network

Everyone is familiar with Search Network ads: they are the promoted items at the top of Google’s search results page. This is also where the promoted app results on the Play Store come from.

Search Network

Search Network 2

Display Network

You’ve seen Display Network ads too, even if you didn’t realize it. They show up on over two million sites around the web (Google claims to reach 90% of the internet population), but they’re much harder to recognize precisely because they all look different.

Display Network

Display Network ads include plain text, video, various “rich media experiences” like interstitials, and an array of image banners in various sizes. Here are a few of the options aimed specifically at app installs:

Display Networks 2

Search Network with Display Select

To make life easier for advertisers who only care about basic text ads, Google started offering a combination search/display campaign type. These are not currently optimized for traditional app promotion.

Shopping

Product listing ads have the potential to be a perfect fit for mobile eCommerce apps. However, reliable deep linking is crucial and there is not yet a practical way to generate huge numbers of product-specific deep links for Google Merchant Center (stay tuned for an announcement from Branch in the near future.)

Video

While there is a video ad objective specifically for Mobile app installs, we typically see our partners use video as part of a Universal App Campaign rather than as standalone ads.

Universal App Campaign

A new campaign type introduced for Android in late 2015 and iOS a year later, the intention was to make running app install ads as easy as possible. Unlike most other campaign types, you don’t even need to design anything — the only requirements are a few tagline ideas and your App or Play Store page. YouTube videos and extra images are optional, but if you don’t provide them, Google will take the images from your Store page, and even “might make a video for you.” It’s a frighteningly painless process.

Best Google Ads for Mobile App Installs

And now the main attraction: which genre of Google ads are best for driving app installs?

At Branch, we believe deep links are a crucial part of the mobile app experience. Deep linked ads are a great way to really nail your first impression: you can take your new ad-acquired user directly to a specific product, automatically apply a discount code, or even give a customized onboarding experience.

If you believe in the power of deep links like we do, the most important question is which types of Google ads support deep linking, and how can you set everything up to work properly from the get-go. If your deep linked ad fails, or only functions sometimes (like if the app is already installed), then that pretty much defeats the purpose of deep linking in the first place. You’re paying good money for these ads, so don’t leave any of it on the table by offering a generic experience.

Within each Campaign Type above, there are usually a variety of preconfigured “Objectives.” Some of these Objectives are designed specifically for mobile apps, while others can be pressed into service with some additional work. A few are simply not a good option for apps (yet). The Conversion Type indicates what event Google tracks as “success” for that Objective.

 

Campaign Type AdWords Objective Supports Deep Links Good for Apps? Conversion Type
Search Network Mobile app installs With Branch Yes Mixed
Mobile app engagement In theory Maybe Click
Other objective types Depends No* Click
Display Network Install your mobile app With Branch Yes Click
Engage with your mobile app In theory Maybe Click
Other objective types Depends No* Click
Search Network with Display Select Depends No* Click
Shopping N/A Not yet Not yet Click
Video Mobile app installs With Branch Maybe Install
Other objective types Depends No Click
Universal App Campaign With Branch Yes Install

* This breakdown is based on a standard strategy of advertising for app installs. See the last section of this post for a radically alternative approach that offers far more leverage.

The only ad types that “officially” support deep links are Search and Display ads with the Mobile app engagement objective. These are obviously not designed to drive new app installs, but more importantly, they are very difficult to get working; in fact we have never seen one successfully served to a user, even when approved and validated by Google.

The good news is that the majority of Google’s ad types can support deep linking when integrated with Branch.

How Deep Linked Ads Work. Is Firebase Required?

First, the elephant in the room: while Firebase is a neat set of tools, implementing it is not required for any AdWords ad, deep linked or otherwise. Firebase is just one of several attribution methods Google supports, and we do not ever expect this to change.

Here a quick review of the normal Branch link process:

  1. User clicks on Branch link
  2. Device is identified through web browser
  3. Redirected to the App/Play store
  4. Installs your app and opens it
  5. Device is re-identified inside your app
  6. Identifications are matched
  7. Branch returns link data
  8. Install attributed on Branch and user deep linked

This doesn’t work out-of-the-box because Google expects the domain of your Final URL (where the user ends up) and Display URL (the address shown on the ad) to match. Since the Display URL for app install ads is automatically set to your App Store or Play Store page, your Branch deep link URL will not be accepted.

Firebase

It’s a mismatch!

This often trips up new users, because AdWords will allow you to enter and even test an invalid URL, only to reject your ad later.

Fortunately, there are solutions.

Solution One: Click Conversions via Tracking Templates

For some ad types, Google offers something called a Tracking Template. This allows you to define a URL (with optional template values dynamically populated from the ad) that your user will pass through on the way to the Final URL. If you provide a tracking template URL, two things are assumed:

  1. Google will send users there instead of the Final URL after they click the ad.
  2. Your attribution and deep link provider ( Branch) is responsible for making sure the tracking template URL always redirects to the Final URL.

And yes, Google sends crawlers through the redirect chain to verify you aren’t cheating.

The tracking template process ends up looking remarkably close to the standard Branch flow, despite the confusing configuration in the AdWords UI:

    1. User clicks on ad. Click attributed on AdWords
    2. Redirected to Branch link specified as Tracking template
    3. Device is identified from web browser
    4. Redirected to the App/Play store
    5. Installs your app and opens it
    6. Device re-identified inside your app
    7. Snapshots are matched
    8. Branch returns link data
    9. Install attributed on Branch and user deep linked

Of the ad types we care about, this method is used for all Display Network ads, and Search Network ads on iOS only (the tracking template box exists for Android Search Network ads, but it is ignored).

Solution Two: Install Conversions via Postback URL

Google sends users directly to the App or Play Store page for Universal App Campaign ads and Video ads with the Mobile app installs objective. This means no redirections and no snapshotting. Instead, you have to set up a Conversion.

Conversions are tracked only after the app is installed, and can be accomplished in three different ways:

  1. Using Firebase inside your app
  2. Directly from Google Play (Android only)
  3. Via a server-to-server integration

While all three of these methods will let you know that the app was installed, we also care about deep linking. This means the server-to-server integration is the only option.

Once everything is configured, the final process looks like this:

  1. User clicks on ad
  2. Sent directly to App/Play Store
  3. Installs your app and opens it
  4. Branch calls AdWords with device info
  5. AdWords returns a Branch link ID that was specified when Conversion was configured
  6. Install attributed on AdWords
  7. Branch uses link ID to return link data
  8. Install attributed on Branch and user deep linked

Solution 3: The Google Play Install Referrer

There is one final edge case: Search Network ads on Android. These do not accept a Tracking template. You can technically use the Postback URL approach here, but if you are planning to run a Universal App Campaign, we recommend not. It’s far too easy to inadvertently mix up your numbers.

Fortunately a workaround is available via the Google Play INSTALL_REFERRER. The downside is this is significantly less reliable than other deep link methods, so we are hopeful Google will re-enable a more robust alternative in the future.
If you are ready to start experimenting for yourself,give Branch a try today! Our developer documentation covers everything you need to get up and running. Otherwise, stay tuned for part two with a full guide.