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How To Identify And Reduce Render-Blocking Resources

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How To Identify And Reduce Render-Blocking Resources

Identifying and reducing resources responsible for blocking the rendering of your web page is a critical optimization point that can make or break your page speed.

It can be so critical that it can pay dividends to your site’s page experience metrics (and your user’s satisfaction) as a result.

In 2021, the average time it took to fully render a mobile web page was 22 seconds. In 2018, it was 15 seconds.

Clearly, this is a substantially higher number than Google’s recommended time of 2-3 seconds. It’s also substantially higher than it used to be.

What could be causing these issues with render-blocking resources?

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What is driving this increase in overall page render speed?

One interesting trend to note is that there has been an increasing reliance on third-party fonts compared to system fonts. Using third-party fonts as a resource tends to interfere with the processing and rendering of a page.

With system fonts, the browser does not have to load anything extra, so it doesn’t have that additional processing step as a result.

Screenshot from Web Almanac, January 2022

This reliance across industries is likely to impact this rendering time. Of course, this is not the only cause of this issue with render-blocking resources.

In addition, Google’s own services tend to have a significant impact on rendering time, such as Google Analytics or using a third-party Facebook pixel for tracking purposes.

The desire to rely on such technologies is not necessarily terrible from a marketing perspective.

But, from a render-blocking resources perspective, it can cause significant increases in page load time and how Google (and users) perceives your page.

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The ideal solution is to make sure that your page loads for user interaction as quickly as possible.

It’s also a possibility that poor web development practices in use by web developers today are to blame.

Either way, this is something in every website project that should be addressed as part of your Core Web Vitals audits.

Page experience, however, is not just about how fast the entire page loads.

Instead, it’s more about the overall experience of the page as measured by Google’s page experience framework, or Core Web Vitals.

This is why you want to work on improving and optimizing your page speed for the critical rendering path throughout the DOM, or document object model.

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What Is The Critical Rendering Path?

The critical rendering path refers to all of the steps that it takes in order to render the entire page, from when the browser first begins receiving data to when it finally compiles the page at the final render.

This is a process that can take only several milliseconds if you optimize it right.

Optimizing for the critical rendering path means making sure that you optimize for the performance of rendering on many different devices.

This is accomplished by optimizing the critical rendering path to get to your first paint as quickly as possible.

Basically, you’re reducing the amount of time users spend looking at a blank white screen to display visual content ASAP (see 0.0s below).

An example of optimized vs unoptimized rendering from Google.Screenshot from Google Web Fundamentals, January 2022

There’s a whole process on how to do this, outlined in Google’s developer guide documentation, but I will be focusing on one heavy hitter in particular: reducing render-blocking resources.

How Does The Critical Rendering Path Work?

The critical rendering path refers to the series of steps a browser takes on its journey to render a page, by converting the HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to actual pixels on the screen.

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An example of Critical Rendering Path.Screenshot from Medium, January 2022

Essentially, the browser needs to request, receive, and parse all HTML and CSS files (plus some additional work) before it will start to render any visual content.

This process occurs within a fraction of a second (in most cases). Until the browser completes these steps, users will see a blank white page.

The following is an example of how users may experience how a page loads according to the different stages of the page load process:

How users perceive page rendering.Screenshot from web.dev, January 2022

Improving the critical rendering path can thus improve on the overall page experience, which can help contribute to improved performance on Core Web Vitals metrics.

How Do I Optimize The Critical Rendering Path?

In order to improve the critical rendering path, you have to analyze your render-blocking resources.

Any render-blocking resources may end up blocking in the initial rendering of the page, and negatively impact your Core Web Vitals scores as a result.

This involves an optimization process of:

  • Reducing the quantity of resources that are critical to the rendering path. This can be done by using a defer method for any possible render-blocking resources.
  • Prioritizing content that is above-the-fold, and downloading important media assets as early as you possibly can.
  • Compress the file size of any remaining critical resources.

By doing this, it’s possible to improve both Core Web Vitals and how your page physically renders to the user.

Why Should I Care?

Google’s user behavior data reports that most users abandon a slow site after about 3 seconds.

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In addition to studies that show that reducing page load time and improving the page experience leads to greater user satisfaction, there are also several major Google updates on the horizon that you will want to prepare for.

Identifying and optimizing render-blocking resources will be critical to stay on top of the game when these updates hit.

Google will be implementing page experience on the desktop in 2022, beginning their rollout of desktop page experience in February and finishing up in March.

According to Google, the same three Core Web Vitals metrics (LCP, FID, and CLS) along with their associated thresholds will now be linked to desktop ranking.

Also, Google is working on a brand-new possibly experimental Core Web Vitals metric, taking into account maximum event duration, and total event duration.

Their explanation of these factors they are considering are:

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Maximum event duration: the interaction latency is equal to the largest single event duration from any event in the interaction group.
Total event duration: the interaction latency is the sum of all event durations, ignoring any overlap.

With many studies linking reductions in page load times to improvements in valuable KPIs (conversions, bounce rate, time on site), improving site latency has become a top-of-mind business goal for many organizations.

SEO professionals are in a unique position to guide this effort, as our role is often to bridge the gap between business goals and web developers’ priorities.

Having the ability to audit a site, analyze results, and identify areas for improvement helps us to work with developers to improve performance and translate results to key stakeholders.

The Goals Of Optimizing Render-Blocking Resources

One of the primary goals of optimizing the critical rendering path is to make sure that the resources that are needed to render that important, above-the-fold content are loaded as quickly as is humanly possible.

Any render-blocking resources must be deprioritized, and any resources that are preventing the page from rendering quickly.

Each optimization point will contribute to the overall improvement of your page speed, page experience, and Core Web Vitals scores.

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Why Improve Render-Blocking CSS?

Google has said many times that coding is not necessarily important for ranking.

But, by the same token, gaining a ranking benefit from page speed optimization improvements can potentially help, depending on the query.

When it comes to CSS files, they are considered to be render-blocking resources.

Why is this?

Even though it happens in the midst of a millisecond or less (in most cases), the browser won’t start to render any page content until it is able to request, receive, and handle all CSS styles.

If a browser renders content that’s not styled properly, all you would get is a bunch of ordinary text and links that are not even styled.

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This means that your page will basically be “naked” for lack of a better term.

Removing the CSS styles will result in a page that is literally unusable.

The majority of content will need repainting in order to look the least bit palatable for a user.

Example of CSS enabled vs CSS disabled.

If we examine the page rendering process, the gray box below is a representation of the browser time needed to get all CSS resources. This way, it can begin constructing the DOM of CSS (or CCSOM tree).

This could take anywhere from a millisecond to several seconds, depending on what your server needs to do in order to load these resources.

It can also vary, which could depend on the size, along with the quantity, of these CSS files.

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The following render tree shows an example of a browser rendering all the files along with CSS within the DOM:

DOM CSSOM Render Tree.Screenshot from Medium, January 2022

In addition, the following shows an example of the rendering sequence of a page, in which all the files load in a process, from the construction of the DOM to the final painting and compositing of the page, which is known as the critical rendering path.

Because CSS is a render-blocking resource by default, it makes sense to improve CSS to the point where it doesn’t have any negative impact on the page rendering process at all.

The Official Google Recommendation States The Following:

“CSS is a render-blocking resource. Get it to the client as soon and as quickly as possible to optimize the time to first render.”

The HTML must be converted into something the browser can work with: the DOM. CSS files are the same way. This must be converted into the CSSOM.

By optimizing the CSS files within the DOM and CSSOM, you can help decrease the time it takes for a browser to render everything, which greatly contributes to an enhanced page experience.

Why Improve Render-Blocking JavaScript?

Did you know that loading JavaScript is not always required?

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With JavaScript, downloading and parsing all JavaScript resources is not a necessary step for fully rendering a page.

So, this isn’t really a technically required part of page render.

But, the caveat to this is: Most modern sites are coded in such a way that JavaScript (for example the Bootstrap JS framework) is required in order to render the above-the-fold experience.

But, if a browser finds JavaScript files before the first render of a page, the rendering process can be stopped until later and after JavaScript files are fully executed.

This can be specified otherwise by deferring JavaScript files for later use.

One example of this is if there are JS functions like an alert that’s built into the HTML. This could stop page rendering until after the execution of this JavaScript code.

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JavaScript has the sole power to modify both HTML and CSS styles, so this makes sense.

Parsing and execution of JavaScript could be delayed because of the fact that JavaScript can potentially change the entire page content. This delay is built into the browser by default – for just such a “just in case” scenario.

Official Google Recommendation:

“JavaScript can also block DOM construction and delay when the page is rendered. To deliver optimal performance … eliminate any unnecessary JavaScript from the critical rendering path.”

How To Identify Render-Blocking Resources

To identify the critical rendering path and analyze critical resources:

  • Run a test using webpagetest.org and click on the “waterfall” image.
  • Focus on all resources requested and downloaded before the green “Start Render” line.

Analyze your waterfall view; look for CSS or JavaScript files that are requested before the green “start render” line but are not critical for loading above-the-fold content.

Example of start render.Screenshot from WebPageTest, January 2022

After identifying a (potentially) render-blocking resource, test removing it to see if above-the-fold content is affected.

In my example, I noticed some JavaScript requests that may be critical.

Even though they are critical, it’s sometimes a good idea to test removing these scripts to test how shifting elements on the site affect the experience.

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Example of web page test results showing render-blocking resources.Screenshot from WebPageTest, January 2022

There are also other ways to improve such resources.

For non-critical JavaScript files, you may want to look into combining the files and deferring them by including these files at the bottom of your page.

For non-critical CSS files, you can also reduce how many CSS files you have by combining them into one file and compressing them.

Improving your coding techniques can also result in a file that’s faster to download and causes less impact on the rendering speed of your page.

Ways To Reduce Render-Blocking Elements On The Page

Once you determine that a render-blocking resource is not critical for rendering content above-the-fold, you will want to explore a myriad of methods that are available in order to improve the rendering of your page and defer non-critical resources.

There are many solutions to this problem, from deferring JavaScript and CSS files to reducing the impact that CSS can have.

One possible solution is to not add CSS using the @import rule.

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Make Sure Not To Add CSS Using The @Import Rule

From a performance perspective, even though @import appears to keep your HTML file cleaner, it can actually create issues with performance.

The @import declaration will actually cause the browser to process a CSS file more slowly. Why? Because it is also downloading all of the imported files.

Rendering will be entirely blocked until the process completes.

Indeed, the best solution is to use the standard method of including a CSS stylesheet using the <link rel=”stylesheet”> declaration in the HTML.

Minify Your CSS And JavaScript Files

If you are on WordPress, using a plugin to minify your CSS and JavaScript files can have a tremendous impact.

The process of minification takes all of the unnecessary spaces within a file and compresses it even further, so you can end up with a nice performance boost.

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Also, even if you are not on WordPress, you can use the services of a well-qualified developer in order to complete the process manually.

This will take more time but can be well worth it.

Minified files are usually much lighter than their former counterparts, and this means that initial rendering will complete much faster.

In addition to this, after the minification process, you can also expect the download process to be faster, because less time is necessary to download non-render blocking resources.

Use System Fonts Instead Of Third-Party Fonts

While third-party fonts may appear to make a site “prettier,” this is not exactly the case.

While it may look amazing on the surface, these third-party font files often take a longer time to load and can contribute to your render-blocking resources problem.

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Because of the external files, the browser has to make external requests in order to download these files to render your page, which may result in significantly higher download times.

If you’re on a team that has less than ideal development best practices, then it could stand to reason that you have many third-party font files that are not necessary for rendering your site.

In which case, removing all these unnecessary files can improve your render-blocking resources significantly and contribute to your overall improvement in Core Web Vitals.

Using system fonts, on the other hand, only keeps the processing within the browser, without external requests.

Also, there are likely system fonts that may be very similar to the third-party fonts you are using.

Improve Your Coding Techniques And Combining Files

If you’re working with code yourself, you may (or may not … no one is judging here) find that techniques are less than optimal.

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One example: you are using inline CSS everywhere, and this is causing processing and rendering glitches within the browser.

The easy solution is to make sure that you take all of the inline CSS and code them properly within the CSS stylesheet file.

If another developer’s code is not up to par, this can create major issues with page rendering.

For example: Say that you have a page that’s coded using older techniques rather than modern and leaner ones.

Older techniques could include significant code bloat and result in slower rendering of the page as a result.

To eliminate this, you can improve your coding techniques by creating leaner and less bloated code, resulting in a much better page rendering experience.

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Combining files can also improve the situation.

For example: If you have eight or 10 JavaScript files that all contribute to the same task, you can hire the services of a developer who can then combine all of these files for you.

And, if they are less critical JavaScript files, then to further decrease the page rendering problems, these files can also be deferred by adding them to the end of the HTML code on the page.

By combining files and improving your coding techniques, you can contribute significantly to better page rendering experiences.

Key Takeaways

Finding solutions to reduce render-blocking resources have been an SEO audit staple for a while now. It’s important for several reasons:

By reducing render-blocking resources, you make your site faster. You can also reverse engineer your site to take advantage of elements that will play into Google’s overall page experience update.

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You also put yourself in a position to take advantage of a boost you will get from Google’s Core Web Vitals metrics.

Core Web Vitals are not going away. They have become a critical optimization point in order to facilitate the fastest potential rendering times possible within your current framework.

With new Core Web Vitals metrics being introduced in the future, making sure that you’re up-to-date on existing metrics is always a great idea.

Finding and repairing render-blocking resources also ensures that you continue keeping your website visitors happy and that it’s always in top shape for prime time.

More resources:


Featured Image: Naumova Marina/Shutterstock

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SEOs, Are You Using These 6 Mental Models?

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SEOs, Are You Using These 6 Mental Models?

People use mental models to comprehend reality, solve problems, and make decisions in everyday life. SEO is not an exception here, yet it’s not a topic you often hear about in this industry.

The thing is, you need to be careful with mental models because they’re sneaky. We tend to develop them during our lives, inherit them from our colleagues and mentors, and rely on them almost instinctively while not fully aware of their influence or the existence of better alternatives.

So, let’s talk about mental models you will find helpful in your SEO work and the ones you should approach with caution.

3 helpful mental models

In the noisy, uncertain world of SEO, these will be your north star.

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First principles thinking is a problem-solving approach that involves breaking down complex problems into their most basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up.

It’s about asking oneself what is absolutely true about a situation and then reasoning up from there to create new solutions.

Using first principles thinking to rearrange the same building blocks into a brand new shape. 

Uncertainty is a chronic condition in SEO. And it is so by design because the whole industry is based on Google’s secrets. Access to the truth is extremely limited. We got to the point that we got used to accepting speculation and theories on SEO so much that we started to crave them.

This is where the first principles come in. Whenever you need a brand new solution for a problem or when you feel that you’ve gone too far into speculation, come back to the first principles — things that have the best chance to be true in this industry. For example:

The Pareto Principle (aka the 80/20 rule) is about a disproportionate relationship between inputs and outputs, effort and results, or causes and effects. A small number of causes (20%) often leads to a large number of effects (80%).

The Pareto principleThe Pareto principle
The 80/20 rule: 80% of results come from 20% of the projects.

This concept was named after Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist who, in 1906, noticed that 80% of Italy’s land was owned by 20% of the population.

If we use this principle as a mental model in decision-making, we’ll find it easier to prioritize work. It’s ok to ignore some things because they likely won’t matter that much. The result that you’re after will come from focusing on the things that will likely have the biggest impact, and not from spreading yourself too thin.

For example, if you want to build links to your site, pitch your best content. That can be the content that has already proven to earn links in the past.

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Best by links report in Ahrefs.Best by links report in Ahrefs.

Or if you need to recover some of that lost traffic, home in on the pages that lost the most traffic.

Top pages report in Ahrefs. Top pages report in Ahrefs.

The key is to treat the 80/20 as an approximation, a heuristic, and not take the numbers literally. To illustrate, roughly 80% of our site’s traffic comes from no more than 6% of pages.

Total organic traffic breakdown in Ahrefs. Total organic traffic breakdown in Ahrefs.

But on the other hand, if we try to find the top 20% pages that contribute to the traffic the most, we’ll find that they bring not 80% but 96.8% traffic. However you look at it, the idea still holds — a small amount of causes led to a large portion of effects.

“It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

Sounds very much like SEO already, doesn’t it?

This quote comes from Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass,” and it’s how the Red Queen explains to Alice the nature of her kingdom, where it requires constant effort just to maintain one’s current position.

It was used to name an evolutionary biology theory which posits that each species must adapt and evolve not just for incremental gains but for survival, as their competitors are also evolving. Sorry, we’re in an endless race.

The Red Queen Theory as an endless race.The Red Queen Theory as an endless race.
SEO is like a road with no finish line—the race continues forever.

You can probably already guess how this applies to SEO — rankings. If you want to maintain high rankings, you can’t stop improving your pages. There will always be enough competitors to challenge your position.

But in our world, pressure comes from competitors and the environment. Google keeps evolving too, pushing the bar for content higher, making elements that used to give you an edge a standard.

I’m sure we’ve all been there – even our top backlink-earning, top traffic-generating, most time-consuming content gets pushed down. But if you keep optimizing, you get a chance to come back to the top.

Position history graph in Ahrefs.Position history graph in Ahrefs.

This mental model is another way of saying that SEO works best as an always-on strategy without a set end date or final goal.

3 mental models to watch out for

It’s not so much about avoiding them but being able to spot them when they happen or could happen.

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A local maximum (aka local optimum) refers to a solution that is the best solution within a neighboring set of solutions, but not necessarily the best possible solution overall (global optimum).

Local maxima.Local maxima.

So if you’re feeling that you’re spending immense effort just to make marginal improvements, you have to be willing to assume that you’ve hit a local maxima. Then, the question to ask is: what can I do differently?

Here’s an example.

Until November last year, traffic to our site was a series of local optima. Our content marketing was delivering the results, but the growth was relatively slow. Obviously, we were doing the same tried and tested stuff. But then we launched two programmatic SEO projects that instantly elevated us to a level we’d have to work years for — look how fast the yellow line grew (pages) and how that corresponded with the orange line (traffic).

Organic performance graph in Ahrefs.Organic performance graph in Ahrefs.

The sunk cost fallacy is a cognitive bias that occurs when people continue to do something as a result of previously invested resources (time, money, effort) despite new evidence suggesting that the current path will not lead to a beneficial outcome.

Sunk cost fallacy as a graph.Sunk cost fallacy as a graph.
Sunk cost in action: the more you invest in something, the more attached to it you become.

We all know SEO is a long-term game, right? Strategies like these are crowded with long-term projects with big time and money investments. Sometimes, despite the investments, you just can’t go beyond a certain level of traffic, backlinks, etc.

Now, this mental model, this voice in your head, will tell you to keep going down the same path no matter what. Loss aversion kicks in, acting like a defense mechanism for your past selves and actions. And the more aggressive and blind the “hustle” culture is at one’s team, the harder it is to see clearly.

But, overall, it could be better for you and the company to let it go and focus on something else. You can even come back to it later with a fresh mind. But continuing something just because you’ve been doing it for some time is a losing strategy.

Example. Despite several attempts and time counted in years, Ahrefs doesn’t rank for “seo”.

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Position history for "seo" via Ahrefs.Position history for "seo" via Ahrefs.

Sad but true. And from our point of view, it’s frustrating. Almost like we’re the only ones not to get invited to the party, the only ones not to graduate from high school… you get the idea.

But not ranking for “SEO” hasn’t hindered our growth, so it’s better to cut losses and deal with unfulfilled ambition than to let that goal hold us back from other projects (like that programmatic project mentioned above).

Confirmation bias is the tendency to give more attention and weight to data that support one’s own beliefs, while simultaneously dismissing or underestimating evidence that contradicts those beliefs.

Confirmation bias - beliefs outweigh the facts. Confirmation bias - beliefs outweigh the facts.

We’re all guilty of this. It’s human nature. And it’s not exclusively a bad thing. I mean, in some situations, this tendency can keep us on “the bright side” and help us go through tough times or keep our motivation up.

So, I think that it’s not something to get out of your system completely. Just be mindful of situations where this can negatively affect your judgment:

  • Selective evidence in ranking factors. You see a page ranking high, and you think it’s because of an aspect you strongly believe in, disregarding all of the evidence against it (e.g., long-form content, social signals).
  • Bias in keyword selection. Your keyword selection runs along the lines of your beliefs about the audience preferences without substantial evidence to back up these beliefs.
  • Bias in strategy development. After developing a new strategy, you encounter a talk or an article advocating a similar approach, which immediately reinforces your confidence in this strategy.
  • Focus on confirmatory data during audits. During a content audit, you find a small piece of data that confirms your belief. As a result, you may prioritize minor findings over more significant but less personally affirming data.
  • Overconfidence in familiar tactics. Leaning on SEO tactics that have worked in the past, you develop a sense of overconfidence in them. You resist trying anything new or the idea that a dip in performance comes from an unfamiliar factor.

Keep learning

If you like what you’re reading, I think you will find other mental models fascinating:

Want to share models you find useful? Ping me on X or LinkedIn.



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PPC Experts On AI In PPC: Potential & Limitations

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PPC Experts On AI In PPC: Potential & Limitations

This is an excerpt from SEJ’s PPC Trends 2024 ebook, our annual roundup of expert opinions on what you can expect over the course of the next 12 months. 

This year, new AI features rolled out on PPC platforms, and marketers began adopting generative AI in earnest.

The dust is settling after the initial exuberance about AI, and we’re starting to see more nuanced and cautionary opinions develop.

In this section, you’ll see contributors highlighting the benefits of both AI-powered automated ad campaigns and adopting generative AI in your workflow.

You’ll also see cautionary words, reminding you that human thinking and creativity still drive online interactions.

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If I had to summarize these insights in three sentences, they would be;

  • AI is very good at the things it’s good at, and very bad at the things it’s bad at.
  • AI is a square peg, so beware of round holes; AI is not a panacea.
  • AI can be a multiplier of productivity and results, but some processes are worth the difficulty.

How AI Can Improve Social Media Advertising Performance

Akvile DeFazio, Founder, AKvertise

Akvile DeFazio

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is quickly becoming an integral part of the advertising industry, transforming how companies reach their target audience and how advertisers increase effectiveness and efficiency in managing ad accounts.

Here are some ways AI can help drive more results in 2024:

Targeting Improvements

Just a few short years ago, campaigns and ad sets were set up more granularly, but after iOS updates, Meta launched several new machine learning options that advertisers can leverage for better results and find their customers.

Now, in Meta Ads Manager, there are Advantage+ Audiences that leverage machine learning to help advertisers reach the most valuable audiences much faster.

By enabling this, you can also share an audience suggestion, such as recent purchasers, so then the system can prioritize people matching using this high-value audience profile before expanding the targeting net wider.

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If you work in ecommerce, Meta’s Advantage+ shopping campaigns can help find new customers using its automatic placements, lowest-cost bid strategies, and more by serving the best ads to the people most likely to convert using its AI.

Creative Optimization

When it comes to creative optimization, particularly on platforms like Meta Ads, running dynamic ads with various creatives can be highly effective.

Platforms like Meta leverage AI to serve your target audience with the most relevant creative content, increasing the likelihood of achieving your campaign optimization goals.

By trusting the system to determine the best approach, you can expect improved and faster results compared to manual testing by humans.

In this past year, its performance has improved significantly, and I believe it will continue to do so.

Measuring Results

AI also offers extensive analytics and reporting capabilities, enabling advertisers to measure the success of their campaigns accurately.

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With data-driven insights, advertisers can identify the most effective ads and targeting strategies, enabling them to make informed decisions for optimizing campaigns.

We use tools that allow us to import data, conduct trend analysis, create graphs, and obtain valuable insights.

By streamlining reporting and analysis, the right AI-powered tool serves as a time-saving asset that can guide optimization efforts and drive favorable outcomes.

This is only the start of the AI revolution transforming the social media advertising landscape. Brands can now connect and interact with their target audience in a more impactful manner and achieve their various goals.

Embracing AI experimentation can be worthwhile, as it elevates our human capabilities, increasing our efficiency, productivity, and effectiveness in our work.

If you haven’t already, add AI to your advertising stack to elevate your growth goals for 2024.

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AI & Personalization In Marketing

Alex Macura, Founder/CEO, Your Digital Assembly

Alex MacuraAlex Macura

The world is a fast-paced place, and the marketing industry is even more so. It has to be, just to keep up.

Over the past 50 years, we’ve seen growth in digital marketing, social media and mobile marketing, television, and database marketing.

But what does the future and, more specifically, 2024 hold for the industry as a whole? Let’s take a look.

A Surge In AI Marketing

AI gives marketers the ability to analyze huge amounts of data in seconds, boosting efficiency and productivity.

Predictive analytics can help to predict consumer and purchase behavior, allowing for more tailored, targeted ad campaigns.

And it can learn over time, too, constantly evolving into a more competent version of itself. So, if you’ve resisted getting on board the AI train, it’s time to step up to the platform.

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More Personalized Content

Another area AI excels in? Personalization – which is why, in 2024, hyper-personalization is set to become our new reality.

Customers want to feel seen, so any brand that takes the time to curate a buying experience specifically for them will gain traction.

Thanks to AI and advanced analytics, content can become more tailored than ever, strengthening brand relationships and boosting return on investment (ROI).


Finding The Balance Of Generative AI In Ads

Amy Hebdon, Founder + Managing Director, Paid Search Magic

Amy HebdonAmy Hebdon

There are many ways to use generative AI to enhance your campaigns – and only two ways to get it wrong:

  • Blindly rely on it for everything.
  • Refuse to use it for anything.

Generative AI is in its infancy and capable of making mistakes, so fully relying on it for 100% accuracy is a bad idea.

At the same time, avoiding it because it can’t completely replace you needlessly limits your ability to be more creative and productive.

Between those extremes are countless opportunities to improve and streamline your work. Use generative AI for discovery, challenging assumptions, brainstorming, iterating and refining ideas, editing, and strategy.

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You don’t need costly subscriptions to get started, either. The free version of ChatGPT is a great entry point to meaningfully improve your work and workflow.


Standing Out In A Playing Field Leveled By AI

Andrea Atzori, Director, Ambire

Andrea AtzoriAndrea Atzori

Automation serves as a formidable ally in streamlining the mundane aspects of our operations, such as campaign build and reporting.

By harnessing automation, we not only expedite these processes significantly but also diminish the likelihood of human errors creeping in.

Nevertheless, it remains undeniable that the very innovations ushered in by AI and machine learning (ML), if not managed, also bear the capacity to homogenize content, often yielding results that hover around the realm of mediocrity or average at best.

Consequently, if we do not settle for average but instead strive for marketing excellence, this pursuit involves leveraging the full spectrum of available data and tools to our advantage.

Only by adopting this approach can we mitigate rising costs and consistently deliver outstanding outcomes.

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Scale Isn’t Everything, Don’t Forget The Power Of Humans & Creativity

Ben Wood, Director of Growth & Innovation, Hallam

Ben WoodBen Wood

One trend we’ve been referencing for years is the growing impact of machine learning and automation on advertisers.

In 2023, we’ve seen a huge acceleration in technological innovation.

We’ve experienced the democratization of creative production via generative AI tools built into Google Ads and other networks, reducing cost and increasing the speed of production.

This has lowered the barrier to entry to platforms such as YouTube, and display formats for smaller advertisers with less budget to spend on assets.

We’ve also seen much-publicized advances in large language models (LLMs), enabling the development of scripts with limited programming capabilities, and offering huge economies of scale for campaign creation and PPC account expansion.

What we’ll start to see in 2024 are the second-order effects of generative AI. These are the less obvious ripple effects caused by AI over the longer term.

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Despite the increase in our capabilities to create ads at scale using generative AI, this might not enhance performance but could hamper it:

  • AI is already adept at creating ads at scale, such as automatically created ads and demand generation features in Performance Max.
  • It’s easier than ever for advertisers to get started and enable more features due to automated creative capabilities. The lower barrier to entry could mean users see even more ads than they’re used to.
  • Relying on automated creative may result in generic, feature-based ads.
  • Buyers will learn to tune out these ads.

Increased Value On Human Perspectives And Creators

As consumers learn to tune out to the homogenous advertising enabled by generative AI, we’ll see an increased desire for human perspectives and creativity.

We’ve already seen Google start to surface creators and influencers via their “perspectives” feature with the introduction of Search Generative Experience, and I expect this to bleed through into the advertising landscape.

Partnering with consumer-facing creators and influencers as part of your paid media strategy will increase in importance in the year ahead to maximize your reach across Google’s evolving search landscape and beyond.

Back To Basics: Creative-First Advertising

Today, we have so many channels to manage that it’s easy for things to become disconnected. What holds it together? A creative idea.

If your campaigns lack a coherent, consistent creative concept, your campaigns will not perform.

Sometimes, we get so caught up in the platform choices we forget about the message we’re trying to get out through them.

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With the advent of generative AI, I think creativity will be a key differentiating factor for successful campaigns. Starting with a strategy, then a creative concept should always come before media planning.

This serves as a golden thread – a compelling creative idea that ties all your marketing and advertising activities together and helps you stand out from the crowd.


AI-Powered Campaigns Deliver A Future Where Marketers Can Spend Less Time On Optimization

Corey Morris, President/CEO, Voltage

Corey MorrisCorey Morris

AI-generated content is not going away anytime soon and is inevitably making its way into AI-powered ad campaigns in 2024.

AI can craft descriptions, headlines, and ad copy tailored to your client’s campaign objectives, resulting in effective, personalized content.

This personalization is possible because AI can understand user behavior patterns and apply experimentation and winning results to campaigns in real time.

You can monitor and manage your client’s campaign performance in real-time, ensuring that your campaigns perform relative to your goals.

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Performance Max Campaigns

Performance Max campaigns will now utilize machine learning and artificial intelligence technology more thoroughly in 2024.

Performance Max campaigns, following search campaigns, are subjectively one of the most effective ways to reach a broader audience and achieve a higher return on investment.

Google now offers the option to upgrade various campaigns, including dynamic search ads and display campaigns to Performance Max campaigns.

Some current benefits of transitioning to Performance Max campaigns include:

1. Increasing creative assets.

The benefit of Performance Max campaigns utilizing your creative assets allows search engines to properly convert your search ad to best fit the intended user base on their search queries.

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Creative assets will now have more flexibility when changing any text in your ad copy.

2. Implementing inventory-based ads.

When your product data feed is connected to a Performance Max campaign, your ads will now function based on the inventory you have left in stock.

This can be a huge time-saving benefit because you won’t have to manually examine your product inventory amount.

The upgrades to Performance Max campaigns will ultimately lead to a higher usage rate with advertisers.


Automate Campaigns, Not Strategies: What Are You Doing & Why?

Tim Jensen, Sr. Search Marketing Specialist, M&T Bank

Tim JensenTim Jensen

As PPC managers move forward in a world of increasingly automated, “done for you” campaigns, fully understanding the concerns and goals of your client/boss will help set you ahead.

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This is not an excuse for not staying up-to-date with current ad platform functionality, but it’s too easy to drift into a “plug-and-play” mentality with the direction in which the PPC world is headed.

Setting up a conversion pixel is relatively easy these days (in many cases), but ask yourself why you are tracking that conversion, and how it ties into the business goals the company ultimately cares about.

Churning out 15 responsive search ad headlines is easier with AI, but will those stand out in the search engine results page (SERP) against creatively brainstormed headlines that speak to the heart of the customer’s needs?

Generating a list of keywords can be as simple as plugging a URL or a couple of seed phrases into Keyword Planner, but are those the most relevant terms that ideal customers are searching for?

On the positive side, increased automation in platforms has reduced the need for constant hands-on tweaking, such as in bid management. This frees up more time you can spend keeping the lines of communication open with the stakeholders you answer to.

Take some time in 2024 to think through how you can better understand stakeholder goals, and how to tie in your targeting, creative, and bidding approach to best meet those objectives.

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Expect Less Campaign Control – Find Exciting New Ways To Spend Your Time

Lauren Weisel, Director of SEM, Media.Monks

PPC Experts On AI In PPC: Potential & LimitationsPPC Experts On AI In PPC: Potential & Limitations

One major theme of 2023 has been automation, and I expect this to continue well into 2024.

Google continues to roll out campaign types that are heavily automated and give less control to marketers, starting with Performance Max and, most recently, with the launch of Demand Gen.

As Performance Max has evolved over the years, we see many cases where this automated campaign type works incredibly well.

With the recent rollout of Demand Gen campaigns, I suspect Google will continue to move toward either expanding these campaigns’ coverage, or rolling out more automated campaign types.

As Google continues to emphasize these automated campaign types, I expect the percentage of account spends on these campaign types to increase, as well. And beyond this, who knows!

There could be a world where traditional search campaigns as we know them sunset completely, but that’s merely a hypothesis.

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Speaking of traditional search campaigns, I’m also seeing a reduction in control with the emphasis on broad match with auto-bidding this year.

While many clients were skeptical of this new match type, it’s working quite well for many advertisers.

While still available, I’m also seeing less account spend go towards phrase match keywords, and many times without any performance losses for client accounts.

From an account structure standpoint, this rollout has, in a way, been a catalyst for campaign consolidation – a far cry from the SKAG structure I was taught early on in my career.

This reduction in control that advertisers are experiencing within Google will shift how search marketers work.

However, as I reflect on my career as a search marketer, I can point to other industry shifts that seemed huge at the time, but truly freed up time to expand my skillsets.

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I remember when auto-bidding strategies first came on the scene. What would I do with all my time freed up from daily bid adjustments? As automation evolved, marketers shifted how we spent our days (and thankfully, there was plenty of other work to be done).

As control becomes limited in the evolution of Google Ads, search marketers will need to become more creative with strategies to ensure that we continue to move search programs forward with the levers we can pull.

While automated, these campaigns shouldn’t be approached with a “set it and forget it” mindset.

It is a privilege to be able to educate clients and guide them in this ever-changing search landscape. There are so many testing and learning opportunities on the near horizon.

The search landscape has certainly changed a lot, especially over the past year.

While all this automation may seem scary, we must embrace automation to stay ahead of the curve. I suspect we’ll see the trajectory of automation continue to accelerate during the next year.

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Not only is this a hot topic in the search space, but in our culture as a whole. I look forward to all of the automation developments 2024 has in store for search marketers.


Searcher Intent & Audiences Are A Complex Human Formula

Lisa Raehsler, Founder And SEM Strategy Consultant, Big Click Co.

Lisa RaehslerLisa Raehsler

While AI and automation are always hot topics – and the technology advancements amazingly helpful – in 2024, connecting with the customer will be key.

Many advertisers will get away from this by buying into the fast and easy option: Allowing machines to do the work for their digital advertising.

That’s great for tedious task-oriented optimizations – but human strategy, experience, and even intuition will be critical for success in reaching and converting the right customer.

The pros are already in the know. Searcher intent and audiences are a complex human formula advertisers should focus on.

Societal culture, economic conditions, and political concerns change rapidly. Messaging targeting people who experience evolving needs and pain points should take center focus.

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More resources: 


Featured Image: Paulo Bobita/Search Engine Journal

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7 Changes Marketers Should Make

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7 Changes Marketers Should Make

Paid media’s main job is to increase visibility and drive traffic for your brand.

And as digital marketing evolves, so, too, will your strategy.

In the current state of paid, the main overarching theme is, you guessed it, AI and machine learning.

As paid media platforms get smarter and constantly find ways to infuse AI into campaign workflows and optimizations, marketers must find a way to keep up with the platforms.

The other side of the coin is maintaining user privacy all the while trying to use AI effectively.

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So what major changes should you make to your paid media marketing strategy in 2024?

Here are seven changes you should incorporate without a second thought.

1. Review & Revise Google Tags

If you rely on Google tags for conversion tracking, this change should not be ignored.

In January 2024, Google made an update to its Consent Mode for its Google tags, which will, for now, affect any marketers who run ads targeted to users in the European Economic Area (EEA).

This update requires marketers to take action by March 2024 in order to keep using ad personalization and remarketing features in Google Ads.

Simply speaking, the Consent Mode will need to be updated to adjust its tracking behavior based on how a user interacts with a website’s consent banner.

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The two new parameters introduced to Consent Mode are:

  • ad_user_data: This controls whether user data can be sent to Google for advertising purposes.
  • ad_personalization: This controls whether personalized advertising (remarketing) can be enabled for the user.

As privacy measures continue to become stricter in the United States, it would not be surprising if this becomes required for US advertisers in the somewhat near future.

Keep in mind that in 2024, we’ll have to get comfortable being uncomfortable with imperfect data because of privacy regulations.

2. Make Influencers Part Of Your Marketing Model

Small and large influencers alike are an awesome resource at your fingertips, just as long as your audiences align.

Even brands with a few thousand followers can utilize influencer marketing to make a big difference and gain traction in the market.

Go on a hunt to find the top influencers in your space. Then, figure out the cost per acquisition (CPA) for working with each of them (because you have to court influencers, especially the bigger ones).

From there, you can create a win-win partnership that gets you more leads while the influencer earns income.

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Pro Tip: You can use influencer marketing tools to help you in your journey to integrate core influencers into your business model. Some of the most popular include AspireIQ, BuzzSumo, Upfluence, and NeoReach.
Whichever you choose, make sure the influencers you find are big enough to provide real value to your brand — and that you’re paying a CPA that makes sense for your budget and overall goals.

3. Strategic Audience Management On Multiple Platforms

2024 is the year to nail your audience management strategy, both from a holistic perspective and within each encapsulated platform.

That means before building your audiences, you need to understand at a high level who your target customer is.

Further, identify what platforms those types of user-profiles spend their time on.

Once you’ve identified your ideal target customer, then it’s time for the first step in this process:

Building audiences.

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From there, you must set up a strategy to target folks within every stage of the funnel – from upper to lower – and decide which networks make the most sense for the different audience cohorts.

Perhaps the most crucial part of this process is analyzing and refreshing your audiences as the year goes on.

You should definitely plan on retargeting and testing new audiences throughout the year.

If you fail to incorporate this part, you run the risk of targeting the wrong sector of people, ultimately throwing money down the proverbial drain.

However, if you retarget and refresh your approach, you’re bound to find a dynamic audience that correlates with your vision.

In the end, audience management alone can be worth its weight in gold.

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4. Prepare For Video Content Dominance

You’ve likely heard this phrase before in marketing: content is king.

With a slight tweak for 2024, the new hot phrase should be: video content is king.

Not only is video taking over social platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat, but it’s also asserting its dominance in YouTube Ads. YouTube Shorts, the platform’s short-form video offering, is booming.

With this new form of video comes a new ad format: vertical video ads.

Not only should marketers focus on video marketing in general – 2024 is the year to get more sophisticated with video strategy.

Marketers should prioritize creating engaging and high-quality video content that’s appropriate for each platform on which it will be delivered.

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If the thought of creating video content for multiple platforms scares you, just remember that a little goes a long way.

Start by creating evergreen content about your brand and test those with different lengths.

These can be used and recycled on multiple platforms and can be used for organic and paid video content simultaneously.

Just remember to create a variety so that your users don’t see the same message or content on the same platforms, which can reduce the effectiveness of video marketing.

5. Don’t Sleep On Microsoft Ads

Microsoft Ads continues to enhance its advertising platform year after year.

Not only does it have many of the same coveted features as Google Ads, but it has added features that are unique to the platform.

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As a marketing professional, your brand will surely benefit from digging into it more in 2024.

Some of the most notable updates Microsoft Ads launched in the last twelve months include:

  • Video and CTV ads: Microsoft unveiled these new ad types on its platform in September of 2023. Advertisers can choose from online video ads or connected TV ads that are non-skippable while a user is streaming content. This gives advertisers big and small a leg up on what once used to be a very complicated process of buying TV ads.
  • Three new generative AI solutions: Also announced in September 2023, Microsoft came out with three new AI features to help grow and scale. These include Compare & Decide ads, ads for Chat API, and Copilot campaign creation.
  • Data-driven attribution reporting: Gone are the days of last-click measurement! Microsoft Ads enhanced its UET tagging solution and implemented data-driven attributing modeling. It uses machine learning to calculate the actual contributions of each ad interaction.

While Microsoft still holds a lower share of the available search engines, just remember that you’re leaving a whole slew of potential customers behind by not considering this underestimated ad platform.

6. Focus On Optimizing The User Experience

Between a mix of shorter human attention spans and limited marketing budgets, every interaction and website experience counts.

If you find that your pre-sale metrics are favorable – such as high engagement or high CTR – but never result in a sale, you likely don’t have an ad problem. You have a user experience problem.

In 2024, consumers expect more from brands, especially if they’re spending their hard-earned money with that company.

Ask yourself, when was the last time you sat down and went through your website’s checkout process through the lens of a customer?

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If you’re not sure where to start on optimizing your website experience for users, here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Use tools like Hot Jar or User Testing to get real-life analytics of how your customers are interacting and what their pain points are.
  • Review the website landscape on desktop and mobile. While this may be a no-brainer, many websites still forget to optimize for mobile!
  • Make sure that any relevant call-to-actions (CTAs) are above the fold – yes, on mobile, too!
  • Check your site speed.

These are items that should continuously be monitored and not a “set and forget,” which unfortunately happens quite a bit.

Optimizing the website user experience can have a positive impact on those paid media campaigns and can make those dollars go further in the future.

7. Use AI Tools To Your Advantage

Let’s face it: Machine learning and AI aren’t going anywhere.

For marketing leaders, 2024 really is the time to lean into its advantages instead of running away from the inevitable advances.

It’s not a question of whether to use AI or not. It’s a matter of how to use AI to your advantage.

While companies are tightening their budgets and scaling back staff, PPC marketers are constantly being asked to do more with less.

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This is where AI comes in.

In fact, using AI can strengthen your ROI for paid media campaigns of all kinds (whatever channel you prefer).

Just make sure you don’t sacrifice your brand’s personality for a little efficiency.

One way you can do this is with Google’s generated AI assets (currently in beta). Using its Gemini-powered AI solution, the tool allows for more streamlined campaign creation and generated ad assets, including images, headlines, and descriptions for ads, and more.

Additionally, you’re likely already using one of Google’s Smart Bidding strategies to automate the bidding process.

With a combination of creativity and machine learning, your ads have the potential to go farther than ever before.

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Your 2024 Plan Should Not Be Static

If the past year(s) have taught us anything in marketing, it’s to be fluid.

In some cases, tactics that used to be tried and true are now more volatile than ever.

Take advantage of advances in AI to boost your strategic advantage, and keep in mind platforms that you’ve typically shied away from – the time may come to incorporate them into your 2024 strategy.

What changes are you most excited to try this year?

More resources:


Featured Image: Sutthiphong Chandaeng/Shutterstock

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