Google has been known to change their logo in fun, surprising ways for their Google Doodles, but major changes to the actual search engine results page (SERP) occur far less often. That’s why their recent decision to remove ads from the right-hand side of their desktop SERPs is making big news.
What exactly did they change? By removing ads from the right side of the results pages, they’ve decreased the maximum amount of ads you can see from eleven all the way down to seven. This means fewer clicks for folks who advertise on these pages who aren’t in one of the top three or four paid positions -- and a potential impact on organic traffic for competitive auctions.
In response to this change, marketers are asking: Does it impact organic search -- and if so, how? How does it influence advertising? What can marketers do about the changes?
First, let’s go over what exactly Google changed and why they changed it, and then we’ll dig into the answers to these questions.
The Change: Before vs. After
Before this big change, Google search ads used to show up in three places: above, below, and to the right of organic search results.
Now, with the recent changes, they’ve removed one of those three ad locations altogether: the one on the right side of the search engine results page.
In some cases, they also may increase the number of ads that appear above the organic search results from three to four. This only happens for what Google is calling “highly commercial queries,” which is when Google is confident a user’s intention is to make a purchase.
The ads that appear below search organic results will stay put, and aren’t affected by the change. Product Listing Ads (PLAs), though, may still stick around on the right-hand side.
Here’s an example of what a SERP looks like now:
Why Did Google Make This Change?
This move does a couple of things for Google. Mainly, it creates a cleaner user experience when someone completes a search.
The overwhelming majority of paid clicks also come from ads above organic results. By eliminating the right-side ads from the SERP, Google is able to clean up the page without removing a frequently used ad unit.
Will This Impact Marketers' Organic Results?
Yes it will -- although it’s hard to say how exactly. While fewer ads could increase organic traffic, a fourth ad above organic results could also push results down the page to a point that lowers traffic.
When you consider that the further down a result appears in SERPs, the lower the clickthrough rate it receives, it’s reasonable for us to assume there’s going to be a negative impact on organic traffic.
While some users are savvy to ads, they’re becoming more and more like organic listings -- the only thing differentiating them is the small yellow “Ad” label that can be easily missed.
It’s also important to remember that this is one of many significant changes to the SERPs in the past few years. The introduction of the Featured Snippet and Knowledge Graph results created even more distractions from the traditional blue links that represent organic results. As marketers, you should be paying attention to the types of results that are being displayed in SERPs for keywords that you’re trying to rank organically for so that you can provide content that’s formatted optimally.
This is something we’ll be keeping our eye on. Regardless of the result, the need for great content and a smart keyword strategy is more important than ever.
What Can Marketers & Advertisers Do About These Changes?
Less ads above the fold mean it’s going to be harder to maintain the same amount of impressions and clicks you’re used to. It could also mean higher CPCs as bidding wars happen for those coveted top spots. If you’re bidding in a competitive auction and aren’t willing or able to achieve positions one through four you may want to ask yourself if those keywords are worth your time at all.
If you want to stay on course through these changes, here's what we suggest:
1) Review how your ads appear in Google’s SERPs.
If you currently have live Google search campaigns preview your new results by navigating to the Tools tab and then clicking on “Ad Preview and Diagnosis”. Here you can review search results by location, language, device and domain. To learn more about how to use this tool, read these instructions from Google.
2) Review your average position in search results for a given keyword.
Keep in mind that to maintain high impressions and clicks on your ads, you’ll need an average position higher than three or four depending on the keyword. If you’re lower than three or four you’ll be pushed below organic results or worse, the "no man’s land" known as the second page results. You can find the “Avg. Pos.” metric in the Keywords tab of AdWords.
3) Increase your average position in search results for relevant keywords.
There are two main ways to increase your average position: increase your bid, or improve your Quality Score. Google determines Ad Rank based on your bid vs. the competition, everyone else bidding on that keyword, as well as Quality Score, which is based on how relevant your ad and landing page are to the search term that triggered the results. To move up fast, increase your bid and quality score.
While it’s a good idea to aim for those top spots, you shouldn’t necessarily feel pressure to achieve number one. Too high of a bid, and the resulting clicks may generate less profit for your business than the ads cost. This is bad. Always use CPA (Cost per Acquisition or Conversion) as your trump metric. Focusing on this over position or CTR will keep your campaigns profitable as you bid for those top spots. Conversion metrics always win over click metrics.
Google is pretty deliberate with these kinds of changes and consults a mountain of data before doing so. We expect the change to stick and for Google to focus on the user above all else.
And remember, these changes have made it even more important that you’re optimizing for the top organic spot, as well as the Knowledge Graph. While ad real estate being removed from the right side could seem like a good move for marketers focused on organic search, it could also have the impact of moving organic results further down the page. Those with a top organic spot, or a spot in the Knowledge Graph, will have a better shot at those organic clickthroughs than anyone else.
What do you think about Google's decision to remove right-side ads? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Originally published Feb 25, 2016 9:00:00 AM, updated February 01 2017