New Google SERP layout: It’s Not Right

A recent Search Engine Land article announced that Google is reshaping the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) for desktop devices.

The change means that text ads no longer appear on the right hand side of the SERPs:

Google removes ads from the right hand side of search results pages


Google will now provide up to 4 ad placements above the organic search results for “highly commercial queries”, with further ad placements at the bottom of the page.

All text ads will now appear in a single column.

Google have indicated in a response to the Search Engine Land article that there will be two exceptions; Shopping ad units, aka Product Listing ads, will continue to appear on the right hand side, as will ads in the Knowledge panel:

Shopping Ads and Knowledge Panel ads will continue to feature in the right hand side

This is a huge move by Google. You can be certain that Google have thoroughly tested the impact of these changes over a long period of time.

Ultimately Google have three parties to serve with this change:

  1. Google searchers. Google must ensure that end users are receiving a better search experience
  2. Adwords advertisers. Google must ensure that advertisers continue to find value in Adwords
  3. Google shareholders. Google need to keep investors happy. Keeping end users and advertisers happy is crucial for delivering to investors

How is this move better for Google Searchers?

You don’t have to travel far to find a person who says they hate ads. This reddit discussion illustrates some of the general user attitudes regarding advertising in the Google SERPs.

While some claims are questionable (as a marketer you’ve probably heard someone claim “I never click on ads”) the fact is that people hate bad ads – ads that don’t answer the question, that are irrelevant or generally insult our intelligence.

In Google search results, thanks to Quality Score, bad ads tend to end up in the right hand side / bottom positions. Good ads, even when they have lower bids, tend to get promoted into higher ad positions.

The single column format will also help to simplify the choices for the end user. It is faster and easier for the human eye to scan a single column for relevant results. As Google’s AMP initiative demonstrates, speed is critical for the happiness of end users.

The similarity to the single column format on Mobile SERPs also helps to make the cross device experience more consistent for Google’s users.

In removing right hand side ads Google are effectively tightening quality control for the end user. Weaker ads will either fall to the bottom of the page or drop out of the listings altogether.
We’ll see fewer poorly written or downright irrelevant ads cluttering up our screens. The ads that we do notice will represent the most useful ads in the Adwords auction.

How is this move better for Adwords advertisers?

There has been considerable reaction from many advertisers concerned that CPCs will go up, that the change will favour rivals with larger budgets, that many advertisers will lose click volumes and that small businesses will not be able to compete.

In my opinion, none of these fears are founded.

In terms of click volumes, it is already very difficult to attract traffic outside of the top 3 ad positions.

Latitude data for January 2016 – sampled from over 70 million ad impressions in multiple verticals and territories – shows that only 9% of desktop clicks go to Ads that are not in the top positions:

Adwords Desktop Click Share: Top vs Other Ad Positions

For comparison, the relative desktop click share is very different on search partner networks, with 27% of clicks coming from lower ad positions. Search partner websites (such as Amazon, Ebay, Gumtree) however will not be affected by the change:

Search Partner Ads: Click share for top ads vs other positions

There is no need for PPC advertisers to panic. In a worst case scenario an advertiser occupying the lower ad positions in Google search would see only minimal traffic losses. Only 9% of Adwords desktop clicks come from lower ad positions. According to Latitude data for January 2016 desktop clicks account for only 30% of paid search clicks (60% of clicks are mobile and 10% tablet – both of these devices already use the single column SERP layout).

So that’s roughly 2.7% of total paid search clicks that actually stand to be affected by this change.

In addition, with top ad spots increasing from 3 to 4 for highly commercial queries, advertisers now have a better chance to access the top placements.

Those currently occupying ad position 4 will benefit from a more prominent ad position and will also benefit from the ad extensions that will start to show with their ads. These advertisers should see higher CTRs as they move from the side into the top-of-page placements.

Advertisers in positions 5 to 7 may see drops in CTRs. This impact however will be mitigated to some extent as ads appearing at the bottom of the SERPs now benefit from ad extensions.

In my experience ad extensions reliably provide a significant boost to CTR. The impact of ad extensions for bottom of page ads might be just enough to offset the disadvantage of appearing lower down the page:

Adwords ad extensions for bottom of page ads

In summary, PPC advertisers should not worry, providing that ads have been carefully written, are highly relevant and feature all of the ad extensions that a customer might find useful.

How is this move better for Google Shareholders?

A cleaner, more streamlined service for end users; one more ad in the revenue-driving top ad positions; more page real estate (thanks to ad extensions) for ads in positions 5 – 7, all following an extensive period of testing… Surely this all adds up to improved revenues for Google Shareholders. From a Shareholder’s perspective, what’s not to like?

Winners and Losers

Winning: PPC advertisers in ad positions 1 – 4 should be the clear winners here; ads in positions 5-7 no longer appear above the fold, reducing the visible competition for the top four advertisers.

Ad position 4 in particular should benefit from the CTR enhancing ad extensions that now accompany the ad (providing of course that the advertiser has enabled ad extensions).

Losing: The obvious PPC losers are advertisers in ad positions 8-11, who are now relegated to the second page of results. As our data shows, these ads were unlikely to have been receiving substantial volumes of traffic anyway.

Organic traffic for transactional queries is likely to suffer most.

The number of organic links on the SERPs has reduced from 10 to 9 to make space for the extra PPC ad at the top of the page. This means one organic advertiser will fall off page one, while the other 9 organic advertisers will see their links pushed one spot down the page.

On smaller screens (and depending on screen settings) it’s possible that searchers will now see zero organic links above the first fold. Even on larger screens many search queries will see at least one organic link shuffled down below the fold.

The threat to organic traffic is slightly mitigated by the reduced competition from the sidebar ads. Organic links that were appearing below the fold before the SERPs format change now have no competition from the right hand side:

Organic links below the fold now have less competition from PPC ads

In summary:

Any major change in Google search results pages is going to be met with fear, uncertainty and doubt from advertisers, since the search giant is such an important traffic source for most websites.

In my personal experience, the winning advertisers are generally the ones who adapt and evolve most quickly.

The winning PPC advertisers will be the ones who monitor the impact of the changes at keyword level and take appropriate actions:

  1. Ad position reviews; identify which keywords & ads might be at risk of falling off the first page; review bids if CPA/ROI targets allow; can quality score optimisation help to improve average ad position, as opposed to simply raising bids?
  2. Ad extension healthcheck; extensions have suddenly become important for ads outside the top 3 spots. Are extensions such as sitelinks, callouts & structured snippets applied to all keywords in all campaigns?
  3. Use impression share reports and combine insights with the recently introduced click share reporting columns. Review performance over time. Has click share dropped or improved? Identify what has changed and what can be done to make the most of the situation

The winning SEO advertisers will be the ones who diversify. The recent developments in the SERPs layout are the latest chapter in a long running trend of PPC ads expanding into what was previously organic space. We can’t expect a reversal of fortunes for SEO advertisers on Google. SEO marketers should continue with sensible strategies such as:

  1. Diversification of target keywords. The extra PPC ad at the top of the page (currently) only exists for “highly commercial” queries. In Google’s own “micro moments” framework these are the “I want to buy” queries. There is less PPC competition for the “I want to know” and “I want to go” queries. Which keywords in these top-of-funnel categories offer traffic potential?
  2. Diversification of search engine strategies. Think beyond Google – do other search engines offer opportunities to replace any lost traffic from Google?
  3. Diversification of platforms and going beyond search. For example do social media channels offer easier opportunities to find customers at the top of the purchase funnel?

What do you think?

There is a huge range of opinion and debate in the digital marketing community about this topic. Only time (and data) will tell the winners from the losers.

In the meantime tell us what you think about the change – what advice and guidance would you offer to SEO and PPC advertisers coping with this challenge?

February 24, 2016|

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