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Google no longer showing ads on the right of its search results

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[/vc_raw_html][text_output]As of Friday the 19th of February 2016, PPC ads down the right hand side of Google SERPs are being phased out.

No official announcement has come from Google yet but this is pretty major news. The SEM world is understandably buzzing with stories about it.

At Croud, we regularly notice subtle changes as Google experiments with their search results and this one has been on the radar for some time. But just as everybody was packing up for the weekend on Friday, this bombshell dropped. Rumour has it that this change is both global and permanent.

The big questions now are what does this change look like, why have Google done it and how will it affect advertisers? Let’s start by looking at the landscape.

This screenshot shows desktop results for the search query ‘bank accounts’:

Bank account search

For a financial product search, where there will be no shopping results, that big white space on the right-hand side is pretty imposing. What stands out even more though is the one (and a bit) organic result and the distinct lack of natural listings above the fold.

Scroll below the fold and we can see that the amount of paid listings has increased to 3. This means from now on we’ll be looking at no more than 7 PPC ads on the SERP:

Bank screenshot

Carrying out a few searches for more retail focused products throws shopping ads into the mix, meaning that huge white space at the top of the page now contains up to 8 shopping results:

Shopping results ad

So why has Google made this change? There are likely a few reasons for it. My initial thoughts are because mobile is, and has been for a long time, a huge focus for Google. This change brings the look and feel of desktop results much more in line with the mobile experience. It also gives much more prominence to shopping results, which are a huge volume driver for retailers.

The question now is what does this mean for our clients and other advertisers? The implications could be huge. There are a lot of things to consider, so I’ve broken down my initial thoughts. Some are positive; some not so positive:

  • Ads in top of page positions generally achieve a much higher click through rate than the same ads on the same keywords on the right-hand side. They’re directly in the user’s line of sight and much more likely to feature multiple ad extensions. As listings on the right-hand side get clicked at a much lower rate, a lot of the impressions on the right-hand side are wasted. This will ultimately have a negative impact on quality score, so moving ads towards the top rail should have click-through rate and quality score benefits.
  • We’d expect to see much more accurate reporting on average position as there will be less impressions and less regular fluctuation in position for individual keywords.
  • The change could be major impact on how the auction operates. Instead of eleven ads on a page we’ll now see at most seven. More than half the results will appear in the top rail. Expect cost per clicks to increase as advertisers try to maintain impression share and scrap it out for top positions.
  • The impact on quality score and cost per click will need to be monitored. Ads that previously appeared lower down the right-hand side will likely see big drops in traffic as they disappear off the first page. Those that would usually appear in positions 4 or 5 will likely see improvements in click-through rate and quality score. In theory, the improvement in click-through rate and quality score should help reduce cost per click. But with an anticipated increase in bidding activity, the reverse may happen.
  • Longer term, the relationship between PPC and SEO is going to be more important than ever. The majority of above the fold results will now be PPC ads, which isn’t great news for organic results. But if PPC results become more expensive due to higher bids, your SEO will have to work harder than ever before.

Only time will tell what this is going to look like for advertisers from both a cost and conversion point of view. My gut feel is that this will be really positive for some but really damaging for others. SMBs who operate in a competitive space with limited budgets may be forced off the first page of the Google SERP.

How will the impact of this change pan out for SEO marketers?

The driving force behind this is likely the desire to attract as much revenue as possible from a pool of search queries that has started to stabilise, under the aegis of the convenient but understandable logic that design should be mobile-first.

Studies in the past have shown that a significant number of people consciously avoid paid ads and click on organic listings, but Google must have good reason to believe that this latest move will not alienate users – or ‘consumers’, to use a more accurate term here.

The hypocrisy of a company telling webmasters quite forcefully that they should not dedicate a large proportion of their site to ads, only to go and make a move like this themselves, is as worthy of note as it is unsurprising too.

For SEO, marketers will have to monitor CTR very closely to see how much of an impact this has before we act. One potential outcome is that PPC starts to dominate commercial queries more than before, in which case our efforts may move to a different type of query. As a result, a more nuanced understanding of consumer psychology may develop and ‘joined-up’ Search strategies will become even more important than they already are.

On the other hand, people may simply scroll down to organic listings if that’s what they wanted in the first place. The streamlined design with fewer results on the right to distract people may counter-balance the other changes. Time will tell, so we can only monitor things very closely at this stage.

As mentioned elsewhere, the most certain outcome is that co-operation and collaboration between SEO and PPC will grow in importance, as data sharing will be essential and it will make little sense for us or our clients for both teams to chase the same queries.

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