The news is officially out and change is here. Google no longer shows ads on the right hand side of desktop search engine result pages (SERPS). Go ahead, test it out and see for yourself. You will notice 3-4 ads at the top of the page (currently 4 for “highly commercial” search terms, i.e. “golf clubs”), organic results pushed below-the-fold, and 3-4 ads at the bottom of the page (previously 2). Google will continue to show Product Listing Ads (PLAs) and “knowledge graph boxes” on the right side of the SERP. This worldwide change is certain to affect the way users react and click on search results and how businesses, advertisers and SEM/SEO experts execute their search strategy. Whether this is a positive or negative impact for advertisers and users will depend on several factors and is really yet to be known, however, there are many opinions and theories. It is hard to believe Google would roll something out like this without doing any extensive behind-the-scenes testing and believing it could improve the user experience and, let’s be honest, their revenue. There are many different questions that can be asked about this change and different angles to look at them, so let’s tackle a couple.
How does this impact organic listings and SEO efforts?
The most obvious and arguably the most important negative impact this change has is the apparent death of above-the-fold organic results. Businesses and website owners striving for top-of-page organic results will now have a tougher time competing against top paid ads as well as each other. The only good news for SEO fans is that the ratio of organic listings compared to paid listings has actually improved when you look at the entire page. You could also argue that there is a higher chance below-the-fold listings will be clicked on since there are no side ads to distract the user (other than PLAs and knowledge graphs). Some experts are saying that if you cannot compete in the top 3-4 ad positions, or utilize PLAs, then you may be better off putting a bigger focus on SEO. If you do, make sure your rank for “highly commercial” keywords stands out above the competition.
How does this impact paid search efforts?
Some initial reactions and predictions from this major change had paid search marketers panicking, unsure about how this could potentially spike CPCs and CPAs, and increase competition for top spots. Negative descriptors like cutthroat, ugly, and battleground have been used. However, most experts are not worried and believe this will have a positive effect on paid search ads. Larry Kim, founder of Wordstream, sees no negative impact on AdWords auction metrics for several reasons. According to his research across thousands of accounts, right hand side ads and bottom ads account for only 14.6% of total click volume. And bottom ads didn’t go away, in fact, one to two more spots were added. These lost impressions and clicks from right hand side ads can also be made up for with the new fourth top ad spot. Furthermore, 78% of SERPS have 3 top ads above organic results, so there is plenty of room for that to decrease in the future. This change is also only related to desktop searches, which is less than half of total searches across devices, which means it is really only affecting 7.3% of total click volume.
Google removed the right hand side ads for good reasons. Among the reasons were the fact that these ads had poor CTRs anyway. Sidebar ads clearly stood out as ads, users noticed and often avoided them. The new paid ad positions blend in with organic search results well, especially for non-technical users who, eye tracking studies actually show, don’t realize they are clicking on ads. Streamlining the desktop experience with the current mobile experience will also improve the user experience. Another benefit is that now all paid ads have the capability to show sitelink, call, location, and other extensions, which makes the ad more informative and clickable. Before the change, extensions were only allowed for top-of-page ads.
In the end, the real estate of paid search ads has improved at the expense of top organic spots, the biggest loser. There are more organic listings overall, but the user experience has improved greatly with ads blended in and extensions for all ads. While right hand side ads are removed all together, this change only affects desktop searches with the biggest effect occurring “highly commercial” search terms currently receiving the additional top ad spot. Questions still remain whether Google has gone too far and how far they are willing to go with their SERPs. Will they gradually sprinkle more ads in organic results? Will they include the fourth top position on all search terms? Only time will tell.