Google Removes Right-Column Ads from Desktop Search

Hang on, here we go again: Google has officially removed AdWords ads from appearing on the right-hand side of its search engine results pages (SERPs) for desktop searches, a change with potentially far-reaching consequences for businesses, marketers, advertisers and users alike.

The change, which became effective on February 19, means ads will only appear at the top- and bottom-of-the-SERP, but the number of ads at the top will increase from three to four for highly-commercial queries, where Google is confident of the users’ intention to make a purchase, such as car insurance searches or hotel inquiries, such as hotels in New York City.

Additionally, the desktop result changes will include the following:

  • Text ads will no longer appear on the right rail of desktop search results.
  • Three text ads will show at the bottom of SERPs.
  • The total number of text ads that can appear on a SERP will be reduced from as many as 11 to a max of seven.
  • Product listing ad blocks and Knowledge Panels (sometimes with ads, as testing is slated to continue) will show in the right rail on relevant queries.
  • The changes were rolled out permanently across the world on Google.com and its search partners. (1)

Reactions have been mixed, and this latest iteration from Google has its fans as well as detractors. We share a few from different industry sources below before weighing in with our own.

Why the Change?

The immediate effect of the change — worryingly so, for some — is that the above-the-fold space will now be filled entirely with ads to the exclusion of organic search results. On the upside, more organic results will now appear below the fold, but this may still be a case of too-little, too-low-down. (2)

The controversial move has fueled a good deal of speculation, and would be easy to take the short-term view that Google’s decision was commercially-driven, and that revenue enhancements were top of mind since right-hand side ads don’t perform as well as ads at the top — indeed, it may be naïve not to consider this to be a factor — and some have gone farther, saying Google may have diminished the value of organic search for businesses and users alike.

But others, like BlueGlass Managing Director Kevin Gibbons, maintain that the jury is still out, as time will surely tell: “The obvious answer is revenue and I’m sure that is a big factor, of course. But I think it’s likely to be a balance between this and a more modern- and perhaps centered-search experience, which reflects mobile versus desktop and tablet results. Ultimately, changes like this have to be beneficial to the search experience, otherwise Google ends up chasing short-term revenue instead of long-term market share.” (3)

Was This A Sudden, About-Face Change?

The change took place officially on Feb. 19, but Google has been toying with the idea of removing side ads since 2012, and first started experimenting with four ads above organic search results on mortgage queries back in 2010.

What’s more, the change will have no effect on Product Listing Ads and Ad Tests In Knowledge Panels. Knowledge Panel testing has appeared on the results pages for certain entity queries, including some car queries in 2013 and then 2014 to music, movies and books in 2014, Search Engine Land has pointed out, and the status of current and future tests to Knowledge Panels will not be affected by the decision to remove right rail ads.

Google will also continue current testing with Product Listing Ad layouts where, as recently as last month, an expandable PLA block was discovered that displayed 16 PLAs above the fold on desktop searches when expanded.

What’s The Net Effect for Marketers and Search Artists?

The new SERP layout changes have the potential to impact organic traffic for competitive auctions and is likely to increase cost-per-click (CPC) budgets for the top 3 or 4 positions, marketers should note. We’ll see less inventory of the long-tail efficiency strategy of maximizing traffic by lowering CPCs and capturing traffic in ad positions 5 through 7 and, consequently, many established bid algorithms and tools will need to be adjusted to account for this new behavior.

As marketers, this applies particularly to clients where we have numerous budget- capped campaigns, and where we’ve reduced CPCs and positions to maximize impression-share and haven’t necessarily targeted the top-of-page positions.

Desktop search results will now be similar to mobile, so it will be important to note the exceptions Google might make in the near future to more fully utilize this real estate for Knowledge Graph content, which will soon start integrating ads.

At BFO, we’re conducting a kind of inventory check for our clients to make sure we stay the course, such as reviewing how ads appear in Google SERPs. To check live Google search campaigns you can preview your new results by navigating to the Tools tab and clicking on Ad Preview and Diagnosis, where you can review search results by location, language, device and domain. Next, we study trends in the data with a formal data review to gauge the potential impact of the change. We pull a few reports to see if traffic has been affected, focusing on desktop versus mobile splits, before pulling a top-of-page report to see how the number of impressions might have been affected. Then we’ll do some pre-versus post-impression share reports, looking for any shifts or trends in the data. We also think it’s important to review average search result positions for each keyword. An average position higher than three or four is required to maintain high impressions, depending on the keyword. Anything lower now pushes you to second-page results. The Avg. Pos. metric can be referenced in the Keywords tab of AdWords. Finally, we look to increase average search result positions for relevant keywords. For example, you can move up fast by increasing your bid or improving your Quality Score. Google’s Ad Rank is based on your bid versus the competition, on others who are bidding on a keyword, and on Quality Score, which is a determination of how relevant your ad and landing page are in relation to the search term that caused the results to happen. (4)

Wait-And-See?

Ultimately, a wait-and-see attitude may be the wisest way to proceed at this point, since there are still so many unknowns in terms of traffic and CPCs. We’ll need to see what the numbers tell us and react accordingly.

Already, columnist Larry Kim has cited several data points that may allay concerns. He argues that the change is a net positive for paid desktop search and PPC marketers, citing WordStream customer data (thousands of accounts across all industries) to determine that side and bottom ads account for only 14.6 percent of total clicks.

He goes on to cite data for UK clients, where ads in the top positions received 14-times-higher click-through rates than the same ads using the same keyword on the right side.

Next, Kim reminds us that the SERP changes only impact desktop search, which accounts for less than half of all searches — or 7.3 percent of queries — and that AdWords will continue to be visible at the bottom of SERPS. So, he argues, the change will actually impact far less than 7.3 percent of clicks.

Kim concludes: “Really, with the addition of the fourth ad spot, and up to three ads appearing below the organic search results, it’s like we just reorganized the naming of ad positions. According to Moz, two-thirds of SERPs still have fewer than four ads above the organic results, so there’s plenty of room to offset those lost impressions and clicks.”

There are other noteworthy incremental benefits for PPC marketers too, where ads can now use call-out extensions, sitelink extensions, location extensions, something that only top-of-the-page ads could do previously. (5)

The Way Forward

So there you go — hey, there’s never a dull moment in search marketing!

The net effects of this change are unknown at this point, but we believe smarter advertisers will remain on top by watching closely and adjusting quickly.

Now for some bold predictions:

  • Larger advertisers will gain increased traction, as smaller advertisers are unable to compete for top positions.
  • Arbitrage in search will become even harder as less remnant inventory at lower CPCs becomes available.
  • CPCs will gradually increase as advertisers on Google AdWords bid for keywords and targeted placement/positioning of their ads.
  • Many SEM programs will need to focus on winning for a smaller set of keywords, as the budget-optimization technique of lowering CPCs to maximize clicks will now hit the drop-off point more quickly.
  • Google will find new ways of using and monetizing the whitespace on desktop searches (Surprise! Bet you didn’t see that one coming. We had to dig deep to come up with that one).

Oh yeah: And, as usual, we’ll still be sitting here, twiddling our thumbs and waiting for what’s next…

Sources:
 1. Marvin, Ginny. FAQ: All About The Changes To Google’s Ad Layout On Desktop Search Results, Search Engine Land, Feb. 22, 2016 (Accessed Feb. 25, 2016): http://searchengineland.com/243057-243057
 2. & 3., Ratcliff , Christopher. Google kills Right Hand Side Ads: what does this mean for marketers and users? Search Engine Watch, Feb. 23, 2016 (Accessed Feb. 25, 2016) https://searchenginewatch.com/2016/02/23/google-kills-right-hand-side-ads-what-does-this-mean-for-sem/
 4. Andrews, Marcus. Google’s Removing Right-Side Ads, But How Will It Impact Organic Search Results? Feb. 25, 2016 (Accessed Feb. 25, 2016): http://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/google-removes-right-side-ads
 5. Kim, Larry. Google’s New SERP Layout: The Biggest Winners & Losers, Feb. 24, 2016 (Accessed Feb. 25, 2016): http://searchengineland.com/googles-new-serp-layout-4-biggest-winners-losers-based-data-243292?utm_campaign=socialflow&utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social


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