In February, Google changed the layout of its AdWords ads in the search engine results pages (SERPs). That’s going to affect the digital advertising strategy for many companies.
In this article, we’ll take a look at what changed and how it will impact your own online marketing efforts.
What Happened, Anyway?
Once upon a time, if you Googled a keyword or phrase, you might see advertisements related to that search term in the right-hand sidebar of the search results page.
That’s no longer the case.
Also, back in those days, you only saw a maximum of three advertisements at the top of your search results.
That’s no longer the case, either.
Now, the right-hand sidebar ads have disappeared for desktop and laptop users. Of course, they were never there to begin with for mobile device users because there simply wasn’t enough real estate on the screen to support a right-hand sidebar.
Also, you’ll see as many as four advertisements at the top of the search results instead of three. You’ll likely see three ads at the bottom of the page.
The net result is this: there used to be 11 ads on the first page of the Google SERPs. Now, there are only 7.
What About Organic Results?
As of this writing, it doesn’t appear that organic results have changed at all. Google is sticking to its age-old tradition of showing 10 organic results per page.
However, those 10 organic results will be sandwiched between four paid ads on top and three paid ads on the bottom in many cases. Depending on the nature of the search term, Google might also display business listings on top of the first result, but just below the four ads on top.
“Highly Commercial Queries”
If you’ve read anything online about the recent ad layout changes, you’ve probably come across the phrase “highly commercial queries.”
According to a Google spokesperson: “We’ve been testing this layout for a long time, so some people might see it on a very small number of commercial queries. We’ll continue to make tweaks, but this is designed for highly commercial queries where the layout is able to provide more relevant results for people searching and better performance for advertisers.”
What that means is this: people whose queries indicate that they’re in the lower end of the sales funnel (and about to fall down it) will likely see search results in which the top four links are all paid ads.
For example, if you Google “Los Angeles plumbers,” you’ll probably see that the first four results are all ads. That’s because “Los Angeles plumbers” is a search term that’s most likely to be used by people in the Los Angeles area who are looking for a plumber. Therefore, it’s considered a “highly commercial query.”
There still seem to be some kinks in the system, though. For example, if you Google “cheap HDTVs”, you won’t see any paid ads at the top as of this writing. That’s a search term that clearly indicates an intent to purchase, so it’s surprising to say the least. Likewise, the search term “cheap dresses” doesn’t bring up any ads at the top even though it receives almost 50,000 queries a month and only costs $.66 per click right now.
That brings us to our first piece of advice.
Strike While the Iron Is Hot
It’s a good idea to take advantage of great advertising opportunities when this change is still new.
While Google is in a transitional state with its ad layout and other advertisers are figuring out their budgets as well as how much to bid for specific keywords, you might stumble across some search terms that will convert well but don’t offer a lot of competition.
Use Google’s Keyword Planner Tool to unlock keywords that would work well at the top of the SERPs. Then, Google that keyword yourself to see how much competition you face. If it looks like you can fly solo at the top, give the keyword a premium bid and see what happens. You might be able to land a great return on your investment while other advertisers are figuring what they want to do.
Side ads represented about 9-11% of click share when they did run. That compares with a whopping 87% of click share for top ads and roughly 2-3% of click share for bottom ads.
In other words, Google didn’t remove the poorest performing ads (those are the bottom ads). Instead, they removed the side ads, which still weren’t performing nearly as well as the top ads.
The bottom line: you want to be in the top line. While removal of the side ads might take away some of your business, the best place to be found is right at the top of the SERPs. That will almost certainly require additional expense, especially now that advertising space is in scant supply. You’ll have run the numbers to see if the return on investment is positive.
For Desktops Only, but There’s a Catch
Keep in mind that the change is only for desktop platforms. Recall that your smartphone, especially in portrait orientation, really doesn’t have room for a right-hand sidebar, so there’s no change for mobile searchers.
However, there’s a “rest of the story” here. Laptops are, for practical purposes, considered a flavor of desktop hardware. That makes a difference here.
Why? Take a look at the screen on an average laptop. It’s typically rectangular with the width being much longer than the height. On the other hand, a desktop monitor is often square.
That geometry matters to digital marketers because it directly affects what users see immediately when they perform a “highly commercial query.” On many laptops, the height of the screen is such that the user will only see paid ads at first. In other words, the four paid ads will take up the whole screen, leaving the user to scroll just to see the first organic result.
It’s possible that all the work you’ve done to get to the first position in the Google SERPs could mean less than it did before February if your search term is considered “highly commercial.” People on laptops won’t even see your listing in that first position without scrolling.
Desktop users with square monitors will see a little more, but not much. It’s likely that they’ll see the first four paid ads plus the very first organic search result. To see anything else, they’ll have to scroll.
But Really, It’s Desktop
As an experienced digital marketer, you already know about the importance of reaching a mobile audience. That’s why the change could have little impact on your marketing efforts.
It’s a good idea right now to check your analytics and see how many of your visitors are hitting your site on a mobile platform. If you find that the vast majority of your visitors are getting there from a smartphone, there’s really no reason that Google’s ad layout format should impact your marketing efforts much, if at all.
You should also take note of the traffic trend. If you’re finding that, over time, a higher percentage of your traffic is from mobile users (and you almost certainly are seeing that), then it’s best to prepare for the future and adopt a full-blown mobile strategy right away.
Google’s ad layout for desktop platforms shouldn’t affect that strategy in the slightest.
How About CPCs?
How will the change impact your bidding price and cost-per-click (CPC)? Basic laws of supply and demand dictate that, all other things being equal, when supply diminishes, the price should increase.
You can expect to see that happen here.
Remember, there was once 11 ads on the results page. Now, there are only 7. The ads that were removed accounted for roughly 9-11% of the click share. Advertisers who received those clicks and converted successfully are still going to want a spot on the first page of Google. It’s likely that they’ll bid accordingly, and that should drive bids higher.
There’s a wrinkle here, though. The new layout means that there are more top slots. Whereas before there were three, now there are four. That’s an increase in supply and could drive bids for those top slots down a bit.
However, it’s still a bit early to tell how CPCs will be affected. Some advertisers might throw in the towel now that Google has removed the sidebar, leaving other people to bid at a lower rate. It all really depends on the search term, how many people want to make money from it, and whether or not the term is “highly commercial.”
Better Average Position Reporting
With the new ad layout, you’re also going to see better average position reporting. That’s going to help as you go through your analytics.
Here’s how Search Engine Land explains it: “Previously, there were up to 11 ads on the page — so for advertisers with high ad positions, the mean average (Avg. Pos.) would be skewed below the mode average (your most frequent position) by ads appearing farther down the page. This inaccuracy in average position reporting will be reduced by the reduction in available ad positions to seven per page.”
How About Extensions?
Google will still display extensions with ads in the top four positions. Extensions include site links, reviews, customer ratings, and other links that appear below the “main” link.
If you were heavily relying on extensions, the new ad layout shouldn’t affect you at all.
For International Marketers
The new ad layout affects all languages and locales, not just search results in the United States. If you were relying on side ads in a different country, you’ll have to start relying on top ads instead.
Wrapping It Up
The new Google ad layout takes away sidebar ads. That’s not a huge impact, even for people marketing to desktop audiences. However, with mobile emerging as the wave of the future, the change isn’t likely to have a long-term impact on any company’s digital marketing strategy. Google is simply aligning its business objectives with prevailing technologies.