Believe it or not, this month we don’t have a Google algorithm update to tell you about. But that’s not to say that our buddies at the search giant haven’t been busy. The latest switch? They’ve been tinkering with how ads display on their search engine results pages (SERPs). If pay-per-click (PPC) is part of your marketing strategy, here’s what you should know.
Unless you spend all day not only staring at SERPs — and we don’t mean just because you’re actually searching for something online — you probably wouldn’t notice that there had been a change. It’s not as if the style or format of the ads changed: Any search will still get you a mix of organic and paid results. The organic results still run in a wide column on the left, but now less real estate is given to paid results.
Until recently, paid results appeared in three places: Two to three ads on top of the main column of natural search results, the same number beneath the organic results at the bottom of the page, and as many as seven in a separate column on the right. That meant that as many as 13 individual PPC ads could wind up on page one of search results.
[Image from econsultancy.com]
That right-hand column is now gone. While now there can be as many as four PPC placements at the top of the organic results column, the grand total of PPC slots on each SERP is now seven, maybe eight. That means the odds of a page one paid result just got a little worse, especially if you’re vying for competitive keywords. PPC has never been an area to be slapdash, but this loss of space means campaigns should be carefully reevaluated and readjusted.
What’s Behind the Changes?
Google hasn’t yet revealed exactly what’s going on with these changes, but the likely explanation is the push toward mobile. Google has made other alterations to the look and feel of SERPs with the goal of making the search experience you have on your phone or tablet as similar as possible to the one you have on your desktop. More than one column isn’t mobile friendly, so that makes sense.
On the other hand, Google hasn’t completely abandoned that right-hand column. Though PPC ads no longer appear there, some searches — Google says those with “high commercial intent” keywords — now frequently show more Google Product Listing Ads (aka Google Shopping) on the right. (See what we found below by searching “buy nail polish.”) The idea is that you’ll see these kinds of results only when the keyword you’re searching implies you are looking to make a purchase. Regardless, keeping the sidebar for some searches does muddy the “we just want it to look like mobile” argument. Google Product Listing ads also show up in searches that lack “high commercial intent,” but in those cases, they’re displayed across the top of the main column (as in the search for chopping blocks shown above).
As for the other changes, having four ads on top isn’t that new — Google started playing with that format in 2006, and SEO professionals started noticing it popping up last December. At the start of 2016, the four-ad format only showed up on around 1% of SERPs. By February, that had already jumped to 36%. Adding one more paid ad at the top pushes organic results down one notch. That puts that slot in a prime location: It’s expected to receive more clicks than right-side ads did.
What Does It All Mean for Your PPC?
It depends who you ask — which again means it’s a good plan to pay attention to campaign metrics and be ready to fine-tune. Wordstream found that the paid results at the top of the main column received 86% of clicks anyway. That means that while the right sidebar and bottom ads may have drawn some eyeballs, they weren’t getting too much click traffic anyway. While eyeballs aren’t worth as much as clicks, however, they aren’t worth nothing — it’s hard to argue that there isn’t some visibility being lost.
The other issue is that there are fewer slots overall for PPC ads. The good news is that so far at least this does not seem to be inflating cost-per-click, which was one worry with this new format (that’s not to say that won’t change in the future). The bad news though is that with most paid click traffic now going to just four slots, small businesses may find it tougher to compete against big boxes and mega retailers. That coveted fourth slot appears to be taken up by Amazon more often than not. Of course, Google and its supporters argue the opposite — that this change will benefit the little guys. AdWords expert and former Google staffer Frederick Vallaeys says that — provided your PPC is well managed — these changes create an 18% increase in the number of clicks available to advertisers.
Want to make sure your PPC campaigns are running smoothly? Higher Power SEO can perform a PPC audit, letting you know what’s working and what could be better. Call us at 760-881-4736 to learn more.