This February, Google caused a stir in the digital marketing community by announcing that it would eliminate the right-side-rail position for its search ads. Since then, search marketers have been scrambling to make sense of Google’s changes and how they impact the brands they serve. Let’s take a closer look at these changes and what it might mean for agency search teams.
OK—What's Happening, Again?
Simply put, Google made significant changes to how ads are displayed in search results. The most apparent change is the elimination of its "right rail ads" – those that appear in the right-hand column of search results, typically beneath its Knowledge Panel (the inset box that houses maps, images, and other information).
Additionally, on searches that Google deems to be "highly commercial," a fourth paid ad result will appear at the top of the page, compared to the usual three ad results.
There are, however, two exceptions that weren’t affected: Product Listing Ads and the Knowledge Panel itself.
I Get It Now—But Why?
In a recent statement, Google clarified that the change was intended to optimize “highly commercial queries,” explaining that the new layout is able to provide more relevant results for users while offering better opportunities for advertisers. Additionally, many industry experts speculate it is a result of Google moving toward a more mobile-first user experience (read more here about how mobile web usage exceeds desktop). Some have even speculated the possibility that Google’s paginated format of search results could be replaced with an infinite scroll.
It was only last May that Google officially announced that mobile search queries had overtaken desktop queries, so one might even wonder why this hasn’t happened sooner.
So, What Does This Mean for My Brand?
The extent to which these changes will impact businesses' search engine marketing (SEM) efforts will vary according to many factors, ranging from audience and device usage to a brand's competitive landscape in search. In the near term, some brands may experience volatility in their SEM campaigns with respect to impression share and average cost per click, but we expect this to normalize over the course of the next week or two.
As Search Engine Watch noted in an extensive roundup of expert views on this development, the right-side and bottom ads only account for 14.6% of total click volume – so, less than 14.6% of clicks is impacted by the change.
For SEO efforts (organic, non-paid search), there may be a longer-term impact. On the one hand, the inclusion of a fourth ad at the top of search results will push organic results further out of view. When this is the case, we expect click-through rates (CTR) for organic results to drop – this drop will represent only a small change for those organic results found above the fold. Yet in other cases, organic results will be competing with less real estate in search results and will therefore be more pronounced.
As with all things digital, we're working in a constantly changing landscape. HZers continue to monitor the effects of these changes, subtle or otherwise. Keeping pace with these changes allows us to inform our clients' business decisions strategically.