Google Waves Goodbye to Sidebar Ads. What Does It Mean for Brands?
Google has announced the rollout of a major layout change to the search engine results page for desktop. This has performance implications for paid and organic programs.
The new layout removes page-right SEM ads (with the exception of Product Listing ads) and adds three listings at the bottom. Google also added potential for one additional ad to appear above the organic listings (so, up to four) for a small percentage of “specific major commercial queries.”
What the Change Means for Brands (and Users)
The reason behind this change is low engagement with page-right ads, Google says. The new decluttered format will presumably increase the effectiveness of available real estate and drive greater engagement rates with searchers, improving user experience. This should deliver greater ad engagement rates for advertisers that remain in top positions, the thinking goes.
For ads outside top positions, we expect a sharp drop in click-through rate (ranks 4-7) or impressions (ranks 8-10) to drive a decrease in clicks, cost and conversions. This may cause a “thinning of the herd,” with smaller advertisers dropping out and leaving the big players to jockey for position.
Consequently, we may see first- page cost-per-click increases, particularly for top-positioned ads. Advertisers may seek to counterbalance losses in traffic with increased bids. However, a decrease in click volume may not be enough justification to increase bids of performance-oriented advertisers. Ultimately, whether the balancing forces will improve Google ad clicks and revenue or weaken them in exchange for improved searcher experience remains to be seen.
The net impact on organic search program performance? A new top-positioned 4th ad for commercial searches will push the top organic rankings even lower, negatively impacting organic traffic. In extreme cases -e.g., “hotels in NYC,” using the SEM 4-pack ads and Google’s hotel finder- the organic search listings are well below the fold and almost out- of- sight/ out- of- mind. Furthermore, Google has not shared details regarding what portion of its traffic qualifies as “major commercial queries.” We are, for instance, seeing a 4th ad on queries we would not intuitively consider as such (e.g., “learn to speak Spanish”).
This update applies only for desktop search results. Mobile and tablet remain unchanged, making desktop search results look more like mobile listings. For sites with a growing percentage of mobile search traffic (both paid and organic), the impact won’t be as significant. It is also worth noting that Google’s Knowledge Graph is still present on the right-hand side where appropriate.
We are all eager to understand the net difference in the auction- both in aggregate and for each of our advertisers individually. iCrossing is gathering data on the early impact of this change on advertisers and will share as we learn more.
Even seemingly non-commercial searches are showing a 4th ad above organic results, indicating the high degree of subjectivity and lack of transparency in Google’s qualification method:
How Marketers Should Adapt to the Loss of the Right Rail
Search managers should anticipate fluctuations in both paid and organic impressions and visits, as the change rolls out and stabilizes. You should be ready to monitor and adjust.
Strong SEM bid management against goals is a must. This includes reexamining mobile multipliers, as the relative value per click of desktop may be changing. Overall, SEM managers and advertisers must partner to determine whether existing goals are still realistic or if the trade-off between volume and cost efficiency should be reexamined. For example, add budget or reduce volume targets? Fluid budget management (across campaigns and engines) will, as always, allow the most flexibility to adjust based on real-time performance for maximum results.
To address this update, organic search strategies also need to change. Brands may not be able to maintain the same level of coverage in SEM due to increased CPC and competition. They will need to co-ordinate their SEO efforts to capture any lost traffic.
As a result of moving further down the search results page, the performance of any organic search traffic received will need to be even higher. We believe working closely with UX teams to ensure traffic carries out their desired actions will be even more essential to drive a competitive ROI.
Search marketers will benefit from reexamining keyword lists to discover a broader range of terms to engage a brand’s target audience, looking for those with fewer competing advertisers to build either increased paid and/or organic search presence. Mining the tail of search, and assessing the user experience of the results page, for new opportunities continues to be a key component of any ongoing search strategy.
This change will be another opportunity to look at your brand’s connected SEO/SEM approach, with each site needing to adapt their keyword, share key data points and shift discipline focus to get maximum ROI. All of which leads to the need to move closer to a shared search goal vs. independent SEO/SEM goals.
To learn more about the potential impact of this update on your sites, please contact iCrossing’s search marketing specialists at firstname.lastname@example.org. And look for part two of our POV next week, as we monitor industry data points assessing the impact of this Google update.