Google Ditching Paid RHS Ads – What You Need To Know

It’s been a while since Google shook up Adwords in a big way. We have to go back to the addition of ads at the bottom of the SERPS in 2011 and Enhanced Campaigns in 2013 to see fundamental shifts in paid search – putting aside all of the smaller adjustments to things like close variants and sitelinks that don’t noticeably affect the end-user’s experience.

I’m sure that if you’re an SEO reading this you’ll be wryly amused by our consternation and mild panic since change from Google is pretty much part of your job description. In the case of this latest update however, it’s likely that organic results are going to see some big changes too.

So what’s new?

Let’s remind ourselves how the SERPS “used” to look:

How the SERPs used to lookl
How the SERPs used to look

Depending on the query and the Quality Score of the advertisers, you could have up to 3 paid ads showing above the organic listings, with around 10 on the right-hand side. On some occasions, you could also see up to 3 ads below. This would mean that you could have anywhere from three up to thirteen or so ads per search.

As of now, you can expect to start seeing searches that look like the below – with no ads on the right hand side:

How ads will look now
How ads will look now

Weird right? In the place of the right hand side ads you have up to 4 ads above the organic listings and 3 underneath – a total of 7 versus the up to 13 we’ve seen historically. It’s a brave new world, ladies and gentlemen!

Now for some of the specifics. Some of the exact details are a little vague since Google haven’t made their customary announcement on the Inside Adwords blog and prior to the weekend all there was to go on was rumour and speculation from different agencies and users who have had different elements confirmed to them. Google have begun to confirm things though and we’re in a good position to update on what’s happening.

When is this happening?

The change is rolling out as we speak – with all ads regardless of language and locale being affected by the change as of Monday 22nd February 2016. As of this date you will no longer see any ads on the right hand side of the search listings with the exception of Shopping Ads, which will continue to show both above and to the right of the organic results. Image, news, map and Knowledge Graph listings will also be unaffected.

Knowledge Graph listings will continue as they are
Knowledge Graph listings will continue as they are

There’s some great information over at Moz which shows how the volume of changes has been increasing over the last few weeks although Google themselves say they’ve been testing versions of this since 2010 – which I can easily believe as not long after that is when the addition of ads at the bottom of the SERPs came in. Back in December users noticed the addition of a 4th listing at the top of the SERPs as part of the testing process – pushing organic results even further down the page and below the fold on many devices.

Interestingly Google have confirmed that 4 ads won’t show above every search query. Google told The SEM Post that the 4 ad option:

is designed for highly commercial queries where the layout is able to provide more relevant results for people searching and better performance for advertisers

They estimate that this will cover around 3% of queries, “where users express a deep intention to buy” – although personally when searching all of my results have shown 4 ads, but none of them have been particularly long-tail.

Why has Google done this?

The main reason that’s been stated is that this will bring the experience on desktop platforms more in line with mobile devices – which have worked this way for some time – thereby delivering a better experience for customers. It will also allow for greater space for both shopping ads and Knowledge Graph content.

The cynical among us feel that it’s designed to drive greater revenue for Google – going from 13 to 7 listings is a significant risk and they’d be unlikely to potentially halve their revenue without making sure of the numbers first. No doubt during their testing they’ve analysed the commercial impact and it pays off for them.

What will the impact be for paid advertisers?

First of all, we expect to see an increase in CPCs. Most other PPCers feel the same – that the cost to participate in Adwords auctions will increase, potentially significantly. This could have the effect of driving advertisers to other platforms, such as Bing or paid social – but only if the users are there too.

If you’re one of the advertisers currently in the top 3, it’s possible that you could see an increase in traffic and cost – be sure to keep an eye on your stats over the coming days to monitor the impact.

For retailers, the potential increased visibility for shopping is a boon. Last month it was spotted that Google were testing an expandable layout for shopping ads – if something like this was rolled out down the right hand side it would allow for significantly more PLAs.

expanded-plas

It could well be that advertisers will show restraint and we don’t see much in the way of CPC increases at all – unfortunately only time will tell.

What will the impact be on organic listings?

Most people believe that CTR on organic ads will decrease, particularly when 4 paid ads are shown as the organic results are pushed even further down the SERPs. Personally, I’m unsure and I think that organic results may see an uplift on a number of queries as there won’t be any ads on the right hand side to attract attention and cannibalise clicks. The improved visibility that Knowledge Graph searches will have is also a good thing for organic traffic as these elements will be more prominent on the page.

With Google’s stated purpose of showing 4 ads on more commercial queries, it may be that generic CTR takes a hit and that organic will really be able to shine on the long-tail of search.

What’s going to happen with all that white space?

Potentially, if Google are true to what they’ve said, nothing. If the plan is to bring the results more in line with mobile devices, then the RHS will stay empty. You’ll continue to see Shopping and Knowledge Graph content there as these searches are unaffected by the change, but that could be it.

My feeling is that Google will be unable to resist tinkering with the space – be it for more commercial gain or to introduce a new feature. Could it be that we’ll start to see some Google+ content in this space? You heard it here first, folks, even if Twitter doesn’t agree with me!

To wrap up

I’ve used a lot of words considering we’re yet to hear in detail from Google about their plans and rationale. That being said, I think enough of us have heard from our reps and agencies to have formed a fairly rounded-out picture of what’s going to happen. With the stated aim of rolling everything out by Monday 22nd, it shouldn’t be too long before we know for sure.

What should you do? Keep an eye on your CPCs and position reports. Speak to your colleagues in Organic and ask what they’re seeing – it’d be great to understand how this change affects both channels. I’d also like to urge prudence when it comes to bid changes – if we all panic and increase our bids in fear, then we’ll be stuck in an ever-increasing spiral of expense – let’s be measured and moderate and attempt to understand the impact before we react.

In the meantime, while we’re waiting to find out more and work out what to do next, you could do worse than listen to the Spotify playlist created around this very topic on Friday afternoon by Kirk Williams – enjoy!

Arianne Donoghue

About Arianne Donoghue

Arianne Donoghue is a Digital Marketing Manager at Icelolly.com. Having started off her digital career client side in 2006, she's worked for both agencies and brands in-house, specialising in search. She is now back client side delivering paid media digital strategy for leading holiday comparison site Icelolly.com.