As of February 22, the right-hand side ads from desktop and tablet search results have been relegated to Google’s history books. This is another chapter in the effort to revolutionise desktop search. By getting rid of ads on the right-hand side and adding another one at the top of the main search results -- thereby increasing the total to four -- Google is creating a consistent, clean user experience across all devices. This is a positive step, especially with desktop volume falling below mobile and tablet with no sign of slowing down.
As these changes develop, I’d expect to see the empty desktop space filled with additional real-time content such as social media feeds, rich media and a more brand-driven experience -- topics that have been a major focus for Google in recent times. However, the impact on advertisers -- particularly in terms of paid search cost-per-click (CPC) and natural search traffic -- will be significant. Google says the changes should not have a significant impact on advertiser costs; however, CPC is a hotly debated topic, having risen dramatically in most industries over the last few years. In addition, the increasing shift toward lower CPC mobile traffic has slowed Google’s revenue growth. With this in mind, it’s possible that the intention of the update is to ensure that as desktop traffic decreases over time, it will continue to provide revenue at a steady rate.
In terms of Google’s performance tests, click-through rates (CTRs) were apparently the same at the bottom of the page as on the right-hand side. I expect that ads at the bottom for higher-funnel keywords may see more clicks as consumers have begun to largely ignore the right hand side. Of course this will have an impact on impressions for the few advertisers that have used the right-hand side for exposure. The much-vaunted fourth position will now gain prominence by moving underneath the top three with less clutter on the page as a whole. As such, it is possible that CTRs could even increase with a reduction in impressions. Ad extensions will now also be available for this fourth position, and I expect for the bottom three, that were was previously not available for the ads on the right.
For agencies, this reduction in the number of ad slots will result in greater competition for the top positions of especially high-performing terms. In response agencies will need to start focussing much more on ROI and not just managing CPCs for their clients, while maximising the tools that they have available to them -- such as ad extensions, audience data, hyperlocal strategies, innovative messaging and long-tail keywords -- and highly tuning their strategy to ensure that the top four positions are secured for as many relevant searches as possible.
This change will also mean that having a highly effective integrated paid and organic search strategy will become increasingly important for brands. Less natural search results will appear above the fold, having been pushed down by the new paid spot at the top, ensuring that the number one organic spot in search will reach unparalleled levels of importance -- which is where agencies can and should step in, using their expertise to capitalise on that opportunity.
Brands should be turning to their agency to understand how these new changes can actually benefit their business. We all know that being high up on the search rankings has a major impact on the bottom line, but Google’s quest to create a more visually appealing results page with less clutter for users may well up the stakes. Agencies will have to be the ones to step in to ensure that their brands aren’t the ones pushed out by these developments, instead ensuring that they boost the impact of search on marketing ROI.