The past few months have seen PPC marketers getting to grips with a big change in how Google displays their search ads…

Gone are the PPC text ads from the right hand side of search results pages. The only ads you’ll see in the sidebar now are product listing ads and ads featured in Knowledge Graph results. The ads featured at the top of the search results list will remain – and in addition, some search queries will present the user with four ads instead of the usual three.

Ads will still appear at the bottom of SERPs too – but rather than up to eleven, the number of available slots per page has been reduced to no more than seven.

This isn’t just Google experimenting with ad placement, as they often do. The change has been implemented globally for all desktop users – and while there’s always the possibility that the team at Google will change their minds later on, it would seem this is a move they’ve been planning to implement for a while.

So what does this mean for you and your AdWords strategy? Initial reactions to the news in February were less than positive – but now the dust has settled, are these adjustments really the disaster PPC marketers have been predicting?

When did the changes happen?

Sidebar ads were officially removed on 19th February 2016, but Google has been experimenting with elements of the new layout for years.

Why has Google done this?

There’s been plenty of speculation from PPC experts over why the sidebar ads have been given the chop.

One of the more innocuous suggestions is that Google wants to bring their desktop results pages more in line with their mobile counterparts (where the sidebar doesn’t appear). This isn’t an unreasonable assumption, as the firm’s responsive Material Design layout has demonstrated its intention to unify the Google experience across all devices.

Another suggestion is that they’re just weeding out some of the poorer ads. Ads with a high quality score usually appear at the top of organic results, while those with lower scores would be placed in the lower positions. In the past, these lower positions would occupy the sidebar list, where they would still appear above the fold. With the introduction of the new layout, they’ll now only appear at the bottom of the page – if they appear at all.

Others have a more cynical point of view. They believe Google is deliberately choking the number of highly visible ad slots to get more money out of PPC marketers. With less advertising space available, they argue competition will go up and advertisers will have to increase their bids in order to get their ads showing.

Google themselves claim that the new layout will help to ‘provide more relevant results for people searching and better performance for advertisers’ – and while sidebar text ads are gone for all searches, they have assured their AdWords customers that the fourth top-level text ad will only appear for ‘highly commercial queries’.

How will the changes affect me as a PPC marketer?

If you’re using paid search to promote your business, you’re probably a little concerned by now. Are you going to end up paying more for clicks – or worse, see your ads pushed out of paid results entirely by the big brands who can afford the higher CPCs?

Don’t worry; it seems the panic might have been a little overblown after all.

As we mentioned earlier in the article, many predicted the cost per click would rise dramatically as a result of Google’s changes. However, according to data published by Wordstream, it would appear that’s not the case.

CPCs have in fact remained more or less the same as they were before the changes, as has the amount of traffic PPC marketers are seeing from their ads. What’s more, thanks to the addition of the fourth top-level ad, click-through rates have risen. (Interestingly, it seems the ads in the number 3 slot have seen the biggest CTR rise).

It appears the changes mostly affect those in positions 5 to 11 for paid search, since they’ve either been relegated to the bottom of the page or removed from the results page altogether. In truth, it’s always been more difficult to get clicks or even impressions on your ad if it doesn’t appear in the top 3, so things haven’t actually changed too much.

Wordstream have also theorised that Google’s adjustments extend beyond the visible layout. They believe the search giant might be mixing up the order of paid results slightly, giving advertisers a slightly more even share of impressions.

They cite one of their customers who had an average position of 8.6 before the changes. Since each page now only displays 7 ads, you might assume their impressions would be wiped out entirely. Instead, while the customer did receive an 80% drop in impressions, their average position rose to 4.3 and their CTR almost doubled. While they’re now paying an extra $0.16 per click, the customer is actually getting much more traffic from their ads than they were before the change.

How will the changes affect me as an SEO marketer?

So, all good news for PPC marketers – but what if your main focus is on SEO? It’s been discovered that the new four-ad layout hides all organic results below the fold for certain queries. In addition, the fourth ad slot has been designed to resemble an organic result more closely than the other three ads. Essentially, if you had achieved a number 1 positions for a ‘highly commercial’ search query, there’s a good chance an ad has just stolen it from you.

Or have they? Many users will still seek out organic results over paid advertising, and scrolling down the page to see them isn’t a deal-breaker for them. In addition, some queries will be better served by organic results rather than advertised pages, even if they still hold commercial value.

A good example is ‘halogen lights vs leds’. Here, the user clearly isn’t looking to buy either one until they know which one better suits their needs – and they certainly don’t want to see adverts for either at this stage. In this scenario, organic results will get more click-throughs – and if your content convinces them that you’re the expert they want to buy from, they’ll help drive conversions too.

What should I do next?

Will the removal of sidebar ads have a greater impact in the long run? Only time will tell, but for now, the future’s looking rosy. Just keep doing what you’re doing – keep an eye on your PPC performance stats and plan your next steps accordingly.

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