Over the last few days, Google has moved to remove the right rail ads that you may have gotten accustomed to seeing (ads on the right sidebar). While they’ve experimented with this over the past few months, this time it appears to be a permanent move. So now, instead of a 3 ads on top, 5 ads on the side layout on the Search Engine Results Page (SERP), you are likely to see 3-4 ads on top, and another 3 ads down below the natural listings…no ads on the right side.
Why did Google do this?
As stated above, there were limited tests of this over the last couple of years, but the change we’ve seen over the past couple of days indicates that this is:
- geographically widespread
- affecting all types of advertisers (and verticals)
- here to stay – confirmed by Google
Our take in the search engine marketing space is that this is a move by Google to align desktop results with what mobile users were already seeing. In case you missed it, the volume of mobile searches overtook desktop searches last year, so a “mobile-first” search experience makes sense. This would be natural, given that a larger percentage of searches are happening on a mobile device that on the traditional full desktop experience.
What does this mean to you?
First, there are fewer spots available for your ads to appear in – and more importantly – only 3-4 that will display “above the fold.” This means more competition (and potentially higher bid costs) are possible for all advertisers. This may not play out in all instances, and we aren’t sure if the bottom spots will hold as much value for advertisers as the right rail positions did, so only time will tell. However, this change won’t necessarily price anyone out of the market.
The change in format may “give as much as it takes.” For example, right rail ads weren’t displayed with ad extensions (call-out extensions, location extensions or site links) in the past. Now all 7 of the ads that may be displayed top & bottom will have that functionality, making it a bit easier to stand out. Plus, we’ve all heard of “ad blindness” where users learn to disregard the obvious ad locations as they search. The right rail was easy to filter out, but now search marketers can count on a more “native” display in the vertical stacking.
What can you do to stay relevant?
If you’re still using a shotgun approach to search marketing, it’s time to move from a strategy of keyword “coverage” to one that is much more tuned into “conversion.” Advertisers should center their energy on the most productive keywords and make sure their ad creative, landing page copy and call to action strategy are unified. These elements must support a positive user experience, and ultimately, conversions. Whatever changes you make…test, test, test. You want to be able to optimize intelligently, so run split tests, monitor ad performance, and measure CTR and conversion rates.
For brick-and-mortar businesses, this also means that it’s more critical than ever to get listed in the “local 3-pack” – this is the map + 3 business listings that often appears for location sensitive searches. If you paid attention, you’ll remember that as recently as last summer, it was actually a “local 7-pack.” Then Google pared it down to only 3 listings. If you are looking to keep your position in the 3-pack, your focus should be on quality SEO. Continue to optimize for web visitors and search intent, obtain quality backlinks, optimize your citations (social networking, directory and other local listings), and focus on collecting reviews on Google, Yelp and other key providers in your space.
Search marketing has always been about adaptation. This case is no different…if you have a solid PPC and SEO strategy in place, we’re talking about a slight shift in focus so that you can continue to perform well, or even better. If you are new to AdWords, or trying to optimize a new website, read up on these changes and stick to best practices. Performance is tied to how much value your website can add, now more than ever.