A Quick SERPs Definition

For those who may be new, SERP stands for Search Engine Results Page. They’re what show up whenever you search for a phrase using the Google engine. The bulk of the page is made up of sites Google believes are relevant (organic search results), while other sites may show up in prominent positions paid for and reserved by their owners (paid search results). However, the balance between paid and organic results has shifted in a big way with Google’s new SERP layout.

For the last couple of weeks it’s been obvious that Google has been in an experimental mood (so what’s new, right?). Some search results pages have been showing 4 PPC ads at the top of the page, some have been showing 3, sometimes there have been ads on the right side, sometimes not. Well, the dust has settled and now the results seem to have stabilized.

Review the screen captures below to see what’s changed (more observations underneath them):

SERP ranking and Google's new world for advertisers


Ads at the bottom SERP positions

As Search Engine Watch observed in a post yesterday, Google has now clarified why they’ve been fiddling with their pages: a major change has been brewing, and this morning we can now taste the coffee. It might be a bit bitter for many advertisers on AdWords (rebranded as Google Ads). Google has now eliminated ads on the right side display. The obvious implication is that about 2/3 of advertisers have just been dumped into the “invisible” category. In the past, Google had bid estimates for “first page bid” and “top page” bid. Until now you could be “above the fold” with a first page bid, but now you will be either at the top of the page or way down at the bottom with your ads. The only way to be above the fold is to bid for the top 4 positions. And since Google won’t always show that 4th position, you really need to bid for the first 3 spots or you’re off the back.

My Predictions for Paid Search

Most Obvious Implication: Cost for AdWords Clicks is Going Up – Even Faster

We’ve already seen a lot of rising click costs for advertisers as Google has honed their AdWords model and created policies that make organic search results increasingly less reliable ground for building your business model. But apparently those costs aren’t going up fast enough for Google, since the need to be seen in search results will without question drive more demand for above-the-fold SERP positions (an increasingly scarce resource).

Product Listing Ads Will Become More Valuable

According to the Search Engine Watch article, PLAs (product listing ads) will not be affected by this layout change. A quick search this morning seemed to confirm this (see screen capture) below. This means that any advertiser who sells a product and hasn’t yet set up or began optimizing PLAs is missing out on a great opportunity. With less screen clutter and competition for clicks, PLAs should see improvements in performance. Plus, since it’s harder for a competitor to participate meaningfully in the PLA market, it might not be as subject to click inflation (in my experience PLAs, where they can be used, already offer a better value than traditional AdWords ads).

Product listing ads SERP feature still at top right

Bing Gets More Business

For advertisers who simply can’t afford to capture those top 3/4 spots in Google, there is another option: Bing. Although Bing has a lot less traffic, we’ve often seen very good results from Bing campaigns on a Cost-Per-Acquisition (CPA) basis. If you are invisible on Google and can’t afford to change that, you definitely need to be testing whether Bing can take up some of the slack.

My Predictions for Organic Search

The tennis match between organic and paid continues. As organic SERP ranking results have become more costly to achieve (due to the high cost of content creation and quality link attraction), many businesses have thrown in the towel on boosting organic results and found it cheaper just to buy visibility through AdWords. Depending on how much price inflation hits clicks at the top of the page, even the high expense of organic search optimization may suddenly become a sensible alternative to ads once again.

I imagine companies that have blown off organic will now be tempted to take another look, either at seeking professional help with organic search optimization or (alternatively) acquiring the SEO training and in-house talent that the company needs to drive its own organic search effort.

My Non-Predictive, Speculative Rant About Fish Mongering

The part of this that bugs the heck out of me is the idea that Google is trying to bring the desktop experience more in line with mobile. I think that the fishmonger is selling us an obvious red herring.

This is the age of responsive design. Who makes a web page on desktop “match” the one on mobile? Layouts are supposed to be different on mobile vs. desktop, even if you’re designing “mobile first.” If not, then why does Google still place PLAs off and to the right? That’s a desktop only layout.

And if desktop is supposed to match mobile, then why do we see different layouts where the Knowledge Graph is involved? (See the screen captures below)


Google search for George Orwell

Google search for George Orwell. Knowledge Graph occupies its traditional position at top right.


Mobile search layout

Google search for George Orwell on mobile. Surprise, surprise, a different layout.


As usual, I am skeptical about Google’s stated reasoning. I tend to evaluate every Google change as primarily an effort to maximize profits, and only secondarily driven by the user’s best interests. In this case, clicks on right-hand side ads have always been a minor portion of Google’s revenue. Why give the false impression to low budget advertisers that they can be on page one of search without having to pay “their fair share” (in Google’s opinion). My guess would be that Google has tested and analyzed and found that the total profit will be greater from the new layout. If they are right, we better get used to it. And you’d better start reaching for your wallet. Again.

What is your take? Are you a skeptic like me? Or do you see this change as being what it’s claimed to be: a modification to, for some strange reason, make desktop “match” mobile?