On a Friday afternoon — last Friday, February 19, 2016, to be exact — Google confirmed that search results pages on desktop will no longer show text ads in the right sidebar. Instead, as many as four text ads will display above the organic listings, and three text ads will show at the bottom of the page.
There will certainly be a lot of analysis to come on what this change means for advertisers — impressions, CPC, CTRs, average position and so on. Here’s what we know so far about the move.
All of the changes confirmed on Friday pertain to desktop search results on Google.com and Google search partners.
There are a few elements included in the changes to desktop results:
These updates are rolling out permanently worldwide on both Google.com and search partners — though not all search partners offered sidebar inventory.
While the confirmation that Google would no longer show text ads in the sidebar on desktop came as a shock to many, it’s been simmering for some time.
Google has been testing variations of this theme for several years now. The first time Google started experimenting with four ads above the organic results was in 2010, on mortgage queries. Late last year, many users began seeing the four ads appear on other queries, with no ads appearing in the sidebar.
That said, when Search Engine Land asked Google about the testing last December, we were told that it was not permanent and was only running on a small number of queries. And then last week happened.
As Merkle RKG’s Andy Taylor illustrated in a blog post last Friday, the shift to remove ads from the right rail began slowly early last week and then picked up dramatically after Wednesday, February 17.
Here’s a look at aggregate click share across brand and non-brand:
Google has stated that four ads instead of three may show more often on highly commercial queries, but what exactly does that mean? Well, examples from Google include “hotels in New York City” or “car insurance.”
And yet, what you deem highly commercial may differ from Google’s definition. Generally speaking, the term is used for queries in which Google perceives an intent to purchase.
At this point, no.
Google has run several ad tests in Knowledge Panels, which appear on the results pages for some entity queries, and says it will continue to do so. The tests began showing up in 2013 on some car queries and then expanded in 2014 to music, movies and books. The decision to remove right rail ads has no impact on current and future tests in Knowledge Panels.
Likewise, Google will continue to experiment with Product Listing Ad layouts. Just last month, an expandable PLA block was spotted — when expanded, 16 PLAs displayed above the fold on desktop.
It’s too soon to tell. Many are predicting that fewer ads will lead to higher prices due to supply and demand. Yet it may not be that simple.
First, there is the question of whether advertisers will be willing to bid the same for bottom-of-the-page ads as they were for right rail ads. And, as Martin Roettgerding, head of SEM at Bloofusion, points out, more impression volume for top-of-the-page ads may suppress CPCs for top spots, as well.
Others disagree with Martin. And this is all speculation, of course. The impact will continue to be debated until more data become available.
After looking at Merkle RKG data through the weekend, Andy Taylor says, “Overall, we haven’t really seen much impact to non-brand text ad click or impression volume yet. CPC has also remained roughly steady, but we’re still very interested to see how first page and top of page bid minimums shift.”
What is clear is that advertisers running bid-to-position strategies will need to make updates. That alone may cause auction patterns to fluctuate for a period as advertisers react to one another’s adjustments.
We’ll continue to follow this story — and the impact for both paid search and SEO. Alistair Dent, Head of Product Strategy at iProspect, has some initial thoughts on what the changes will mean for PPC in his latest Search Engine Land column.
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