Big Changes on Google’s Desktop SERPs Layout Prompts Concern and Speculation

Change is afoot in Google’s search engine rankings for those using a desktop computer.

The familiar text Adwords adverts have been moved from the prominence of the right hand side of the results page. They now fit almost discreetly in-line with the vertical list of results on the left hand side of the page, topping and tailing them with up to 4 adverts at the top and 3 on the bottom.

With speculation rife about the possible affects on our business websites and with mumblings about the boldness of Google’s apparent next big step to steering us all towards paid for services, a recent Search Engine Land article by Columnist Larry Kim gave us a good idea of who the likely losers and winners will be, and why now is not the time to panic.

Change as Usual

The article reminded us that constant change is normal for Google and that we are probably all well used to the many less painful 500 or so tweaks per year punctuated by the occasional seismic shifts (algorithm changes like Penguin, Pigeon, Panda and Mobilegeddon) that may be bad news for some and good news for others.

Why This Change?

The current change is simply the latest step in a gradual strategy that dates back 6 years. It was first noticeable when Google started putting 4 adverts above the organic search engine results for mortgage-related queries.

This became 4 adverts for other kinds of queries and a removal of right hand side adverts last year, and now we see  4 adverts at the top for “highly commercial queries” i.e. those that show intent to purchase, and an almost disconcertingly blank right hand side of the page. This latest change is being rolled out worldwide on Google.com and search partners.

Putting The Change in Context

To help put the change in context, it only affects desktop searches and thanks to our love of mobile devices, desktop searches now account for less than half of all searches. Combine this with the fact that 3 Adwords Adverts will be shown at the bottom of each SERP (along with up to 4 at the top) and estimates of the number of total search queries affected by the change as being probably less than 7%.

Any Other Changes?

For desktop Google searches, as well as those changes already mentioned the maximum number of text adverts than can appear on a search engine results page (SERP) will go down from 11 to 7, and Product listing ad blocks and Knowledge Panels will be displayed on the right hand side for some queries.

Who Look Like Being The Winners?

The short answer of who will be the real winners is Google, PPC marketers, those businesses whose advert is in the top 4, and specifically the advertiser who gets position 3 at the top.

It’s early days of course but search engine experts have already been monitoring and studying the early affects of the change on search engine results and user clicks.

We know thanks to Alistair Dent’s study of iProspect UK clients, adverts in the top positions get 14 times higher click-through rates than those on the right hand side.

What is particularly interesting though is that according to data from Wordstream, those whose PPC advert is at position 3 of the 4 positions at the top of a SERP could see anything up to a 15% increase in click through rates!

Those with Product Listing Ads (PLAs) could also benefit from the lack of text adverts on the right hand side.

Who Look Like Being The Losers?

The short answer here appears to be losses for those with high organic search rankings, and (according to Wordstream data) those PPC advertisers with ads in positions 5 to 11.

Those who have been relying heavily on high rankings in the Google organic / natural listings have become used to being pushed down the page and crowded out with the noise of adverts on the side, so this change marks another in as series of losses for them.

This change looks set to shunt them even further ‘below the fold’ where we know searchers are less likely to focus their attention, and are therefore less likely to click. From a visual point of view the adverts now appear to blend in more with the organic search engine results. This apparent lessening of the difference between the two can only be bad news for those who rely heavily on their organic listings.

Ads in positions 5 to 11 have so far been shown to be receiving less impressions and a lower share of all paid clicks.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Apart from some initial worry and mild panic about the news of the change, it is unlikely to have a dramatic change on your traffic right now because it only affects desktop searches. It does however mean another turn of the screw to motivate businesses to invest more in PPC on Google, and possibly to feel pressure to spend more to get the top spots. It could also mean that you should give more serious consideration to other or additional paid for advertising channels e.g. Facebook.

Keeping a close eye on the stats is advisable in the short term to see just how much of an affect it is having on your particular business.