3 Weeks After Google Killed Side Ads, Here Are 5 More Takeaways


Just last month, Google made one of the biggest changes ever to their SERP layout (check out our video recap). 

 changes to the serp

Edits to the old SERP

In a nutshell, they nixed the ads in the right-hand rail, shifted the fourth ad position to appear just above the organic listings, moved ad positions five through seven to the bottom of the page, AND pushed positions eight through eleven to page two—ultimately creating a more streamlined structure that looks more like the mobile SERP.

When this news broke, chaos ensued in the digital marketing sphere. Every industry publication published the story, each adding their own spin on how it might impact online marketers. Then, individual SEMs jumped on the bandwagon and shared their predictions through social channels; some valid, others completely bonkers. By the end of the month, I felt like I was trapped in an enormous game of telephone. I’d read tons of speculations, many of which were not rooted in actual data. Even worse, they were being repeated as gospel.

 game of telephone

It’s no surprise that these rumors have sparked widespread panic within the marketing community. However, if there’s one mantra that’s been repeated by well-respected industry leaders (Fred Vallaeys, Larry Kim and Mona Elesseily, just to name a few) it’s “don’t panic!” Rather than continuing to speculate on the effects of the SERP switch-up, stay calm, continue to monitor, be reactive to your account performance, and keep an eye out for new data.

Now that it’s been a few weeks since the big shake-up, we’re finally getting a clearer idea of how it’s really impacting the search landscape. Here are five data-backed takeaways produced by industry experts:

#1. PLAs Continue to Kill It

Shortly after the SERP change, Mark Irvine reported that Shopping Campaigns' click-through rates seemed to be benefitting tremendously from the switch-up. We assumed that this was because these were the only ads that were still eligible to appear on the right-hand side. However, Mark Ballard and Andy Taylor over at Merkle/RKG recently published new data showing that PLAs are actually appearing at the top of the page more frequently than ever before!

pla share of desktop impressions by ad location graph 

In addition, they found that PLA click share has increased, in comparison to text ads.

 clicks by ad format

Source: Merkle/RKG

Key Takeaway: If you’re an e-commerce advertiser, you should be taking advantage of Shopping Campaigns. They were hot before, but they’re only going to get hotter as performance elevates!

#2. Desktop Ad CPCs Remain Pretty Stable

Despite all of the hoopla claiming that this change would cause CPCs to skyrocket and completely obliterate everyone’s PPC budgets, advertisers can rest assured that their budgets are safe and sound. Just days after the switch-up, Mark Irvine reported that “CPCs hadn’t changed…yet” and encouraged advertisers to keep an eye on changes occurring in their account over the next few weeks. 

 ad cpcs graph

Source: Merkle/RKG

The guys over at Merkle/RKG did just that and concluded that, thus far, desktop text ad CPCs have remained fairly consistent. In a recent blogpost, they explained that “since the start of the year, we’ve generally seen daily non-brand desktop text ad CPCs on Google.com run within about +/-5% of their YTD average. Since early February, CPCs have been running a little higher than they were in late January, but nothing significant changed with the removal of RHS ads and the addition of the fourth top-of-page ad.”

Key Takeaway: Chill out—you’re not going to have to lay off staff or cancel the company Christmas party to pad your PPC budget. Rather than bumping up bids across the board, monitor key terms and adjust bids only if needed!

#3. Right Side Ads Weren’t Anything Special Anyway

A few years ago, my boyfriend’s dog attempted to eat one of my shoes. I was furious and whined for days that my “beloved shoe” was completely destroyed. To be honest, I had completely forgotten about that pair of shoes—they’d been shoved under the bed for months—and I never really liked them in the first place. It wasn’t until I saw one dangling from the dog’s mouth that I decided I missed them. In reality, I was only upset about the shoes because I felt as though they’d been taken from me.

The departure of the right hand ads had a similar effect on advertisers. We never loved them in the first place. In fact, we put a ton of emphasis on avoiding them and trying to land our ads in the top three positions. However, when side ads began disappearing, advertisers panicked and accused Google of destroying their “beloved” side ads.

 traffic from side ads graph

Source: Seer Interactive

Seer Interactive brought us back to reality when they posted a graph of their clients’ right-hand side ads’ traffic in comparison to the traffic from their top ads. As you can see, barely any traffic (less than 7%) was coming from side ads anyway. We found similar results; less than 15% of our clients' ad clicks were coming from the side ads:

share of side versus top ads

Key Takeaway: Stop mourning the death of the right rail! They weren’t too special in the first place.

#4. You Won’t See 4 Ad Blocks at the Top of Every SERP

According to Dr. Pete at Moz, the number of SERPs displaying four ads at the top of the page is on the rise. In fact, it increased rather dramatically immediately after the initial release of the new layout.

 top blocks with four ads graph

Source: Moz

That said, as of 2/22, there were still plenty of pages displaying one, two and three ads at the top of the page.

ad blocks by number graph 

Source: Moz

Dr. Pete pointed out that, although we’re seeing these four-ad blocks appear more frequently than the two- and three-ad blocks, it’s doubtful that Google will stick with one, universal format. It’s known for constantly experimenting with different combos!

Key Takeaway: Continue to keep an eye on trends with these ad packs. As Dr. Pete eloquently stated, “the situation is highly dynamic and will continue to change over time.”

#5. SEO Didn’t Get Hit Nearly as Hard as We Anticipated

When this update was announced, many assumed it would result in a Mobilegeddon/Panda-level disaster for the SEO community. Luckily, researchers have reported that it’s been quite the opposite! In fact, just like it had a small impact on PPC, it also had a small impact on SEO.

share of organic clicks 

Source: Merkle/RKG

The team over at Merkle/RKG reported that their share of organic search visits have been completely stable since the beginning of the year, despite the changes that Google made to the ad placement on the SERP.

organic ctrs graph 

Don’t speak French? Me either. Here’s a crash course (courtesy of Clare Jerome and Google Translate!):

Avant la Mise à Jour: Before the Update

Après la Mise à Jour: After the Update

Ordinateur: Desktop

Source: BlogPrimelis

Paris-based researcher Lucas Perrose also published data showing very slight decreases in CTRs for his organic listings since the SERP shake-up. He also pointed out that these downward trends were probably impacted by additional factors, not solely the new ad layout, and encouraged SEOs to keep an eye on these trends, as they may change over time.

Key Takeaway: It’s always best to couple your SEO efforts with paid search to mitigate impact from big updates, but this one is pretty minor so far.

About the Author

Erin Sagin is a PPC Evangelist and Community Manager at WordStream. She was named the 3rd Most Influential PPC Expert of 2015 by PPC Hero. When she’s able to take a break from paid search, you’ll find her practicing her hula-hooping skills or planning her next trip to Latin America. You can follow Erin on Twitter and Google+.

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Mar 10, 2016

Forgive me, but what is a PLA?

Mar 11, 2016

If you don't know you can't afford them.

Mar 14, 2016

PLA's (Product Listing Ads) are part of Google Shopping. Here's more info: https://support.google.com/adwords/answer/2454022?hl=en

Erin Sagin
Mar 10, 2016

Ah, don't apologize! I should have explained -- Product Listing Ads! These are the ads that are produced through Shopping Campaigns, which show and image of the product along with other info!

Mar 11, 2016

Erin, great article. Has the continued increase in mobile search left the desktop format behind? Seems like a lot of unused real estate. Thoughts?

Lucas Perrosé
Mar 11, 2016

Hi Erin, thanks for your article, very interesting. To complete it, we think there are several groups of users : some who click on adwords results and some who never do. For them, the number of ads doesn't matter, they just won't follow them. That's,in our opinion, a way to explain the limited impact on the organic links CTR after the update.

And, in any case, there are now less adwords links on the SERP than before : 7 against 12. Even more, the update reduced the adwords links above the fold up to 50% for biggest computer screen. That's another clue, but like you said, we should all watch and see !

Good evening from Paris ;)

Erin Sagin
Mar 15, 2016

Thanks for commenting, Lucas! Am so glad I found your original post! Just wish I could comment on it in French as eloquently as you commented on mine in English :)

Mar 12, 2016

Agree. It always a goal to be in top three otherwise it is a waste of efforts. Better to spend 20% more and increase potential for clicks 80%.

Mar 14, 2016

Of course PLA volume has increased but that doesn't necessarily translate to better CPAs or ROI. And I had many clients that did well in positions 7-9, based on ROI, but not in higher positions.

I don't see any data here that says anything about the impact on ROI.

The data from "SEER Interactive" doesn't prove that those ads were worthless. What kind of clients were they, what were the size of budgets, what categories? I have legal clients that this change may not effect b/c they want to be in the 1st 3 positions but have e-commerce clients that can't afford those positions or the ROI didn't work.

And PLAs are problematic not only because of the ROI but also because of the competition. And Google's UI in their catalog leaves a LOT to be desired. If they're trying to be more competitive with Amazon, they need to improve their usability dramatically.

My question is WHY? Why get rid of ads on the side when the space is there? Why does the desktop experience have to be the same as phone? I don't want it to be the same - there's more room and I want to see more. Just doesn't make sense to me. If there's space there, and there is, then why not show the ads and get more revenue. $0 of $0 is $0. Doesn't seem to really improve the search experience, in my opinion.

Mar 24, 2016

Exactly spot on. Also. not sure where Merkle go their data, my CPC's have gone up and my impressions and clicks have decreased. I maintained in position 5-8 in generic keywords during the right rail ad days. While those ads had low CTR, they served as branding and drove more queries for brand searches and better CTR for brand. I don't get GGL move, it really serves no purpose other than to increase revenue.

Mar 24, 2016

Not sure where Merkle go their data, my CPC's have gone up and my impressions and clicks have decreased. I maintained in position 5-8 in generic keywords during the right rail ad days. While those ads had low CTR, they served as branding and drove more brand queries for my brand and better brand keyword CTR. I am also seeing a decrease in brand searches now that my non-brand ads are way below the fold. I am not having the experience that Merkle is pointing out. I am in a competitive auction market for service products that does not lend itself to any PLA ads. I have only experienced negative effects. This change may benefit retailers and store front but I doubt it is productive for service industries. Perhaps it should have been rolled out to PLA ads and not everyone? I cannot be the only advertiser experiencing this????

Shamsudeen Adeshokan
Mar 26, 2016

Hi Erin,

Where there is a product scarcity, there is likely to be an increase in cost. Only time will tell, cost per click will definitely be on the rise.

Personal observation, part of what Google successfully did by pulling down right hand side ads is to create real estate scarcity, now the ads placement spots/ads numbers are limited on the front page.

I won't be surprise if in the near future Google roll out a page by page Adwords bids pricing.

Thanks Erin.

Gianpaolo Lorusso
Mar 31, 2016

Thanks Erin, excellent post.
Have you disaggregated data for up to 3rd average position and over?
I did some data drilling and found that the higher is the avg pos, the more the account is affected by this change:

I think now Google uses for desktops the same ads rotation algorithm they have been using for mobiles. The reason why globally speaking numbers are not changing is that the 4th top position has higher CTR than the side ads and they are rotating positions more frequently now.


May 17, 2016

I can see a article on the right side of the google search page. Where is that article coming from and what does that indicate. I am sure that is not an add but i want to confirm how to an article on the right hand side of the google search page.

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