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

July 19, 2018

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:

top vs side ad clicks data

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.

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

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.

Erin Sagin

Erin Sagin is the Global SMB Solutions Go To Market Lead at Google.