In what certainly seemed to many like an abrupt move, Google rolled out a global change to its search engine results page (SERP) layout for desktops and tablets late last week, effectively ending its long-standing tradition of serving ads to the right of its search results. For those of us who have spent much of our career obsessing over the placement and optimization of ads on that right rail, their disappearance has been rather startling. While the average user might not really notice anything (many have pointed out that the new SERP now much more closely resembles the experience on the increasingly prominent mobile screen), this is a significant way point in the evolution of the Google SERP, and there are very real implications for marketers. While it’s way too early to draw any meaningful conclusions about what all of this means for search marketers, here are some things to keep in mind.
Target, Target, Target
The main implication of this change being discussed in the industry is the fact that fewer ads will now appear prominently on most SERP’s. Where up until last week, many results pages could show as many as nine ads above the fold (visible without scrolling on most computers), that number has been reduced to four ads at the most. That set of four ads maximum will now appear in the “center well” above any non paid search results for a given query. That space has for years included a maximum of three ads, but Google now says (and live searches confirm) that it will sometimes now contain a fourth ad on “highly commercial” queries.
The idea here is that a relative scarcity of prominent positions will drive up costs per click as the same number of advertisers jockey for a smaller number of slots. While the real impact of this certainly remains to be seen, this change undoubtedly underscores the need to carefully consider the queries for which you want your ads to appear. That applies to what keywords you want to bid on, but more and more it applies to the series of contextual signals that make up a given search query. If prices really are going to go up significantly as a result of this change, efficiencies can be found by examining your location targeting, what time of day is most impactful, what days of the week are really working for you and what kind of behavioral differences are exhibited by users who are part of a retargeting or customer list. Recent advances by Google like Customer Match offer more targeting options to allow you to really pick your spots in search. Make sure you are taking advantage of all of the tools at your disposal.
Take Care of Your Traffic
If predictions about this change and its impact on costs come to fruition, that means the economic realities of this channel will demand that you get more out of every click. This is a great opportunity to take a hard look at your landing page experience. Are you sending people to the best page available on your site, or have you created best-in-class destinations to capitalize on the valuable traffic you’re getting from paid search? Leaving searchers to fend for themselves once they click doesn’t really cut it anymore. Your campaign structures and destinations should be designed to give searchers what they want right away. This will, of course, increase conversion rates and keep costs per acquisition in line, but it will have the additional benefit of earning you a better quality score, allowing you to achieve higher positions for the same or lower costs. That will be critical as real estate on these pages becomes even more of a precious commodity.
Keep Calm and Trust the Data
In the face of what seems like a pretty drastic change to how ads are presented, you may be tempted to make some pretty bold moves in your search campaigns. Resist that temptation. Making big changes before the real impact of this development becomes clear could be a very costly move. The fact is, the economies of the paid search space haven’t stopped changing since Google launched AdWords more than 15 years ago. The marketers who have been successful in this dynamic channel are the ones who have consistently watched the data, capitalized on the trends and stayed true to the overarching vision of relentlessly providing searchers with highly relevant paid results. We know that Google has been testing this change for a while. I find it highly unlikely that they would pull the trigger on a global roll-out that edges a whole bunch of paying customers out of the channel. Whatever the outcome of this shift, there will undoubtedly be ways to continue to run and optimize profitable paid search campaigns.
There are certainly very few dull moments when it comes to paid search marketing, and the impact of this latest change from Google will no doubt have us all finding ways to rise to a new challenge in the coming weeks. Watch this blog for updates on what DAC is seeing.