Two months ago we reported on the
changes Google had made to the search engine results pages (SERPs) and now that the dust has settled we have had a look at what impact the change has made to our client campaigns.
To recap on what actually changed – in February Google decided to change the SERP layout for desktop searches so that there are no longer any side ads, effectively mirroring the results seen on tablets.
Previously Google delivered 10 paid search ads with 3 at the top and 7 down the side, and now we only see 3 or 4 at the top and the same number below the organic results. I was out of the office on paternity leave when this happened so when I came back I can honestly say that I couldn’t figure out the angle that Google were going for with this change.
The office and specifically my paid search team were all up in arms trying to predict the impact this would have on client accounts – would we see CPCs rocket now that it would become more competitive for above the fold visibility? Would the smaller players have a chance with their smaller budgets? Researching the usual news sites we saw the same questions going unanswered with comments from people seemingly in a pickle trying to cope with the change. It reminded me of the uproar when Google previously moved the goal posts back in 2013 with the
announcement of Enhanced Campaigns.
Now that the dust has settled what has actually been the impact?
Before getting into the numbers we need to make sure we are clear on what we are actually considering:
For some [clients], where mobile traffic is strong, this affected as little as 14% of site traffic.
- We are only talking about desktop traffic here – mobile and tablet search results pages were unchanged by this update.
- The volume of traffic that this change affected will vary depending on the advertiser’s industry sector, but for our client set this represents approximately 47% of traffic. For some, where mobile traffic is strong, this affected as little as 14% of site traffic.
We also need to remember that the biggest impact is on the ads that appeared in the “other” position (as Google knows it) as opposed to the “top” positions. When assessing our client set we found that 58% of impressions and 98% of all clicks came from the top positions – something that shouldn’t surprise anyone!
This means that
clients with a strong brand or low generic spend are likely to be mostly unaffected.
The 4 key findings from our post-layout change analysis:
1. Side impressions were hit the most
As you can see in the graph above there is a clear drop in impressions seen across the “other” ads at the point the change came in. Again this isn’t a surprise as most marketers knew that positions 4-7 in the old SERP could be as strong as the top 3 as you were in a prime “top – right” position, and now you are most likely to be showing below the organic results or even on page 2…
and let’s be honest, who scrolls to the bottom of the page or reaches page 2 these days?!
2. Overall CTR may have actually improved, well OK, it stayed the same
CTR overall stayed roughly the same as we saw a big drop in “other” impressions but actually clicks were not so badly hit (remember that previously only 2% of clicks came from the side ads anyway). This means we have effectively cut out the poorer performing impressions. That being said, you can see that our “top” ads actually did see a small decrease, most likely due to the addition of a 4
th ad at the top of the page.
Google giveth and Google taketh away!
3. CPCs remain steady
One of the biggest fears following this change was that we would suddenly see a massive jump in CPCs as everyone scrambled to make sure that their brand was in the top spots… and an outcome that I’m sure Google’s accounts department would have welcomed. So far we are seeing more or less business as usual. As you can see above, apart from the normal ebbs and flows not too much has changed.
4. Expect a drop in traffic from some generics
I know I have said not much has changed, and this is still true but there are still cases where we have seen changes of performance by ad position.
From our agency data we can see that there are some gains and some losses. It seems true that being in top positions for generics has benefits. This has always been the case, but since the change we think it’s fair to say that removing the side ads has focused the users mind onto the top 2 positions.
This comes at the expense of positions 3 - 9 but Google seems to have sweetened the deal with the consequence of the change being that the cost of these lower positions is, on the whole, less with a stronger CTR.
The change in the SERP offers up some exciting opportunities:
- What will Google use the side bar space for? - We already know that PLAs are coming out as winners now there is less of a distraction but could we see some new formats on the horizon soon?
- The knowledge card is going from strength to strength – this will show without impacting paid results (as it had done previously). We have already seen instances where the knowledge card has been extended to run the whole length of the page.
- Sitelinks used to be the reserve of the top placements - now that Google has effectively done away with the 4 line ad in favour of a wider ad there are more chances for sitelinks (and other extensions) to show, even in the bottom positions. This means that sitelinks continue to be a must to create standout as well as the ability to deeplink into your site.
The team here is used to establishing a
control, building a test and then learning from the resulting data, and this is what we will continue to do as this latest Google test evolves, advising our clients on an individual basis if and when we need to implement strategic changes.
It is still early days but our impression is that although in principle this is a major change to the way the search engine looks for some users, it hasn’t yet had a significantly negative impact, despite initial fears. This is in part down to our strategy here at equimedia and our approach to account set up and structure which means that we are able to react to changes like this in a calm way, measuring any impact across accounts and individual campaigns rationally, rather than panicking or making immediate, knee-jerk strategy changes.