Google Removed Right Hand Ads: So Now What?

Written by Tim Edmundson

Before After 2

As long as you haven’t been living under a digital rock the past week, you know that Google made big news by removing the right hand ad placement from its SERP (Search Engine Results Page) on desktop. These are the ads that sat on the right hand side of the search page results, offering goods and services tied to the initial search query. And while they never really performed as strongly as the ads above the organic search results, they made up a sizable chunk of available inventory on the first page.

Since the change, nerves have been frayed and the industry has been scrambling to figure out what it will mean for their campaigns. It’s still too early to tell what the true impact to the landscape will be, but there are plenty of areas you should keep an eye on.

The Change

Before we discuss the impact, it’s best to lay it all out and note what exactly has changed (just in case you were under that rock after all).

The Google SERP traditionally housed ads in three locations on the first page – above, below, and to the right of the organic search results. Going into effect on February 19th, Google enacted a “global and permanent” change that removed the right hand ads completely. The ad layout now contains up to four ads at the top of the organic search results, and three below. Google has stated that the top ads will be limited to three, unless the search is associated with “highly commercial queries,” in which case the fourth ad placement will appear. Essentially, this means users won’t get the extra ad unless Google associates the search keywords with commerce.

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 2.30.00 PM

It should be noted that right hand side won’t always be barren – Product Listing Ads and Knowledge Graphs will be unaffected and will continue to populate the right hand side.

An interesting side note to all of this is that with Google reducing the total number of ads, it would be easy to conclude that this was a move to reduce clutter and enhance the user experience. They have innovated in the past to add more value, and most of their tinkering with the SERP was to add to the page – the Product Listing ad block and Knowledge Panel additions were created to enhance the user experience and get them pertinent information quickly.

With this change, though, this doesn’t fully appear to be the case – yes the page is a lot less cluttered, but as the screenshot to the right shows there are no organic search results above the fold. With the addition of another ad placement at the top of results, Google is actually pushing organic results off the page. So while the experience is a bit cleaner for the user, they may have to get used to scrolling to ultimately find what they’re looking for.
The ultimate motivator for this change was most likely that it brings desktop more in line with the mobile experience. Google has taken a mobile-first approach for some time, which makes sense since mobile queries surpassed desktop last year. And with the right hand ads never really matching the performance of the ads found amongst the organic results, it gives Google the ability to focus their efforts on placements that deliver the best results for both them and their advertisers.

The Impact

Considering Google’s desktop SERP is pretty simple and straightforward, any sort of change is going to be big news. This change in particular carries a lot of consequence since it takes such a chunk out of Google’s available ad placements.

Once the excitement and panic of the announcement passed, the response from the industry is definitely one of a “wait and see” approach, and rightly so. There are some logical guesses one could make at this time, but until there is more data available it is best not to jump the gun. Still, it’s a good idea to know what could be potentially impacted. Here are a few areas where we anticipate there could be change:

Top Four Pricing Will Get Pricier | This is probably the most anticipated change. Logic dictates that because the above-the-fold ad placements have been halved in number, the remaining placements will skyrocket in price to compensate. This could have a significant impact on how campaigns are carried out – since marketers generally have a set budget, the ads resting above the organic results could very well be priced out of many marketers’ budgets.

Retargeting Will See a Boost | If the anticipated price increases do go into effect, marketers may start looking for a more affordable and efficient use of their advertising dollar. Retargeting campaigns will be clear of any sort of impact brought on by these recent changes in SEM, and could provide the desired ROAS. Similar increases in other channels and tactics could be seen as well.

Traffic for Top Four Will Increase | The vast majority of paid clicks came from the ads above the organic results anyway, but now they’ll be the only ads above the fold. Any clicks that were being picked up by the right hand ads could very well now be funneled into the top four placements.

SEO Will See an Impact | This one is interesting because it could go either way. Google says organic traffic won’t be affected, but with organic results getting pushed lower and in some cases below the fold, there is a decent chance that this will be the case. Data shows that the lower a result is on the SERP, the fewer clicks it gets. On the flip side, since there will be less organic results available higher up the page, this could put a premium on strong SEO since businesses will want to be sure they inhabit those limited spots.

Ad Extensions May be the Norm | Advertisers are going to want to make the most of the premium space in their control, and will begin to utilize ad extensions more to get the most out of their buys. Expect to see those top four ads bulking up in size and presence.

They say patience is a virtue, and that will come in handy as we wait to see what the full impact of these changes will be. We’ll be sure to follow up with an update once we have a better idea of how the dust has settled.