Google Removes Right Rail PPC Advertisements from SERPs

Ryan Huser
Reading time 5 minutes

Recent dramatic changes to the layout of the SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages) on February 18th, 2016 have the Search Industry abuzz with excitement and speculation. What changed, why did it change, and how will it affect you and your business? Read what Ayima has to say about these industry-shaking alterations below.

For all search queries

RightRailAbsent

Notice anything unusual when conducting searches since February 18th? Here’s a hint: it’s not something you haven’t seen before, but the absence of something so familiar that it had become a recognized staple of Google desktop search: right rail PPC advertisements.

At this stage, PPC advertisements previously featured on the right rail appear to have migrated down to the bottom of the SERP, and onto the top and bottom PPC results on Page 2. This appears to bring the maximum instances of bottom PPC results to a count of 3.

BottomPPCCount

The occurrence of this type of SERP layout is currently in a state of flux, as are all alternate layouts discussed within this POV. On February 18th, Dr. Pete from Moz posted that the number of queries on which PPC ads were present on the right rail, dropped from nearly 45% to less than 25%. Although, as of the 19th it appears that the removal of PPC ads on the right rail of the SERPs is absolute; here at Ayima we are unable to find a search query in which right rail PPC ads are still active.

MozChartHCOccurence
Chart provided by Moz

For “highly commercial” queries

SERPs for especially competitive commercial queries, however, get an alteration that may potentially affect organic search results in a more direct fashion: an extra PPC listing up top. This brings the maximum PPC listing count above the organic search results to 4. Though SERP flux is still quite rampant, one consistency seems to be that each SERP can now only have a maximum of 7 PPC advertisements – a maximum of 4 up top, and 3 down below.

TopPPCCount

For situations in which Google News, Images, PLA (Product Listing Ads), or Local results are featured under the PPC advertisements, this will almost certainly guarantee a substantial amount of scrolling for users before the standard organic results can be visible.

Just how prevalent are these “Highly Commercial Queries”? The aforementioned Dr. Pete from Moz estimates that nearly 20% or 1/5th  of all SERPs now feature the “Top 4 Pack” of PPC results.

Why did Google make these changes?

Google has been testing these new SERPs as early as December 2015, but within the last few days it now appears the changes will be permanent.

We believe this decision was primarily made with PPC click-through rate performance in mind. It’s been widely discussed over the past few years that click-through rates on right rail PPC advertisements were abysmally low for the Mountain View search giant, and there is evidence that Google has toyed with removing the right rail ad space as early as 2012. Speculation (backed up by numerous heatmap and eye tracking studies) has long suggested that users tend to naturally “filter out” and ignore the right rail PPC advertisements, whereas click-through rates on PPC ads featured above the search results have fared far better.

By removing the largely ignored right rail space and (for many queries) adding a 4th PPC ad above the organic results, Google likely hopes to increase user interaction with their AdWords program while freeing up the right rail of the SERP to house Knowledge Graph or Google Shopping PLA placements. Adding a fourth PPC slot to the top of the search results is also an excellent opportunity for Google to increase the Cost Per Click and subsequent AdWords revenue for these new positions.

LampPLA

Many have also speculated that this may be an attempt to better replicate search results across a variety of platforms, as this new “mainline results” approach more closely resembles SERPs delivered across smartphone and tablet devices.

From our Head of Search, Ian Pereira: 

“Google’s decision to re-arrange the layout of the SERPs will provide advertisers with more opportunity to drive traffic through paid search. The change will likely see PPC experts paying closer attention in optimizing their non-brand campaigns in particular, capitalizing on the 4th ad placement for “highly commercial” keywords. This will ultimately result in would-be organic conversions being re-attributed to PPC. However, despite the extra ad placement pushing organic results further down the first page, we may see more focus on organic results for desktop users with less distraction coming from right-rail PPC ads.”

How will this affect your business? 

Considerations on changes in PPC performance and bid pricing aside, it is safe to say that a fourth PPC slot above the organic search results will result in a tangible effect on click-through rates for organic listings. Below is a bird’s-eye view of what Google would consider to be a highly commercial query with 4 PPC ads – [new york city internet]:

BEV-SERP-NY-INTERNET

The amount of real estate required to scroll through in order to reach the organic results is now quite substantial – almost two full screens worth. This is essentially a worse-case scenario, as less competitive queries and keywords that do not have local results would not fare as poorly.

However, as previous stated, there is a potential upside for organic traffic: in most cases, the removal of the right rail PPC advertisements also removes any potential distraction from users’ interaction with the organic results. This may result in higher click-through rates for organic listings. Not to mention the fact that the growing number of Ad Blocker users are no longer seeing any AdWords results at all.

At this stage, it is difficult to say with complete accuracy what the ramifications of these changes will be, for both organic and paid search traffic. As the fluctuation within the SERPs dies down over the next few weeks and we are able to conduct in-depth studies of organic and paid click-through rates, Ayima will keep you fully apprised of the true impact these large scale changes will have on your search engine performance.

Written By Ryan Huser
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