How Your SEO Strategy Will Be Impacted By Google's Removal of Right-Hand-Side Ads on SERPs
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Will Your SEO Strategy Be Impacted By Google’s Removal of Right-Hand-Side Ads on SERPs?

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Think your AdWords clicks are expensive? Get ready for them to start costing a whole lot more.

As of Friday of last week, Google confirmed that it had permanently removed all right-hand ads on its SERPs (search engine results pages) worldwide, making room for ads at the top and bottom of the page. The company indicated that a fourth sponsored link may return at the top of the page if the search query is “highly commercial.”

This update has plenty of implications for brand marketers wondering how to most effectively spend their budgets on SEO strategy and other content channels. Let’s get right to them.

Clicks Are about to Get a Whole Lot More Expensive

With less room on SERPs for ads, brands are likely to start battling it out over the top 3-4 ad spots on SERPs, competing over keywords and driving up the cost per click. If you thought “San Antonio car wreck attorneys” was expensive now, just wait until the effect of this change careens through the Lone Star State!

In all seriousness though, competitive terms will probably get even more competitive, especially in those “highly commercial” industries that return a fourth ad (insurance, travel). Brands that compete in this ad space for the attention of hotel bookers, for instance, now are fighting over attention with one more player in the ring.

Boston hotel ads on Google

Let me take you down a quick rabbit hole to illustrate this point. When I was in middle school, my favorite computer game was The Sims. I’d create characters and build houses for them to live in. When you start the game, you’re only allotted a certain number of Simoleons (dollars) to build your house. This made for some tight living quarters and crucial item-buying decisions.

Of the items you could purchase to fill your home, one bed was clearly better than the others, increasing your characters’ comfort and energy faster and more effectively. However, it was much more expensive than the other beds, and I could only afford one, so my Sims would fight over who got to sleep in it each night.

“Damnit, Zork, you had it last night!”

In this case, that limited real estate is like Google’s ads, the difference being that the ads aren’t guaranteed to replenish your comfort and energy. As Search Engine Watch noted, “For Paid Search advertisers the change will certainly drive up average CPCs [cost per click] as the competition for the top slots increases. It’s gonna get ugly.”

Did I just compare Google Ads to The Sims? Oh yeah.

Brands Will Place More Emphasis on Organic Search Rankings

With less space on the side of the SERP for ads, and occasionally a fourth ad placed on the top of the screen, ranking on the first results page will become even more difficult. As organic results get squeezed and bumped down, the importance of consistently using long-tail, relevant keywords increases.

According to The Media Image, the reason that Google has decided to axe the right-hand ads is because: “Google has determined the average click-through-rate for Right Hand Side Ads is poor across verticals, and the expected CPC inflation from this major change is projected to be more profitable in the long run.”

I buy this theory. Click-through rates of sponsored ads are notoriously low even on the top of the page, though brands continue to spend money on them. Though they differ per campaign, Google has reported the average CTR (click-through rate) is around 2 percent.

Two percent! That’s just the number percent of people clicking the ad. Far fewer actually convert into a paying customer. And if you look at the actual percentage of people who click on now-defunct sidebar ads and bottom-of-the-page ads vs. top-of-the-page ads, it’s only 14.6 percent, according to WordStream analysis.

SEO Strategy: January 2016 Desktop Paid Clicks by Position on the SERP

While enterprise brands spend hundreds of millions of dollars on Google ads and historically have returned profits, it’s a possibility that this recent change will make paid search revenue more difficult to attain. This update should prompt brands to place more of an emphasis on building and maintaining an organic search keyword strategy for their teams of storytellers to follow. A consistent SEO strategy will contribute to a steady increase in SERP ranking among keywords and help elevate PageRank, driving traffic for years to come.

We’re all aware of the correlation between CTR and landing on SERP number one. Check out that CTR plummet after the first few results (the study is from 2014, but the correlation likely has not changed much).

Basically, if your page doesn’t rank in first five search results, forget about that potential visitor clicking on your story. “I’d recommend that you really should be aiming top three now, otherwise there’s likely to a big drop-off in clickthrough rates,” warns Kevin Gibbons, Managing Director at BlueGlass via a recent Search Engine Watch article.

Looks like it’s time to revisit your organic search strategy.

The Search Times Are a-Changin’

Another big reason why Google has decided to remove this block of ads is because users are moving to mobile at high speed, and the tech company clearly wants to mimic its mobile UX on desktop. It also wants to use that space more effectively on computer screens by showing knowledge graph results and product listings ads.

The search environment has changed dramatically over the years, with Google rolling out new enhancements and interfaces, many catering to the rapid global adoption of mobile (last spring the company announced that users were searching more via mobile than desktop, a long anticipated moment).

One thing is for sure among all the updates over the years: Google is the top-dog landlord in our digital world, and we’re all beholden to its offerings. Don’t like the rent? Too bad. You can find another place to live, but it might be pretty lonely.

Regardless, now is a great time to review your Google Adwords strategy. Is it driving business? Is it reaching your mobile audience? Would more of that money be better spent on a sustainable brand storytelling strategy that increases organic ranking?

Whatever the case, staying up on the latest search trends will help empower your organization to make the most out of this channel. If you want to learn more about SEO strategy, subscribe to the Content Standard Newsletter.

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  • Totally agree that it was a pure money play on Google’s part. I’ve got several clients whose PPC has risen dramatically. And with the rise of mobile searches, it made sense for Google on every front.

    • Thanks for the comment, Shane, and good point about mobile. It will be interesting to see how else the SERP changes in 2016.

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