T his February, Google rolled out a dramatic change in the layout of its desktop result pages, with the removal of the right-side text ads. At the same time, the search engine introduced a fourth ad showing above the organic search result for what they call “highly commercial queries”.

Though this may come as a surprise to some, it has been in the pipeline for some time. The fourth ad at the top of the page is no new occurrence, it has been experimented with since 2010.

In an official statement regarding the change, Google says:

“We’ve been testing this layout for a long time, so some people might see it on a very small number of commercial queries. We’ll continue to make tweaks, but this is designed for highly commercial queries where the layout is able to provide more relevant results for people searching and better performance for advertisers.”

Though Google no longer will show text ads in the sidebar, it will not become entirely empty. The box containing product listing ads (PLAs) will continue to populate the space, and Google confirms experimenting with ads in the knowledge graph.

To summarize, these are the changes that have been rolling out this month:

  • Text ads have been removed from the right sidebar.
  • A fourth ad may show above the organic search results for some queries.
  • Up to three ads can be shown below the organic search results.
  • The highest amount of text ads possible has changed from eleven to seven.
  • PLAs and knowledge graphs will still show in the right sidebar for relevant queries, the knowledge graphs sometimes containing ads, as testing will continue in these spaces.

Why This Change?

Though Google has not confirmed it, there are some theories circling blogs and forums regarding why these changes were made. First of all, the company strongly advocates a mobile first approach, meaning a one-column layout makes sense from a user perspective. However, this can not alone be the case since the knowledge graph and PLAs will continue to show in the right hand column.

More likely this has something to do with the fact that text ads in the right hand column have a lower rate of interaction, and for queries showing the knowledge graph the text ads are pushed too far down the page. The ads above the organic search results appear more natural and are not as easily identified as advertisement for many users. Basically, it comes down to ad space and economy.

Who is Affected?

According to Google’s official statement, the change will only affect highly commercial queries, and only searches made from desktops. This indicates that only a small number of queries will be affected.

However, Google’s definition of highly commercial seems to be different from others. The software company Moz has already posted pictures showing four top ads for the search phrase “child abuse”, and claims to have seen it for other non-commercial searches, including “global warming” and “bible verses”.

Some PPC marketers claim this will be the end of small businesses using Google AdWords, since the more limited space is bound to lead to a higher cost per click. Others claim this will lead to a higher return of investment, since the removal of the right hand text ads means all ads will have a chance to show sitelinks and ad extensions.

This change seems to have the highest impact on organic search results. It is too soon to tell exactly how it will affect the click through rate, but with the fourth ad the organic search results will no longer be showing above the fold. Even for queries only showing three ads, only the top one or two organic results will show, making it even more important to rank in the top positions.

How will this impact your SEO strategy?

These days, the ads are getting more and more space in the result pages, it is more important than ever to align your PPC and SEO strategies to understand how the channels interact and to achieve an optimal performance from search.

Extra exposure is the most obvious benefit of the combined strategies, but having a PPC campaign complementing your SEO-strategy also gives you twice the data to analyze. It gives you valuable information on your highest converting keywords, and analyzing the search term reports may give you inspiration for new content to produce for your website.

Without search engine marketing organic search results seem to have a disadvantage, but there are things you can do to make sure you take up as much space as possible. Let’s start with the basics.

  • First of all, ensure your site’s structure is easy to navigate and crawl. This will increase the chance that sitelinks will show below your description in the search results. If you use pictures that your audience is looking for, you should make sure that the images are optimized correctly. And we don’t even have to mention that your titles and meta descriptions should be optimized by now.
  • Secondly, if you haven’t yet started using content markup on your site, it is time to look into it. Content markup is snippets of code used for telling Google how to interpret the content on your site. This can be used for everything from locations and opening hours for local businesses, to recipes, products, reviews and events.
  • Lastly, make sure your business or brand has got a Google My Business account. The information you provide Google with might show on the map and in an information box in the right column. Remember to categorize your business correctly.