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Why is Google removing the sidebar ads?

This week has seen a really interesting change in the way Google’s SERPs are being laid out, seeing Google remove the PPC ads from the right hand sidebar with immediate effect.

In addition to the removal of the ads in the righthand sidebar, Google will also begin to introduce four ads at the top of the results for queries that are “highly commercial” instead of the three that they normally run with.

The right-hand side will now only be utilized only for Product Listings Ads (PLAs) and Knowledge Graph Boxes – so they’re not really getting rid of it altogether, just re-employing it a bit.

Google said: “We’ve been testing this layout for a long time, so some people might see it on a very small number of commercial queries.” They went on to say: “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.”

BrightHR HR Software Search Query Showing Top Four Ads
Demonstrating the removal of the right sidebar ads and the addition of the fourth top block ad.

So loads of people are running around speculating about what this means for Adwords, ie lots of keywords will become more competitive and probably end up making Google even more money and also what this means for organic search, because in this scenario most of the listings get pushed down.

The thing is, users are particularly good at looking for organic listings, so it’s likely they’ll scroll down to find them and in the future find more organic listings than they had down historically.

As with all of Google’s decisions this is a commercial one and although we may cry out as an industry, we shouldn’t be so naïve to believe Google has made this change without huge amounts of testing. They know that people will live with this change and it will make them more money so they’ve gone for it.

As digital marketing and advertising agency The Media Image suggests, it’s all going to be down to insights from key metrics, saying: “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 more profitable in the long run.”

I don’t think we’re anyway near seeing the whole first page filled with ads, but who knows, we might find it just as easy to click past them in the same way we do a pop-up or skip the ads on YouTube.

The appearance of the ads in the sidebar always made them stand out, and this probably made the user differentiate between the ads at the top of the page as well. I have a theory that by removing the ads on the sidebar the CTR of the ads at the top of the SERPs will naturally increase as users become less concerned about distinguishing between paid and organic.

Google has previously attempted and failed to remove the sidebar ads, so it’s likely they’ve known for some time there’s something about the sidebar ads that are detrimental to their ability to maximise revenues from Adwords. I suspect it’s the addition of the fourth result in the top ads which has made this commercially viable.

In addition we’ve got to review the way the world has changed. More people use their mobile devices to access content and on these devices the sidebar isn’t viable. This means maintaining two versions of the system and delivering a differing user experience between devices. The new model allows for commonality between all devices.

What will users of Google think?

Google is in a virtual monopoly position, if there was a viable alternative to the search engine delivering high quality serps there might be some backlash, however it’s likely that after 12 years in the advertising game, Google has developed the Adwords algorithm to such an extent that it will deliver really excellent quality, relevant results that match up with searcher intent. If anything, this change may improve the searchers experience on the search engine.

What to do about it?

We’ve still got to think in terms of how we can compete from an SEO perspective, after all those that don’t get amongst it won’t win anything. However it’s been known for a long time now that organic results are returning fewer click throughs than ever before. These days it’s often not good enough to be on page one, it’s the top few positions that will count and this will be increasingly the case.

Brand marketing is becoming increasingly important to online marketing. Gone are the days when you can set up a website and win big. Now you have to do all the things we used to do in marketing back in the pre-online era. You got to be the brand people think of before they even get to Google as brand is one of the factors that increases click through rates – and click through rates increase rankings.

Taking a blended approach to search is also going to be vital. You need to be integrated your PPC and SEO strategies, for now the new four block of top PPC ads will only be on the most commercial queries. Knowing this means you can work out where to target your PPC campaigns and where to target your seo campaigns. If this pushes up the cost of PPC for those top terms, which I believe it will, it may be that you can afford to lose some of the PPC battles if you rank highly for seo terms (or lose them and concentrate on the seo terms).

The top spots are going to become more competitive as businesses will no longer be able to settle for positions 1 – 5, instead they’ll have to achieve position 1 – 3 if not focus on getting to position 1 to call it a successful seo campaign.

For now this is focused on highly competitive searches, I would say this is anything a commercial organisation is prepared to bid on in Google language. So for now, it may be that we can continue to work with a content marketing approach for the benefit of soaking up search, however those businesses that purely employ a content marketing strategy to gain serp positions alone will have to work out how they can better distribute their content and in the future I suggest we’ll see the changes rolled out to all search meaning content marketing will become less important for a wide number of businesses as a SERP gaining strategy.

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