An SEO Urges Calm as Another Top-page Ad Appears
It’s happened once again – Google has made a major change to the SERP. This time they’ve discontinued right-rail ads and opened the door for a fourth ad at the top of the page. No doubt many SEOs recoiled in horror when they heard the news. Sometimes it seems like Google is conspiring to make even our best organic pages difficult to find. Top-load a page with four ads, include a map or Answer Box, and even elite, high-ranking pages will struggle for attention. What gives, Google?
First, the good news. According to Google, the additional ad will only be served for “highly commercial queries.” Think “new homes Orange County”. The bad news? That classification is probably a moving target, meaning it will be difficult to know ahead of time how commercial your query is in the eyes of Google. Like most aspects of the SERP, there’s no reason to think the same query will be treated the same way each time someone performs a search.
So how concerned should SEOs be about this change? The answer may surprise you.
What We Can Learn from Mobile Search
When it comes to pushing organic links below the fold, the small viewports on mobile devices naturally put SEOs at a disadvantage. Even one ad is intrusive – three ads and a map requires serious scrolling to reach organic content.
Last year Google acknowledged that the number of smartphone searches had surpassed desktop queries for the first time. Ask most SEOs, and they’ll tell you that organic mobile visits make up an increasing – if not dominant – share of traffic to their sites. If top-of-the-page ads were siphoning off a significant amount of traffic, we’d expect organic mobile entries to be lower than their desktop counterparts, or at least suffering from slow growth. So there is at least anecdotal evidence that users still value the top organic links, regardless of how far they have to scroll to reach them.
Consider your own mobile search habits. I was recently shopping for a television and spent considerable time researching different models. While I saw plenty of paid ads, most were designed for those ready to make a purchase. When it came to queries about reviews or specifications, I scrolled right down to the organic results. I simply don’t want to know what Sony thinks of its own television (I’ll save you the search: they say they’re all great). Organic results will probably always enjoy an advantage over ads when it comes to searchers seeking unbiased information.
I’m not trying to cast doubt on paid search. Once someone is near the purchase point, your paid ads offer a critical conversion throughway. But I don’t think the addition of another ad placement throws off the existing organic/paid balance very much. To hear about these changes from a paid search perspective, check out this entry by The Search Agency’s own Ryan Jamison.
The Google giveth, and the Google taketh away. Remember that right-rail text ads have been eliminated. Google recently said that these placements were chronic underperformers (PLAs and Knowledge Graph ads did convert, and can still appear in the right rail). The exciting part for SEOs comes in imagining what Google might add to this now-vacant space.
Knowledge Graph Panels could be expanded, or new variations of Answer Boxes might appear. It’s all speculation right now, but there may be interesting additions down the road. After all, if Google can’t sell the space, they might as well populate it themselves.
The potential for new organic placements on the right rail should encourage you to pursue the latest optimization technologies with clients. Google has been harping on semantic markup for years. New, innovative SERP placements could very well incorporate markup.
SEOs have reason to be optimistic. If the fourth ad is limited to highly commercial queries, it’s unlikely that organic traffic will take a dramatic hit for most of us. The removal of right-rail ads may present opportunities down the road. No doubt much more digital ink will be spilled on this topic in the months ahead. Keep checking this blog – and your own analytics – to keep abreast of what’s really going on out there.