Google’s Latest Changes Affect Paid & Organic Search Results – Part 2

Last month, I wrote part one of this article detailing the changes Google would be making to their search engine results page (SERP) layout. At the time, Google had just announced they would be officially eliminating the right-hand rail from their paid search results. They would also be reducing the available number of paid search positions within any given SERP to seven (four in the top positions, three in the bottom). This new environment was expected to put even more of a premium on position, and possibly even force certain lower spend advertisers out of the mix all together.

Initial Reactions

After Google notified the public of the upcoming change, people began scrambling for data. Initial reports quelled fears slightly, noting that the soon-to-be-eliminated right-hand rail accounted for only about 7 percent of all paid search clicks. Additionally, ads within the top positions received a 14 times higher CTR on average compared to other positions. This means the top three positions (which would soon be expanded to four) had historically offered the best combination of efficiency and volume. But, despite this somewhat reassuring data, other questions remained at a local, more account-specific level that still needed to be answered, such as:

  • Would there be a drop off in impressions?
  • Would there be more competitive pressure?
  • Would CPCs rise and CTR fall due to this competitive pressure?
  • Would advertisers be forced to fundamentally alter the way they manage their accounts?
Reviewing the Data

In order to get a more accurate view of the affects this change has had thus far at a local, account-specific level, we decided to review our own agency-wide paid search data.

We took a look at overall performance across our client’s data for desktop-only paid search, comparing four weeks before the layout change to four weeks after the change. After reviewing the data, we noticed some pretty interesting trends. From a top-level view, we saw that:

  • Impressions fell 13%
  • Clicks were down 2%
  • CTR was up 13%
  • CPCs were down 2%

When we dug a little deeper, looking at Top Positions vs. Other Positions, we noticed we’re seeing the same amount of clicks from the Top Positions, but now seeing 25% more impressions from the Top Positions as well. The change has essentially eliminated the Other Position impressions that weren’t generating click volume, with clicks dropping only 2% and CTR rising 13% serving as even further proof of this.

We’re also seeing much less volume from lower position non-branded terms. Non-branded keywords with an average position of 4.0 or less have seen a more than 30% reduction in impressions and 40% fewer clicks for certain clients in the four weeks since the change. These positions simply no longer exist for non-branded terms, therefore we’re seeing much less volume through them. In most cases though, these were typically lower volume, lower conversion rate terms. Ones that would typically have generated limited impression totals and minimal impression share anyways.

All in all, the recent layout changes haven’t had a truly negative effect on our data because they haven’t impacted the impressions we typically deem the most valuable. Impressions fell, but the impressions that were lost were essentially inconsequential.

Adapting to this New Landscape

Undoubtedly, this new landscape will continue to evolve, forcing advertiser’s strategies to adapt in the process. If they haven’t already, advertisers should begin viewing desktop paid search in the same vein as they currently view mobile, where position is at a premium. Within mobile, if you’re not in the top two positions, you’re non-existent. Similarly now within desktop, if you’re not in the top four positions for the keywords you deem most valuable, you simply don’t exist at your most pivotal moments. Moving forward, employing a strategy designed to find the optimal balance between bidding, positioning and efficiency is the surest route to sustained success.

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Chris Reebie
Chris Reebie

Chris is a director on the search team at Empower, where he has been helping brands successfully devise, implement and manage their paid search initiatives for almost a decade across a wide variety of industries including retail, consumer packaged goods, pharmaceuticals and education. His forward-thinking tactics focused on the areas of bidding, targeting and testing have helped ensure his clients can successfully navigate the hostile waters of the highly competitive paid search industry.