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PPC Help: What Happened to the Sidebar Ads?

By Rob Diggle

24th February | B2B Direct Marketing Email Marketing PPC Social Media Telemarketing Uncategorized

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PPC Help: What Happened to the Sidebar Ads?

This weekend, Google unexpectedly changed the layout of its search engine results page (SERP). The number of paid ad slots suddenly changed from 11 to just 3.

A lot of people in the paid search community were understandably nervous. In this blog we look into Google’s reasoning and how we can expect this to change PPC in future.

It was definitely a surprising development. Google  gets the majority of its revenue  from paid search, and over the last few years we’ve seen more and  more real-estate devoted to ads that perform particularly well, with sitelink  extensions, review ratings and all manner  of interactive doo-dads that help advertisers reach customers without comprising on the  organic search experience.

The sidebar ads always seemed to be part of the furniture, and that, presumably, was the problem. It’s long been known by advertisers that the difference in CTR between “Top of page” and “Other” was  massive. Our own internal data shows a drop of over 8% in CTR when ads appear outside of the top 3. People simply  weren’t clicking ads at the side of the page.

If there’s one thing Google prioritises, it’s the use of space in SERPs. You can rest assured that every pixel on that page has been tested, monitored and optimised to justify its inclusion in what is actually a remarkably clean and minimal interface.  Worrying as it may be  to us paid search folk to go from 11  potential ad slots in every auction to just 3 (with an extra slot available when Google is in a good mood), you can’t really argue that the space could be put to better use.

So what will they replace our ads with?

They’re not telling us  yet. Lots of ideas are floating round the SEM community: Google Compare – an in-page competitor to market comparison websites like   comparethemarket.com?  Expandable product listing ads with a “buy” button? Nothing at all, with the search results moved to the centre to mimic mobile search?  Nobody knows, including  –  if the mish-mash of responses people are getting from Google reps are anything to go by  –  most Google employees.

Does this apply to everyone, everywhere?

Not clear. Some people say   Google reps have confirmed to them verbally that this change will be rolled out globally, while others say it will only apply to certain “highly commercial queries”, whatever that means. I’m still seeing sidebar ads  at the moment, but a lot of people aren’t. Mobile doesn’t seem to be affected at all. The PPC universe is in a state of complete anarchy. Pray for us.

Why didn’t we know about this sooner?

Google presumably knew advertisers wouldn’t be happy about losing so much real estate, and they obviously didn’t fancy arguing with everyone who will claim that this is “The End of Google”. I don’t blame them.

So what now, death?

I am fairly confident that such a significant change will only have been made if they were confident it wouldn’t damage their core advertising product, both for their billionaire mega-clients and for the millions of SMEs, freelancers and startups who heavily depend on it. While the results will ultimately vary by vertical, and some people may find it harder to compete in auctions,  any change that makes it harder for small businesses to compete with corporations would cause a huge backlash from the paid search community and beyond. We’ll just have to wait and see (and work on the rest of our marketing strategy just in case).

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