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New Google Layout Changes PPC Strategies

By Brendan Flavin

VP + Director of Digital Marketing

In one of the biggest shake-ups we’ve seen in the Pay-Per-Click world, with far-reaching effects on PPC strategies, Google recently changed the layout for displaying ads on Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). As of February, an update began removing paid ads from the right rail (those search ads that fell on the right of the page alongside organic search results), and increased the number of ads above the organic results.

Going forward you will now see as many as four ads above organic search results, and three ads at the bottom of the page. This change ultimately reduces the total ads on the page from as many as 11, to only 7 at most.

What does this mean? Well, it’s not great from an organic perspective. Essentially, under this new layout if you are fortunate enough to enjoy the coveted first organic search position, you are still the fifth result on the results page. Yikes!

Like me, you’re probably feeling a dizzying number of emotions - excited, optimistic, distressed, crying out for the support of immediate and extended family members.

The biggest source of angst from this update to four ads at the top of search results is the impact it has on SEO. Historically speaking, if you had strong SEO then you were less reliant on PPC. We had come to grips with the fact that three ads lived at the top of the page. That was the reality.

But now our organic listings are being pushed farther down the results page. The more real-estate that gets consumed by ads, the less effective your SEO-only approach becomes. In essence, Google is telling us that you need to pay-to-play for that coveted position at the top of the page.

Relevancy of PPC vs. SEO Results

Some marketers will be quick to say, “Relax, they’re just ads. Everyone knows that organic results are more relevant than those.” Unfortunately, this argument has lost support over time. Just as Google has continued to refine its organic algorithm, it has also continued to develop its process for delivering search ads. In both cases, relevancy is the most important factor.

Here at Swell Media, we always say a good PPC ad shouldn’t feel like an ad at all; it should be connecting the searcher with the seller. Google seems to feel the same way, too.

If Google can provide you with a high quality paid result for your query, the more likely you are to click on an ad in the future. Essentially, the more you trust their ads, the better it is for their business. The searcher gets what they were looking for, and Google gets paid for the click. This puts the onus on Google to ensure relevancy of ads to keep earning your clicks. This is what harmony feels like!

Given all of these developments, it’s becoming clearer that the website that relies on an SEO-centric approach to traffic generation is not only competing for organic rankings, but also battling against ads displayed above these rankings. And yes, the ads are more relevant than ever before.

“Relax, they’re just ads. Everyone knows that organic results are more relevant than those.” Unfortunately, this argument has lost support over time.

Now you might be thinking, "Ok, my world is crumbling around me. What should I start doing to reverse this curse!?" Read on for some ways to navigate this change with a few PPC strategies.

Bidding on Branded Keywords in AdWords

Once we shake the temporary paralysis of this update, the first debate we need to revisit is whether you should bid on branded terms for PPC. I have heard many marketers argue that this strategy is a waste of budget if you already hold strong organic positions. Why pay when you already show up on the first page, especially in a situation where the individual is actively searching for your product or service.

If the “first position really equals fifth position” situation isn’t motivating enough, let’s consider a few other scenarios where this is becomes really important:

Do you work with have other online retailers who sell your product?

It’s quite likely that they are advertising on your branded keywords to drive sales through their site. If you can use an inexpensive branded PPC ad to encourage a direct buy through your official site then you save on fees.

Do you have opportunistic competitors?

We would all be pretty lucky if this weren’t the case for our business, but it probably is. Which brings us back to the central theme of competitors having the opportunity to be displayed above your organic listing. Don’t let these other advertisers poach your potential clients because you assumed that the presence of your brand term in a search query guaranteed you a sale.

There’s a chance this situation is completely unintentional. Your branded terms might include a subset of generic keywords that could trigger a phrase match without the competitor even bidding on your brand name.

In the example below, I have performed a search for a company called “Southern New Hampshire Tree Service”. You can see that this company shows up first in the organic results. However, we also have a slew of other advertisers in their industry that are likely bidding on the keywords “Tree Service”, or even “Southern NH Tree Service” without knowing who this company is. These competitors, each with similar offerings to the company being searched for, have snatched the ad space at the top of the page.

Oh, and if you want to be that opportunistic adversary then you should bid on competitor keywords. It’s inexpensive and allows for some great opportunities to present an offer to potential customers (searching for your competitors) that may convince them to do their business with you.

Other Considerations

For those advertisers who are in the throes of this change, there are several additional considerations here:

Less Noise = Greater Impact:

On the positive side, the removal of ads from the right rail means there is less clutter on the search engine results page. If your ad makes the cut on the top four positions, then you are more likely to catch the eye of the searcher with fewer distractions on the page.

Fringe Ads = Lost Cause:

With the layout update reducing the number of ads that can show on the first-page result, someone had to lose. In this case, we have three ads that are no longer receiving impressions.

If you’re an advertiser that falls into this group you have to look closely at your situation to evaluate the cost and competitiveness of the auction you are entering into, or if you’re trying to compete for searchers on terms that are less relevant. Something was causing Google to rank you poorly, so you’ll need to adjust to stay in the fray.

All told, Google’s PPC Layout has forced all advertisers to evaluate their strategies. Are you bidding on terms relevant enough to show your ads in the top four positions? Are you bidding on branded terms to ensure your competitors aren’t forcing your organic results down the page? Are you bidding on competitor terms to capitalize on the new real estate above organic results?

After you answer these questions, be sure to remember that the most important factors remain relevancy between landing page content, ad copy, and keyword to ensure the searcher is finding what they are looking for. This is what Google is trying to do, and the best way to play nice is by making your PPC ads not feel like ads at all.

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Brendan Flavin

VP + Director of Digital Marketing