In February, Google began rolling out a dramatic change to how paid ads are displayed for desktop search results. For the first time since the search engine giant introduced paid advertisements way back in 2000, there will be no ads in the right column. Instead, ads will only be shown at the top and/or bottom of the page. At the same time, Google has confirmed that it will sometimes show four advertisements – not the usual three – above the organic search results for those queries it deems to be “highly commercial”.
These changes to how paid advertisements are displayed on desktop devices are the result of a test that began back in 2010, and that has been continuously tweaked and refined ever since. Over the past year, the search engine optimisation (SEO) team at Reflect have noticed top-only ads with greater frequency, culminating in Google’s confirmation that paid advertisements will no longer appear in the right-hand column for searches performed on desktop devices. So what does this mean for those companies that rely on organic searches for the majority of their search engine traffic? And what does the future hold for SEO as a result?
Google’s announcement that paid advertisements will now be show exclusively above (and below) the natural search results on the left-hand side has been met with much skepticism and criticism – particularly by those businesses that have invested a considerable amount of time and money in improving their organic search engine ranking positions (SERPS). However, we at Reflect firmly believe this change represents a golden opportunity for marketing-savvy businesses to increase their search engine visibility and capture even more quality traffic through organic search. However, it’s highly likely that the changes will still have some impact on traffic levels, at least initially.
In general, advertising doesn’t work very well on the web. Banner blindness – a phenomenon where website visitors consciously or subconsciously ignore banner-like information – has been demonstrated and proven countless times in numerous studies over the years, such as this one by usability expert Jakob Nielsen.
However, advertisements on search engines – particularly text ads – do work, as search engines are the one type of website that people visit with the explicit goal of finding somewhere else to go as quickly as possible. Therefore, if a user sees a highly targeted advertisement for the exact thing they’re searching for (whether it’s a product or service) there’s a good chance they’ll click the ad. Text ads on search engines are a perfect example of effective “request marketing”, and now that there will almost always be three or more highly targeted paid ads at the top of the page they do represent a genuine risk to the click-through rate of organic results.
There is another factor to consider when analysing the potential impact on the click-through rate of organic search results now that paid advertisements dominate the above-the-fold space: many people simply don’t realise that the top ads are actually advertisements. It was pretty obvious to just about everyone that links in the right column were sponsored ads, but the line between natural and paid results has now become more blurred than ever before.
When you consider that the overall number of paid ads is now going to be reduced from 11 to six or seven, it’s obvious that the competition amongst advertisers is likely to increase significantly. It’s also highly likely that the cost-per-click (CPC) of many keywords is going to rise across the board – particularly for the most competitive commercial search queries – as those companies with the biggest budgets compete with each other to get their ad shown in the top three slots.
Because of the likelihood of increased competition, businesses with smaller marketing budgets will probably find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to compete for the top ad spots due to the bids Google will now receive for these coveted positions. And it’s not just what companies are willing to bid that will determine where their ad is shown; Quality Scores are going to become even more important (although they were already), as Google will be keen to ensure a high click-through rate (CTR) for the ads it displays. As a result, it’s likely that only the most effective pay-per-click (PPC) marketing campaigns will succeed.
In order to make the most of PPC advertising opportunities, businesses will probably need to invest more time and money in optimising and testing their campaigns, and will either have to employ people in-house specifically to manage their PPC campaigns or hire a digital marketing agency such as Reflect Digital to manage and monitor their PPC campaigns. Finding the budget to compete for the most competitive keywords while continuing to invest in organic search marketing may be beyond the financial reach of many businesses.
By forcing the bigger brands to invest more resources into managing their PPC campaigns, Google may be opening the door for smaller business to capitalise on the decreased competition for organic real estate. Achieving good organic search rankings requires time spent testing and refining the website itself, building backlinks and creating high-quality content that engages and informs. Creating amazing content on a regular basis is an extremely time-consuming task and is generally not a scalable tactic, so if smaller businesses decide to abandon PPC advertising altogether and invest their marketing budget in areas such as organic SEO, social media marketing and video marketing, organic ranking positions could be increased significantly.
The rise of ad blockers shows no sign of abating, and as more and more publishers view paid ads as their main source of income the situation is unlikely to change anytime soon. In fact, the latest data published by PageFair demonstrates just how fast the ad blocking market is growing, with the global use of ad blockers being up 41% (to 198m) between Q2 2014 and Q2 2015. GlobalWebIndex has also drilled down into regional and demographic variations, finding that Europe leads the way in ad block penetration at 30%, with males aged 16-24 the most likely demographic to use ad blockers.
According to the latest research published by IAB, 15% of British consumers are using ad blockers. The most common reason cited by UK consumers for blocking ads is that they are “interruptive”, with 73% of those surveyed giving this as the main reason. Other reasons given for blocking ads are that they are “annoying” and they “slow down web browsing”. If the use of ad blockers continues to rise as it has done over the past couple of years, it could eventually make whatever anybody is doing with PPC marketing irrelevant anyway.
The SEO team at Reflect have seen a significant shift in the CTR of organic search results over the last couple of years, and ranking on page one for a handful of core keywords is generally no longer enough. Ideally, your website needs to appear within the top three organic positions for a variety of search queries, otherwise you’re likely to see a big drop-off of click-through rates.
If your website already ranks for a commercially meaningful keyword, it’s important to ensure you do everything possible to make your listing stand out from the crowd. A clear and concise title tag, a compelling meta description with a clear call-to-action and intelligent use of schema markup will all help to maximize the click-through rate of your organic search listings. Paid advertising will continue to evolve, becoming more interactive and visually appealing as new technologies emerge and audience expectations change, and this means it’s important to make sure your organic listings as relevant and appealing as possible.
Arguably the most effective SEO strategy of all is to become the brand that people think of before they even enter a search query into Google. While a strong Google search presence is certainly still very important, relying on Google as your sole means of generating traffic (and revenue) is a dangerous tactic. Many SEO experts believe that Google are edging ever closer to a paid-only first page of search results, and if that ever happens then those businesses that rely on organic traffic from Google could be hit hard. Combining outstanding customer service, a great user experience and clever marketing tactics will help you make the most of your direct traffic and brand mentions, and may help your business to become less reliant on Google as a source of income.
Many people view SEO and PPC as completely separate marketing strategies, and although they are fundamentally different approaches to marketing it’s useful to think of them as being two sides of the same coin: search. SEO and PPC, when combined, can be an extremely powerful search marketing strategy that can help take almost any business to a whole new level of commercial success.
The most obvious benefit of combining SEO and PPC marketing is the additional exposure that can be achieved as a result. Historically, business owners were often tempted to reduce their PPC spend once their website appeared on page one for their core commercial keywords, but the fact that organic search results are now being forced further down the page means that PPC advertising should not necessarily be viewed as a short-term marketing solution. Dominating the organic and paid search results will increase traffic significantly and also give the impression that you’re an established presence in a particular niche.
Simultaneously running organic and paid campaigns will give you access to significantly more data. This will provide you with a far more accurate picture of which organic and PPC keywords yield the greatest conversion rate and will ultimately provide you with much more accurate marketing data upon which to base future business decisions.
PPC ads offer a great way to refine your overall organic keyword strategy. As your long-term organic keyword strategy evolves, using PPC ads to test the conversion rate of the keywords you want to rank for will provide you with immediate feedback on the effectiveness of those keywords. This will make it much easier to refine your strategy accordingly and, given the fact that Google hides over 90% of organic keyword information behind its “not provided” value in Google Analytics, PPC ads provide the most accurate method of determining which keywords drive converting traffic to your website.
What works for a PPC campaign is likely to be effective for SEO too. By determining which paid ads result in the most conversions, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how to write title tags, meta descriptions and content for those pages that rank organically. The obvious benefit of using PPC ads to test the effectiveness of page attributes and content is the immediate availability of the results. Testing page titles, meta descriptions and page content organically can take a long time and is dependent on when Google decides to re-index your site; testing the same content on your paid listings will provide you with the information you need almost immediately.
You can’t please all of the people all of the time. Occasionally someone is going to say something negative about your business, regardless of how much you try to avoid it. When it happens, combining PPC and SEO can be a great way to minimise the damage to your reputation. A perfect example of how combining PPC and SEO can help to mitigate the impact of negative PR was seen during the Gulf oil spill in 2010. For some time afterwards, BP paid for PPC ads linked to the keyword “oil spill”, which in turn linked to a page on BP’s site about the cleanup effort. They wanted to ensure that whenever the word “oil spill” was searched for, BP’s PPC ad was at the top of the list. Combining the two marketing strategies can be a very effective technique to help you tell your side of the story.
Social media sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube now provide businesses with highly targeted advertising opportunities and can display ads to extremely specific groups of people. The data you collect from these paid advertising campaigns is likely to uncover granular details about your target audience and help you improve our overall SEO strategy.