Understanding the Full Environment of the Search Landscape

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Priscilla Jeng
By Priscilla Jeng

A little over a year ago, Google announced on February 19th, 2016 that the Search Engine Results Page will no longer have text ads on the right-hand side. Instead, Google deployed a new format showing 4 text ads above the organic results and 3 text ads at the bottom of the page. In other words, the number of total text ads shown in the SERP will drop from potentially up to 11 ads down to a maximum of 7.

So how did this big change to the SERP impact paid search and organic search?

Considering we’ve had over a year to gather data since the change, we would like to share with you the insights we came across after taking a deep dive in our accounts and highlight the trends we saw across different industries.

Let’s begin by taking a look at the data. The Google Analytics screenshot below was pulled from one of our national clients in the industry of custom window treatments for homes. As you can see in mid-February following the announcement date, there was a slight drop in organic traffic and a gradual upward trend in the paid traffic. We chose to showcase this client since there was no new initiatives implemented during this time frame that would skew the data.

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As for goal completions, we were seeing the same trend as the traffic report during this period. The conversion volume from organic traffic saw a decline while the conversion volume from paid traffic saw an uptick.

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Given the data shown here had the same trends as majority of our clients across the board, the new layout in SERP clearly played a role in affecting the performance on both channels.

How exactly does the change impact us? Let’s dive into each channel individually and identify the elements that were affected by the new format.

Paid Search

As we began to analyze the before and after performance, we noticed the paid search campaigns were seeing an uptick in engagement metrics and conversion volume after the new layout was deployed. Paid ads now have more real estate to show on the top of SERP along with ad extensions claiming additional space with higher visibility. Also, the top ad listings typically saw more traction anyway than the right-hand side ads, accounting for over 85% of paid search clicks according to the January 2016 numbers from WordStream. Given these factors benefited majority of our search campaigns, the change played an overall positive impact on the search channel.

The drawback on the new layout is that if you are not in the top 4 ad positions then your impressions and clicks share will see a drop. This is the new challenge advertisers are facing with higher CPCs due to the increased competition to be in the top 4 ad space. It is more important now than ever to ensure you maintain your brand visibility in the SERP and adjust your bids accordingly to stay ahead of your competitors.

Organic Search

The change has conversely played a negative effect on organic search considering the organic listings are now displayed farther down the SERP. The 4th ad at the top of the page now belongs to paid search and most devices won’t even see organic listings above the fold anymore. As the real estate on SERP has decreased for organic listings, we’ve been seeing the engagement metrics and conversion volume drop as well.

To combat this decline in performance, it is now even more critical for companies to rank high in the first couple of spots with this new layout. Our new strategy focuses on a core set of keywords that have the highest chance to rank in the number 1 spot in the organic listings, and we are now targeting more long-tail terms instead of the highly competitive head terms. If your organic strategy already focuses on long-tail terms, then this change most likely did not affect you much. However, if you’ve been targeting the competitive head terms then it is time to implement a new strategy and adapt to the change.

Wrapping Up

The effects of the new layout have caused a gradual incline in paid search performance and a slight decline in organic search performance. Given the effects of the change, organic search marketers should shift their focus to being in the top listings, while paid search advertisers should focus on retaining high visibility in the SERP. Implementing more integrated strategies such as sharing keyword data gathered from keyword research as targeting options can be very useful. Working together, often times, can uncover insights that normally would not be exposed otherwise, and we recommend trying out some of the integrated strategies listed in this blog. The search landscape is constantly changing, and it is important for the two channels to collaborate and work hand-in-hand with one another.

What else can we expect to see from Google moving forward?

  • 2017 is the year of mobile taking over, and Google will continue to make decisions based on mobile user experience in the future
  • Product Listing Ads are beginning to take up a share of the real estate on SERP, and we will likely see growth in this channel considering recently we’ve been given the option to opt into Search Partners for PLAs to show in the Google image results page
  • Ad copy format will continue to change with the ETA rollout being the first of many. Advertisers were recently given the ability to manipulate the copy by embedding an If function to speak to different devices.
  • More mobile-oriented ad extensions will be released along with the message extension and app extension

Google is always looking for new and improved ways to make the user experience better. Considering a lot of the recent changes have been catered towards mobile, we can expect more mobile-focused changes to rollout this year. It is important to ensure that we stay on top of new features and adapt to the dynamic landscape of search marketing by putting together data-driven strategies using both organic and paid search to provide users with the solutions to their needs.

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Priscilla Jeng is a Paid Media Account Manager at Power Digital Marketing who works with a wide range of clientele to help grow their online business through PPC marketing. With over 5 years of multi-channel marketing experience, Priscilla leverages her expertise to build innovative strategies for her clients to maximize their overall bottom line. When Priscilla isn’t working, she is travelling, playing beach volleyball, and spending quality time with her puppy.