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What the Google Desktop SERP Update Means for Organic Search

The warm weather has brought on a fresh wave of seasonal change and Google has felt the need for some spring-cleaning. On February 19 Google began rolling out changes to its desktop search results, expanding the vertical real estate given to paid search results and eliminating right-rail ads. 

Breakdown of Google’s SERP Update:

Google has decided to rearrange its desktop SERP, moving it closer to a cleaner mobile experience. Updates include:

1. Desktop search results will no longer feature text ads on the right rail of the SERP.

Sayonara right hand rail ads. As an SEO, I’m not all that disappointed to see them go. They cluttered the SERP and made searching for non-brand keywords with a purchase intent slightly overwhelming. To the right hand rails, I say a bittersweet, “Bye Felicia.” 

2. Google will serve four text ads above the organic listings for “highly commercial” queries.

This is where the updates start to get interesting for SEO. Another ad pushes down organic listings. When ads cover everything above the fold organic listings have less visibility. This is a real bummer. Even though our query resonates within Google’s algorithm, there is potential for four advertisers to pay their way to the top. 

At the same time, it makes great SEO a necessity in order to compete for the users that do click on organic links. Winning these listings continues to mean having relevant, original content, well-optimized on-page SEO, and natural backlinks from other sites.

3. Product listing ad packs will still show in the right rail on relevant queries.

In terms of PLAs, I’ve always been a little jealous. They’re so beautiful in the SERP, but only given to the highest bidder. I might like them better if organic markup could support their population.

4. Knowledge Panels will also still show in the right rail on relevant queries.

Wahoo - calling all Wikipedia-knowledge binge users! The knowledge graph (KG), a near-omnipotent source of information and semantic data goodness, shall be retained on the right rail. I love the KG as much as I love learning, puppies, and random useful information.

5. Three text ads will show at the bottom of the SERPs.

While seemingly not as prominent as the ads on the right rail, these little guys are picking up a lot of the paid search traffic share that once headed to side ads. Obviously these don’t help the likelihood of a click on organic links, but at least users have to scroll past all of the organic listings to find them.

6. Text ad listings will shrink from as many as 11 to a maximum of seven.

In this SERP chaos, Google is assuring users that not all of the space will be used for text ad listings (and their beautiful PLA brethren). From an SEO’s perspective, seven ads in the main vertical is still quite a few rivals consuming SERP share of voice (but at least it’s not 11 and we don’t have to deal with those messy right hand rail listings).

Why Would Google Rearrange the SERP? 

There are a couple of motives that may have driven Google’s updates:

1. Bring the desktop experience closer to the mobile experience - This is Google’s stated reason for the updates. With mobile searches surpassing desktop, it’s understandable that Google is placing more emphasis on the mobile user experience and developing continuity between desktop and mobile. In organic search we’ve experienced mobile-focused updates, including: Mobileggedon, Mobile Friendly pages, and AMP pages.

2. Monetization - At the end of the day, Google is a business and some letter of the Alphabet has to bring in the dough to sponsor our future self-driving cars. The fourth ad at the top of the SERP might be an effort to drive up revenue. However, based on Merkle’s research, it doesn’t appear that these updates have significantly impacted paid search traffic or CPCs just yet.

What to Do?

To stay on top of the impacts of these updates, you should:

1. Set a reminder in your analytics suite for reference in future analysis.

2. If you haven’t already, link your AdWords and Google Search Console accounts so that you can view Google’s paid & organic report. This report can help to judge the impact of cannibalization for specific terms and also give an overall picture of search traffic.

3. View rankings across different device types, like mobile, and in different cities within the same country.

4. Continue to create relevant, targeted content for your core users and develop your relationship with them.

5. Prioritize mobile optimization.

Effects of Updates on Organic Search

The good news is that according to Merkle’s research, “Desktop share of Google organic search visits has been stable since the beginning of the year and through the ad layout changes in late February.” Thus, there’s no reason to panic just yet.

Closing Thoughts

While Google’s addition of another text ad above organic listings certainly isn’t desirable from an SEO’s perspective, the good news is that most brands aren’t being hugely impacted (yet). However, it’s still important to monitor the effects of this update on your site’s performance to inform optimizations and measure the effects of your SEO efforts.

On the proactive front, sites should continue to create great content and focus on mobile optimization. These are the keys to success in SEO today.