For a change that has drawn so much attention, it is proving exceedingly difficult to find much of a big picture impact to key metrics from Google removing text ads from the right hand side (RHS) of the search results page and increasing their serving of a fourth top of page ad listing above the organic results.
Some of the finer data points around this change are very clear though, like the fact that, up until mid-February, traffic from ads in the fourth position at the top of page was almost non-existent and now it is meaningful. But, with so many moving pieces to this change, it’s harder to say what the long-term impact will be to the metrics that matter most to advertisers.
Will CPCs be driven higher from the removal of the right side ad inventory or will the fourth top of page ad and additional bottom of page inventory pull CPCs downward? It’s still not totally clear. Will PLAs attract a higher share of ad clicks? Will organic search traffic take a hit?
Same story, but if it’s any solace to marketers that are fearing the worst, the fact that it is so difficult to answer those questions now suggests that the impact of this change is likely to be minor compared to other changes Google has made to its SERP -- even in just the last year. Still, we will have to keep a close eye on our results over the coming weeks and months to see how this continues to play out.
For now though, let’s dig a bit into what the data is telling us so far.
Not Surprisingly, Top-of-Page Ads are Driving a Higher Share of Clicks
Focusing on Google.com desktop non-brand traffic, where we would expect to see the greatest impact from this change*, we see that top-of-page ads are now producing about 80% of text ad clicks. This is up from around 70% of clicks just prior to the removal of right hand side ads.
With the right ads gone, bottom-of-page ads are producing the remaining 20% of Google.com non-brand desktop text ad clicks, up from about 7-9% prior to the change.
*About 98% of desktop own-brand clicks are produced by top-of-page position 1 ads among non-manufacturers, and although tablets got a fourth top-of-page text ad, Google was not showing RHS ads on tablets. Also, search partners were not affected by this change.
Click Share for Position 1 Dropped, Despite Right Ad Removal
Looking at the ad positions that are driving that increase in top-of-page click share, we see that traffic share for top-of-page positions 2 and 3 has been fairly steady throughout the change at about 21% and 13%, respectively.
Traffic share for top-of-page position 1 ads initially declined, however, from around 35% to 31%, despite there being reduced competition from the removal of the RHS text ads. Position 1 has rebounded a bit in the last week. We’ll have to see if that sticks.
Position 4 ads at the top of the page are now producing 8% of Google.com non-brand desktop text ad clicks, up from around 0.5-1.0% in early February.
The decrease in position 1 click share and increase in click share for position 4 ads would seemingly pull CPCs downward, however, this effect is running up against the opposing effect of Google reducing the total ad inventory on the page (from a max of 11 text ads before, to seven now), which should push CPCs higher.
The Bottom of the Bottom is Driving More Clicks
At the bottom of the page, it appears that when Google is showing bottom-of-page ads, it is showing more of them. Prior to the change, the top ad at the bottom of the page produced about 45% of bottom-of-page text ad clicks. Now, it is producing about 40%.
The third ad at the bottom of the page has seen its share of clicks increase by about 5% over the same period. This isn’t a huge change, but it does suggest that total ad inventory may not have fallen by as much as some may have assumed, and it helps to explain why top-of-page ads haven’t picked up even more click share since the removal of RHS ads.
Though Clicks Come Largely from the Top, Bottom Continues to Drive More Impressions
Indeed, when we look at impression share by position on the page, we see that, even with the removal of side ads, top-of-page ads are only producing about 30-35% of non-brand text ad impressions for our data sample, up from between 20-25% before the change.
‘Bottom/Side’ ads, which are now just bottom-of-page ads, are still generating the remaining 65-70% of impressions. This reflects the fact that, while Google will now show up to four top-of-page ads, they usually don’t, and they often don’t show any top-of-page ads.
According to figures from Moz, Google shows top ads for around 60% of queries, and four top ads 36% of the time that top ads appear.
Certainly, the share of ad impressions driven by the top of the page will vary from advertiser to advertiser, but our figures show that even for advertisers generating 80% of their clicks at the top of the page, bottom-of-page impressions far outnumber top-of-page impressions.
CTR at the Bottom of the Page Has Shot Up
Impressions for ads on the side and bottom of the page are down though, and this has helped drive up their CTR by roughly 60%. Importantly, ad extensions like sitelinks and seller ratings will now show for bottom-of-page ads and this is also likely driving up their CTR.
Meanwhile, CTR for top-of-page ads is running a bit lower now than it was a few weeks earlier, suggesting that the increased inventory from the fourth ad is outweighing the CTR boost we would expect from the removal of RHS ads.
Google Appears to be Showing PLAs More Frequently at the Top of the Page
Text ads do not exist in isolation, particularly for retailers, many of whom see Product Listing Ads (PLAs) produce over half of their non-brand Google search ad clicks.
Given how heavily PLAs can factor into the content on the SERP, any movement here could have significant impacts to both text ad and overall trends.
Since Google removed RHS ads, it appears they have been serving PLAs at the top of the page a bit more frequently, which has helped drive up their average CTR and may be limiting the gains for top-of-page text ads.
While many believed that PLAs would appear on the RHS more often with the elimination of RHS text ads, shifting PLAs to the middle of the page for more searches is in line with Google trying to create a more streamlined experience across device types with these updates.
PLA Clicks Up Slightly Compared to Text Ads
All told, we have not seen significant movement in text ad click volume since Google enacted these changes, but PLA clicks appear to have risen modestly. Within any given week, both PLA and text ad click volume will fluctuate +/- 15 to 20% from average due to intraweek trends.
Since the removal of RHS ads, PLA volume is peaking higher on top traffic days and not falling as far on lower volume days. As a result, PLA click share is running a few percentage points higher than it was in early February for the typical advertiser.
As Expected, Top-of-Page Minimum Bids Fall, First Page Minimums Rise
On the pricing side, we started to see top-of-page bid estimates for non-brand keywords trend downward around the time the fourth top-of-page ad was fully rolled out. Top-of-page minimum bids are now running about 6% lower than they were in early February after having risen a bit ahead of the full rollout.
This trend could reverse if enough advertisers begin changing their bids to appear in the top ad spots, but for now, it’s cheaper on average to get ads shown above the organic results than prior to Google’s updates.
Looking at first page bid minimums, we’ve seen an increase since the changes fully took effect as the total number of ad spots available on the first page declined with these updates.
Desktop Text Ad CPCs Stable through Google Ad Layout Change
So, it is cheaper to get clicks at the top of the page than it was before and more expensive to get them at the bottom, but the top gets more clicks than the bottom and is growing faster, and top clicks are still more expensive than bottom clicks, but the bottom of the top is growing faster than the top of the top and… you get it.
So, what is happening to CPCs? It looks like the answer is: not much.
Since the start of the year, we’ve generally seen daily non-brand desktop text ad CPCs on Google.com run within about +/- 5% of their YTD average.
Since early February, CPCs have been running a little higher than they were in late January, but nothing significant changed with the removal of RHS ads and the addition of the fourth top-of-page text ad.
Importantly, the impact is even less when you consider the larger picture that includes phone and brand traffic. Desktop Google.com non-brand accounts for just 20% of total AdWords text ad clicks. It’s share of total AdWords clicks is even smaller among advertisers running PLAs.
Google Desktop Organic Search Share Steady
If these changes are having a small overall impact to the paid side of Google traffic, we would expect to see similar on the organic side. We do.
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.
Google removing right hand side ads on desktop and adding a fourth top-of-page ad to results is having a very small impact across the data set we analyzed, but certainly some individual advertisers may be more affected than others, and even advertisers seeing little overall impact are likely to see noticeable impacts to individual keywords and queries.
Last year’s changes to the mobile SERP had a far greater impact to both paid and organic search though, and as more traffic moves to phones over time, the impact of these and any future desktop SERP changes will only diminish.