Google has confirmed that the layout of the search results is making a dramatic shift. Paid search results on the right are disappearing and a fourth ad is being placed above the search results for commercial queries. The only exception to this is PLA (Product Listing Ads) which will continue to appear on the right-hand side.
So what does this mean for organic search?
As you can probably tell from the image above and if you’ve been in the search space long enough to remember Overture, this move adds significant weight to paid search and chisels away at organic for commercial queries. Going this direction did not help Overture who’s model was based almost entirely on ranking paid ads and it will be interesting to see how this plays out for Google.
In the organic space I predict a major shift in attention to ranking for non-commercial terms and featured snippets. That is, I predict website owners will focus on getting in front of potential customers earlier in their searching and either focus their paid budgets on the commercial queries which will undoubtedly get more expensive and/or put more of their energies into optimizing their sites for conversions on the broader terms.
Google’s official statement on the change includes:
“We’ll continue to make tweaks, but this is designed for highly commercial queries where the layout is able to provide more relevant results for people searching and better performance for advertisers.”
I like to give the benefit of a doubt to Google, they come under fire a lot and often unfairly but I’m sure I’m not the first to write, this in a misleading statement that means either their organic search doesn’t provide relevant results or that it’s a cash grab. Given the major changes in leadership in organic search a couple weeks ago and the touted successes in AI technology on improving search results I have to gather that organic search results are not the problem leaving only “cash grab” as the logical reason for this move.
Now, let’s remember that Google is a company and should indeed move to maximize their revenue. My worry for Google is that this will come back to haunt them with reduced user trust, users switching to Bing (admittedly they have 4 ads at the top but they take far less real estate), or whether the loss of the right hand side placements and increased cost of other ads might drive some advertising dollars elsewhere. I view any of the three as potential issues they will face with #2 (Bing) becoming more of an issue for Google if Microsoft buys Yahoo! search which to me seems likely.
So now what …
At the end of the day Google is the major player in search and those focusing on organic need to adjust their strategies for it. I would suggest watching your Search Console closely and watching for changes in CTR. This is where we’ll see the impact of this change most clearly.
Further to that, it’s now time to look into what to do when the CTR on commercial terms falls for organic rankings. How can you adjust your organic focus to maximize your traffic and what can you do to your site to stop the user from leaving to enter the commercial query to begin with? My guess (and it’s too early to tell) is that a massive focus will be put on ranking for more generic terms and featured snippets and providing all the information the potential customer could possibly want access to and making sure that information is in front of them when they might be considering a Google search as the next step. Basically, being the authority. The downside is that ranking for more generic terms does tend to be more competitive and if it wasn’t before, it’s about to be now.
We’ll be continuing to follow the impact of this change on organic search (and paid of course) and will keep you updated on the impact and new best practices as they are determined by us and others.