In February of this year Google made a substantial change to the way it inserts some advertisements into the search results when searching from a desktop computer.
The advertisements on the right hand side of the screen, known as the “rail”, have all been removed. And Google now serves up to four text ads above the organic search engine results (SERPs) and a further three ads at the bottom.
These changes are predominantly for what are known as “highly commercial” search phrases, which corresponds to searches which Google identifies as users showing the intention to make a purchase.
One result of this change is that fewer ads are now displaying overall. Whereas there were previously up to eleven ads showing on any one results page, there are now a maximum of only seven.
Why the change?
The search marketing community wasn’t particularly surprised by these changes as Google had been experimenting with variations in the ways the adverts appear over a period of time.
Google’s Inside AdWords blog recently confirmed that the change has in part been due to Google’s focus on the mobile first world. More than half of all web traffic now comes from smartphones and tablets and Google’s advertising is evolving to cater for this connected universe of users.
“Earlier this year, we removed right-hand side ads on desktop to improve the search experience and make it more consistent across devices. This paved the way for us to introduce the biggest changes to our text ads since AdWords launched fifteen years ago.”
My own thinking regarding this change is as follows:
Consistency with mobile search results. Mobile results have always been above the organic listings, with no sidebar to speak of. By removing sidebar ads from tablets and desktop SERPs, Google has created consistency across all devices.
More useful results. It is well known and widely accepted among paid search advertisers that ads placed in the right sidebar have a much lower click through rate than the ads at the top of the page. This is a strong indicator that users did not find the adverts in this position useful. Research by Seer Interactive demonstrated that less than 7 per cent of desktop traffic came from the right hand side ads in 2015. Google may be moving to provide better engagement for both users and advertisers by making this move.
A cleaner appearance. The SERPs are now much cleaner and clutter free, even on smaller devices.
Increased revenue. A controversial opinion put forward by various AdWords advertisers is that this change will result in higher revenue generated for Google through Google AdWords. Four ads on the page further pushes down the organic content, which may result in a negative impact for engagement with organic results. However, research to date is not showing an increase in the cost of advertising.
Overall, most search marketing professionals are finding that Google AdWords advertisers are generally better off than before. And this was Google’s intention – to give searchers more useful results without annoying their key source of revenue – the advertisers.
The impact on the legal sector
Searches for the most common legal phrases are considered “highly commercial” and will typically trigger the four ads at the top of the search results.
One main consequence of this change is that the four large ads now effectively push the normal (or organic) results further down the page. This means users will have to scroll further down to see these firms. One benefit, however, is that once a user starts scrolling, there won’t be any distractions from adverts on the right rail.
Search phrases with geographic intention such as “solicitor Bristol” will trigger the four ads followed by the Google Maps information. Likewise, generic phrases like “contracts of employment” or “commercial dispute resolution” will also trigger the ads, but it may not be the maximum allocation of four ads displaying, but instead just one or two.
In terms of advertising costs, for advertisers that were previously in the three top positions, there is now the advantage of having a fourth, additional slot available before the organic results. Overall, the costs for these top positions have remained constant, but there will be increased competition from firms wanting to get their ads off the bottom of the search results page.
Firms with ads previously appearing in positions 4 to 10 are getting hit the hardest by this change. These ads have now dropped off the rail and appear at the bottom of the page and as a result are getting fewer impressions (searchers seeing the advert) and potentially fewer clicks than before.
Your AdWords action plan
The change in the way the adverts appear means law firms need to keep a close eye on the ripple effect on their Google AdWords campaign spends and they need to monitor key terms and adjust the bid price as required.
Monitor your performance reports
Take a look at your Google AdWords performance reports segmented by Top vs Other. You can compare the number of clicks of conversions you’re getting now against how you were performing prior to this change. As a general rule of thumb, if your adverts were previously in position 4 or lower and thus in the right rail, you are likely to see a decrease in the number of impressions your advertising is getting. In other words, fewer searchers will be seeing your advert and it is likely that you will be getting fewer clicks. You were probably getting a low click-through rate anyway, but keep an eye on whether there has been a substantial change.
It may be that your advertising strategy needs to change if you want to keep up the same levels of traffic you were gaining through advertising previously. You may want to get yourself into those top 4 positions, which will be more expensive, but which could generate the leads you need.
Keep an eye on your budgets
One significant change arising from the new advertising format is that advertisers may now be driving more clicks from ads that are in position 4; this previously corresponded to the top right position in the rail but is now in the advantageous position of being immediately above the organic results.
This beneficial result means you may want to increase your daily advertising limit in order to take advantage of your increased visibility and capture more of the valuable clicks.
Take advantage of extensions
Google continues to experiment with extensions: these are the additional pieces of information that appear in your advert such as site links, reviews, and locations. Top ranking ads are eligible to show more extensions, but this is also true now of ads at the bottom of the page.
Don’t forget Bing and social advertising
The other search engines like Bing can offer significantly cheaper cost per click than AdWords as well as more space for ads than Google. Also keep in mind the possibilities of social advertising on networks like LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.
Focus on your local listings
Google AdWords is only one way to dominate the search results. Google Business listings are free, and they appear sandwiched between the adverts and the organic listings. I’ve written previously about local listings and this a powerful and cost effective tool for reaching your local clients.
Susan Hallam is Managing Director of Hallam Internet Limited, a full service digital marketing agency providing search engine optimisation services, digital strategy development, social media campaigns and paid advertising services. Susan was previously a Senior Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University’s Law School and held senior marketing roles at BT and Capital One. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @susanhallam.