This has been a big year for changes in Google’s Search Engine Results Page (SERP) listings, and not only is it just October, there are still more changes in beta. These shifts are changing the look of Google’s desktop SERPs—and their impact on businesses. How can you adapt your strategy to make these changes work in your favor?

The Side Rail Vanishes

sunglasses-tinifiedBack in February, Google made one of the most dramatic changes ever to their search results page by no longer displaying search ads in the side rail. Instead, product listing ads (PLAs) or product info graphs are now occupying the right side of the results for product- or brand-oriented search terms.

Search ads are now allocated to the spaces above and below organic search results, with the top 3 (sometimes 4) results going above and another 3 going below. So an ad that would have previously been displayed in the top spot of the side rail now displays in the No. 4 spot above the organic search results – or the top spot below the organic results.

This change also reduced the maximum ads displayed on a desktop SERP from 11 (3 at the top of the page and up to 8 in the side rail) to 7 (3-4 above the organic results, 3 below them). The new look offers a more streamlined layout that looks more like Google’s mobile results pages.

Ad Labels Hide in Plain Sight

In April, Google made a very subtle change to the “Ad” label in its SERP listings, changing the icon from a golden yellow to a green that’s the same color as the text of the URL underneath the ad headline. The change was subtle, but the results weren’t: one post-change analysis indicated that users were 15% more likely to click on ads once the green label was introduced.

The Top 10 Shrinks to the Top 8.5 – or Less

side-rail-tinifiedOver the spring, Google also introduced “featured snippets” to the top of the results page, such as definitions or answers to search terms that sounded like questions. Without the side rail, local results were moved to the main rail, often in the middle of the organic results. News items, shopping and image results began appearing in the main listings as well.

After all of these snippets were added, the space available for actual search results decreased to the point where the average search results page has 8.5 organic items, not 10. In some cases, actual organic search results don’t begin until below the “fold,” or even on the second page. Competition for the top of organic search rankings has never been more important.

Coming Soon: Posts

Another featured snippet type that’s still in beta is for blog and social posts relating to a search topic. (Its current name is unclear; we’ve seen Google Podium and Posts with Google, but it doesn’t look like there’s an official title yet.) This allows verified influential people and brands to post directly to Google’s SERPs for their names. It also means that there could be even more content pushing your search results farther down—or off—the first page.

Titles and Meta Descriptions Get Longer

The removal of the side rail made desktop SERPs look more like mobile SERPs, but there’s still one major difference between desktop and mobile page layouts: mobile is almost always portrait, while desktop is almost always landscape. Without the side rail, there was a lot more empty real estate on the page for desktop searchers.

In the summer, Google filled some of that real estate by widening the allowable space for titles and meta descriptions by almost 20%. However, because the width increase was in actual pixels, that doesn’t necessarily translate into a 20% increase in characters. The old rules of typesetting apply: some letters are wider than others (the M vs. the I, for example), so you might have to experiment with your line lengths.

So What Does It All Mean?

In the 30-60 days following the disappearance of the side rail, many organizations conducted research on the results of the change for paid search ads. Overall, these analyses found that for ads in the top 3-4 spots, impressions decreased by 5-6% while clicks increased by 5-6%, resulting in a net boost to click-through-ratio (CTR) of 10-13%. However, costs increased by up to 28% (with advertisers competing for fewer spots) and while advertisers were getting more clicks, they were paying a higher cost per click (CPC) to get them.

How can you adapt to Google’s changes this year so far? By getting smarter about your search marketing and SEO:

  • Researching the keywords your customers use can yield long-tail search terms with low competition for ads or organic results.
  • Keeping close watch over your ad spend allocation can keep your cost-per-click or cost-per-conversion from getting out of hand.
  • Fine-tuning the titles and meta descriptions for your content can maximize not only visibility but user response as well.

If you’d rather focus on running your marketing department with the big picture in mind, find data-obsessed experts to handle the fine details of your SEO and search marketing. Contact us for a needs assessment that will help you stay on top of whatever Google throws at us next.