What Google’s Elimination of Side-Rail Ads Means for Your PPC Program

Ryan Moothart

Google recently announced it is eliminating text ad impressions on the right-hand side of its results pages. Previously, upwards of 10 or 11 total ads were eligible to show on the first results page with a majority showing up on the right-hand side. Going forward, there will now be a maximum of 7 total ads eligible to show above and below the organic results in the middle.

We could speculate endlessly about why Google has made this change. However, from my perspective as a PPC strategist, the reason doesn’t really matter. There is only one pertinent question on my mind right now: what does this change mean for my AdWords accounts?

Time to Panic?

Is this a significant change on paper? Yes.

Should you be panicking? Of course not.

Google has been testing some version of this change on and off for the past 6 years. No hard date has been set yet for when this format change will take effect for 100% of searches. Although there are signs that ads are not appearing in the right-hand rail more frequently, you may notice that not all text ad impressions have suddenly disappeared from the “other” row in the Top versus Other segmentation report in your AdWords account this past week.

Basically, Google rolled this change out in a methodical and data-driven manner to give advertisers the least amount of headaches possible. And, as a PPC strategist, I sincerely appreciate that.

Predicting the Future

So, what can you expect in the immediate future? After reviewing changes in click metrics week over week for several accounts, I wasn’t able to find any solid, consistent changes in click-through-rate, average position, or any other pertinent metric that I could attribute to this format change from Google. So the short answer to that question is: not much.

What are the long term implications once text ads on the side-rail go away entirely? It will take months to know for sure, but here are some of my best guesses:

  1. There will be little or no cause and effect relationship between this change and your conversion metrics from text ads. Your conversion rates and transaction totals will still be primarily affected by more pertinent factors such as landing page quality, conversion funnel optimization, competition, etc.
  2. You could see an increase in impressions from shopping campaigns. Text ads may no longer be eligible to show on the side, but shopping ads will remain prominent in that space. Soon, they’ll be the only ad type eligible for that space. Using that rationale, it’s perfectly reasonable to suggest overall shopping ad impressions will increase as a result.
  3. It is more likely than not your CTRs will increase to some degree relative to ad position 2, 3, or 4. By nature, ads which show up at the top-middle of a SERP get clicked on more often. As a result of this format change, Google will consistently show 3 or 4 text ads in the top middle of SERPs versus 1 or 2 as was common previously.
  4. Your overall traffic volume from text ads likely won’t change significantly. You could see some select competitive keywords get less traffic if they’ve historically had an average ad position of 4 or worse. But, unless those keywords constitute a majority of your paid search traffic (in which case you have much bigger issues to worry about), the overall impact will be minimal.
  5. Average click costs relative to a given average ad position may go up. Or they may go down. Or they may not change at all. There are competing theories about what will happen to your average CPC as a direct result of this change. We may come to a consensus eventually or we may never know.

So, That’s it? No “___-geddon”?

From an AdWords stand point? Pretty much, yeah. This isn’t as big of a deal as, say, when enhanced campaigns were introduced. My best advice is common sense: keep a close eye on your click metrics over the next month and make optimizations accordingly.

However, this format change could have other implications outside of an AdWords account. For example, if Google shows 3 or 4 ads above organic results more often, pushing the first organic listing for a given search below the fold, what does that mean for SEO? I’ll leave that question for someone more qualified to answer. The point is: don’t assume you only have to worry about changes in your Google AdWords account as a result of this change.

Do you have any observations regarding this format change you’d like to share? Comment below and let us know.

Ryan Moothart
PPC Architect

Ryan is a PPC architect at Portent, with nearly a decade of experience managing large-scale e-commerce, international B2B lead generation campaigns, and everything in between. He became a published author in 2016 with the release of his book, Towards Cascadia, which is a non-fiction exploration of Pacific Northwest identity, bioregionalism, and nationhood. Outside of work, Ryan and his husband, Paul, enjoy traveling and are avid followers of Sounders FC, Seattle’s Major League Soccer club.

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