The search giant just declared the removal of ads to the right of its worldwide search results pages (SERPs), so what should brands be doing in reaction to this game changer?

If you’ve been online in the last few days you may not have noticed right away, but Google no longer shows ads to the right of its search results pages on desktop.

In an announcement first published on Search Engine Land that spread like wildfire on the web this week, Google confirmed that in conclusion to long-running layout tests that started way back in 2010, they’ve decided to change the way we view ads on SERPs almost completely.

This means next time you do a search on desktop your results will look a lot more like the single column pages currently seen on mobile.

Testing of this new desktop layout has been ongoing for a couple of years now, and as of this week four ads will be displayed above organic search results for highly commercial queries, and three ads will appear below the results. Google’s Product Listing Ads (PLAs) and the Knowledge Panel will be the only exceptions and might still appear in the right column of commercial search results.

What are highly commercial queries anyway?

This is a tricky one, because the terms you think of as highly commercial may not be the same terms that Google thinks of in the same way. Google seems to consider terms like ‘hotels in New York City’ or ‘car insurance’ to be highly commercial, where there may be intent to purchase.

Google’s Official Statement

 “We’ve been testing this layout for a long time, so some people might see it on a very small number of commercial queries. 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.”

Google’s recent decision to no longer display text ads on the right hand side of search results is mainly be due to the increasing popularity of PLA’s (or Google Shopping Ads). These occupy the majority of Google’s right hand side column with ads including price points, images and star ratings, which usually provide much better ROI than traditional text ads. Google will continue to display three or four text ads at the top or the SERPs as usual. This change emphasises the importance of having Google Shopping in place with a perfectly optimised feed and segmented Shopping Campaigns.

This was an obvious choice for Google after the recent advances in PLA/Shopping Ads which in many cases have a much better performance (and higher cost) than the traditional right hand side Text Ads. We also expect this to be a result of increased mobile phone usage (where no right hand side Ads appear).

Summary of the changes to desktop search results

  • Text ads will no longer appear in the right column of desktop search results
  • Four text ads will be shown above organic results for highly commercial queries
  • Three text ads will appear at the bottom of search results pages
  • A maximum of seven text ads will appear on a search results page
  • Knowledge Panels and product listing ad blocks will show in the right column occasionally

If you rarely pay attention to ads on Google’s search results pages this announcement isn’t likely to affect you, but it raises some pretty interesting questions for paid search marketers and brands that advertise on Google.

We spoke to Jack Felstead, Head of Paid search at MediaVision, an award-winning UK integrated agency, about what this all means. Here’s what he had to say.

Why is this change by Google such a big deal?

The recent changes that Google has carried out are hugely significant as these have dramatically decreased the “real estate” space available on its search engine results, meaning companies will more than likely face increased competition for their top converting terms to appear at the top of Google’s Page 1 results.

As a multi-channel digital marketing agency, we’ve noticed that around 80% of users usually click on organic search results, while the remaining 20% click on paid ads, of which around 80% usually click on the top 1-3 paid ads and the remaining 20% would usually click on the remaining ads displayed on the right hand side of Google (this is an overall figure for a wide variety of sectors including a wide range of terms).

The recent changes will of course affect the above averages significantly which will inevitably have a significant effect on Impressions, CTRs and ultimately performance metrics as well (ROI, Margin%, CPL and ultimately revenue).

Could this lead to decreased click through rates on traditional text ads? 

These recent changes may lead to a decrease in click through rate if bids and average positions for top performing keywords are not monitored carefully, as ads that previously displayed at the top of page one may now display at the bottom of the page, or even on page two or three.

If bids and average position are increased accordingly, then we’d expect to see an increase in CTR instead of a decrease.

Recent studies indicate that over 50% of searches are now carried out on mobile devices (worldwide), which has a large impact on web design and user experience. The others being carried out on desktop computers and tablet devices.

  • Mobile Devices (typically on a 4.7/4.8” screen) only display paid ads on the top of Google’s search results, with no right hand side column, which will typically encourage users to click on the paid ads, as we can see below:
  • Laptop Screens (typically 14” – 18.5” with a resolution of 1366×768) are now dominated with paid adverts as we can see below, meaning users will be more likely to click on a paid ad than scroll down to the organic results, as these are now more prominent.
  • Desktop Screens & External Monitors (usually around 21.5 – 23” with a resolution of 1920×1080) now have a large blank space on the right hand side column (if no PLA/Shopping Ads are displayed) as we can see below:

If we bear in mind the fact that the majority of searches are carried out on mobile, tablet and laptop devices (all with smaller screens), it makes sense that Google has chosen to make this change, essentially displaying more ads per search than they were previously.

Will this give PLA/Shopping Ads the advantage? 

Since Google Shopping was originally launched (as Froogle in 2002) there have been a number of dramatic improvements/advances in the technology behind it, as well as to Google’s offering to its advertisers.

Froogle was renamed to “Google Shopping” in early 2012 and changed from a free listing service to a paid product on a CPC basis.

Google Shopping works differently to traditional text ads, as it is based on the merchant’s product feed, which is extracted from the merchant’s website content, and offers much more relevant and appealing ads to search users, including imagery, price points and product star ratings.

Slowly but surely, Google Shopping has been overtaking traditional text ads in both Click Through Rate, meaning more money for Google, and Conversion Rate, meaning more money for the merchant.

If a merchant’s feed is correctly optimised and the Google Shopping Campaigns are highly segmented/targeted then they can greatly outperform traditional text ads, especially on the right hand side of Google’s search results, as these ads tend to be generic ads, as opposed to brand ads.

Read Google Shopping: Advanced Segmentation, Targeting and Optimisation for more info on this.

What should brands be doing in response to this announcement? 

The first thing brands should do is ensure all their trophy terms are still receiving the same number of:

  • Impressions
  • Impression Share %
  • Clicks
  • CTR %
  • Conversion
  • Conversion Rate %
  • Position

If these are affected, then we’d suggest re-calculating bids for these keywords according to each term’s Efficiency Goal (CPL, ROI, Margin%, Avg. Pos). For more information on setting keyword goals check out The Importance of Setting Goals!

It’s also essential to ensure broader terms (Broad, BBM and Phrase) are also displaying in the right place at the right time, as these changes may inflate CPCs for less exact queries and terms. All AdWords accounts should have an extensive list of negative keywords as well as cross-match type negative keywords in place.

If these trophy terms are unaffected by the recent changes, then we’d suggest focusing on making sure Google Shopping is also displaying for as many relevant searches as possible on page one. This would ideally include multiple results/products per search query.

Will this have an effect on paid search accounts in the long term?

As long as every keyword and ad within an account is monitored and optimised on a regular basis, there is no reason these changes should have a negative impact on an account’s performance.

Each individual keyword bid should be calculated according to its performance based on an Avg. Pos, CPL, ROI or Margin basis. If the performance of a keyword does not increase in proportion with its cost, then bids should be reduced accordingly.

Keep watching Google

If you don’t already, it’s crucial to pay attention to any and all changes that Google makes so that you can rapidly adapt to market place changes.


Head of Paid Search at which was recently voted Best Small Integrated Agency of the Year by the UK Search Awards, Jack Felstead works in the extremely competitive and challenging paid search industry bringing positive ROI to large brands with extensive budgets.