Google recently updated their available positions to only make available the top and bottom positions - effectively removing the sidebar advertising slots entirely.
Google have suggested that this primarily impacts 'commercial queries' where a searcher has expressed a 'deep intention to buy' - for example if you were searching for "buy DVD player".
The interpretation of 'commecial queries' varies somewhat, with some suggesting that an intention to convert with a specific action - such as requesting more information - could be deemed a commercial query. This is pretty important for most businesses, as this is effectively where people may be 'warm leads' - and hence be of value to your business.
Why make the change?
I believe that there are two reasons for this change, firstly around maximising the advertising features available in AdWords, and secondly unifying the search and advertising experience across devices.
Promoting media and knowledge-rich advertising
By removing the sidebar position, there is a lot more space on the right of search results for content-rich advertising - you might have seen these in action when you search for a product and shopping results (often referred to as PLA's) appear.
Also, knowledge graph results show here - if you search for a famous person and their biography appears with other useful information about them, or for a location which will often display their address, map and opening hours. The kicker here is that most of those positions would still be paid advertising, but in a different format. Removing the sidebar brings them closer to the search listings, and perhaps in the future we'll see even deeper integrations.
Widening advertising techniques
I think this is a strong step in the direction of pushing advertisers to consider other techniques and mediums, in addition to giving the person searching a better visual experience. I wouldn't be surprised if in the future we see Google requiring businesses to pay to have their location-based buiness show in the knowledge graph area, for example, if the space presents more opportunity for the business to market itself and engage with its customers.
Unifying mobile and desktop search and advertising experience
Secondly, I think that Google is trying to align the desktop and mobile browsing experience more closely, which gives a better experience and expectations for both the searcher and the advertiser.
What does this mean for my business?
Ultimately it means that if you are using AdWords as a primary source of income for your business, it's worthwhile monitoring your campaigns closely over the coming weeks. Pay particular attention to impressions, click-through rate and position.
Are my ads getting the same impressions and clicks?
Effectively the number of advertising positions has been dropped dramatically on desktop searches, so if your adverts were in the top 7 positions you might find they still get the same amount of traffic, but if they were less than that you may notice a significant reduction.
Have my average positions dropped?
The first 11 ads might well have made it onto the first page of search results, or even the second page, before this update. After the update, with the reduction of available positions (from 11 to 7) there's a good chance that you might not be appearing on the first page any more. There may well be a lot of shuffling around, with your competitors addressing this before you - and therefore you could start to drop through the rankings very quickly.
What about organic results?
The main area of concern amongst the SEO community is that with the focus on 3-4 ads at the top of the page, often with extensions like sitelinks, callouts and availability information, the organic search results are starting to drop off the "above the fold" level. This means that people searching for your keywords might not notice your organic search results, because they have already clicked on one of the four paid adverts above them.
Advertisers maximise the available space to push organic listings below the fold
We have certainly been hearing through our AdWords representatives that they strongly encourage advertisers to enable all relevant extensions to maximise the space they can take up on search listings, so I think this is going to be an important factor going forward, especially with mobile devices which have less 'real estate' available. Ensure any adverts that you are running have as many extensions enabled as you can.
Opportunity to gain a competitive advantage?
If you are not currently advertising with AdWords this could be an interesting opportunity for you. If your competitors are ranking higher in organic results, but not using AdWords, you could effectively appear higher than them in the search results, forcing their natural listings further down the page. Give us a call if you're interested in getting started, we have some great discounts on our AdWords packages at the moment!
Is AdWords going to become even more expensive?
A concern aired by some advertisers is that with reduced slots available, it's going to become more competitive - and hence more expensive - to be ranked in those positions.
It's not (all) about the money ....
It may well be that appearing in the top slots of advertising positions becomes more competitive, but the price you pay is only one factor in the bid auction which determines where your advertisement is placed. Other factors such as the relevance of the advert to the landing page, keywords and the overall health of your AdWords account are important factors.
While it might mean that the cost per click fluctuates somewhat due to this change, it shouldn't detract from the importance of creating relevant adverts with good quality, tailored landing pages which you have optimised for conversion. If you focus time and attention on this element, the price you pay per click will be much more reasonable than if you just direct your adverts at a non-specific page on your site.
Better click through rates with new layout?
I also think that there is a good chance advertisers will see an uplift in their click through rates as a result of these changes. Sidebar ads always tend to be the ones people don't bother looking at, whereas the top and bottom of the search listing 'blend in' with the organic results - hence receive more clicks.
I wonder if, therefore, ads which were in the sidebar before but now get relegated to either top/bottom of the second page, will see an uplift? Definitely one to monitor!