If you haven’t heard the news yet, perhaps you’ve noticed a blank space on the left side of your search results on Google. As of February 22nd, Google has globally and permanently discarded the sponsored ads appearing on the side of the Search Engine Results Page (SERP). With the exception of product listing ads (which seem like they’re going to be around for the time being), any search you make will seem cleaner or emptier, depending on your point of view.
The result of Google’s decision has been a virtual tumult of chaotic and worried speculation echoing throughout the interwebs. Two principal messages have emerged. The first: there will be increased competition for ad spots. The second: the importance of strong SEO optimization. In our opinion, the first message is obviously true. The second message, though, is highly-debatable.
The Competition is Fierce
This one is for sure a no-brainer. Google has reduced the total number of sponsored ad placements from 11 down to 7. This leaves only three spots on the top and four spots on the bottom remaining. Well, not exactly. Google has promised a new fourth spot on the top for search terms that it deems are “highly commercial queries”. How Google assessing if something is a “highly commercial” search is not clear, but it seems obvious that search volume is Google’s key metric. But no matter how you look at it, 7 or 8 is less than 11. A lot less.
Google claims that the reason for the change is to have desktop searches visually be similar to the results from a mobile search, which never included side ads in the first place. While this rationale makes a certain amount of sense, it’s only part of the picture. True, Google has always emphasized that it desires seamless conformity between the mobile and desktop realms, closing the gap between the two mediums through which we usually experience the internet. Yet, despite the fact that mobile searches in 2015 surpassed desktop searches, Google’s public explanation isn’t all that satisfying.
The unabashed reality is that Google is uncannily gifted at making money. I have no doubt whatsoever that their actual motives come down to revenue. Think about it. There is an ever increasing move towards native ads that seem “organic”. The reason is simple ― people are more inclined to click on ads that unobtrusively yet cleverly make themselves seem like the organic results that best match what the search terms. This development has left side ads behind. They never garnered many clicks in comparison to the sponsored search ads on the top. By their very nature, side ads could never be made to “blend in”. By discarding an ad format that never made them much money to begin with, Google has also greatly increased competition for the ad spots remaining. Instead of vying to be noticed out of 11 spots, you now have (at best) 8 spots to wrestle with your competitors over. Who wins? Google, of course.
What does this Mean for eCommerce and Saas?
If your startup or company is driving traffic through paid advertising (and if you’re not, why not?!), it doesn’t take a lot of brainpower to realize that more competition for top ad space will increase your average cost-per-click. This inevitable outcome will force vendors to take a good close look at their advertising campaigns and assess whether or not the average cost-per-acquisition is financially viable.
What to do
One recommendation floating around is first and foremost the need to optimize for SEO. Both Hubspot and 6S Marketing, for instance, seem to be of the opinion that as CPC increases, there is no option but to try and get of piece of the ever-so-slightly increased volume of organic search results on the first page (and naturally nothing past the first page is even worth talking about).
In a recent article on this issue by searchenginewatch, Julia Logan, an SEO consultant, comments that, With the rise of adblockers, whatever anybody is doing with their ads can potentially become irrelevant…Assuming the worst case scenario, site owners and SEOs should do what they have always been doing – compete against paid ads. If you rank for a commercially meaningful keyword, make sure you do everything in your power to make your organic listing stand out – meta tag optimization (yes, I do realize this is 2016 now), Schema and other options suitable for your particular site.
Here’s the problem with thinking that further optimization of SEO will help: It’s Dead Wrong! At first, I wasn’t sure where to even begin with Logan’s comment. After all, In the same article she comments that the sidebar ads failed precisely because they failed to blend in ― i.e. People like ads that seem to mimic organic results and adequately match what they’re looking for. Stick that result in a prominent position on the page (for a fee) and people will click it. I myself never liked ads. However, as copy, keyword segmentation, and search algorithms have improved, people’s willingness (including my own) to click on an appealing ad has dramatically improved. Native ads are less an intrusion and are, instead, an answer to a problem.
Logan admits that she is aware it is 2016. The problem today is that she’s right only about the date. Back in 2008, the top organic search was the top result, end of story. Back then, it was worth mucking around extensively with meta tags and the like. Today, at best ― AT BEST ― the top organic search is only going to be 5th on the page.
As for ad blockers, they will never make paid advertising irrelevant. We should have absolutely no doubt that the very second these adblockers represent a serious loss to Google’s ad revenue they’re going to shut it down. It’s that simple. Let’s not forget that these apps are by and large extensions you get from the Google Play Store. We also already see that many websites that depend on the Display Network will block functionality if the user is using an adblocker.
The Solution: Lower your CPC by Running Smart Campaigns
Successful ad campaigns have three attributes:
- They have good copy ― ads are called “creatives” for a reason and they should be well-written with a good draw and “call to action”. In other words, they’re creative!;
- They’re research-based and highly segmented in order to promote converting keywords, ads, and landing pages while removing budget from poorly converting keywords and ad versions. In other words, ad campaigns are managed competently;
- They lead to quality landing pages with a simple and intuitive interface for a pleasing and easy user experience (UX).
These rules have always been the key to strong PPC campaigns, the kind that generates conversions and therefore revenue. Now, more than ever, they are crucial to running an affordable campaign. With increased competition over fewer ad spots, you can either boost your ad budget or you can increase your Quality Score (or both). For most vendors, increasing ad budget will not necessarily result in more sales, and many smaller operations are already operating at the maximum budget they can afford.
The difference is all with Quality Score. If you follow our these three guidelines written above, you will have a higher click-through-rate (CTR) which amounts a higher Quality Score. Google rewards campaigns with a high CTR with a lower cost-per-click (CPC). As competition becomes ever fiercer and prices are beginning to climb for the keywords you’re bidding on, your best bet is to commit yourself to do everything in your power to lower your CPC while still pumping out conversions. This was the only way to effectively run your online company before Google removed the side-bar ads. Nothing has changed except the cost for not optimizing.