Google Shocks Marketers By Cutting Ad Space in Search Results

Frank Isca
Posted by Frank Isca on March 1, 2016
Google search page with the term 'world-changing google updates in 2016' in the search field

Say what? Yes, you read the headline correctly. As of February 23, Google has completely removed right-hand column/side rail ads from desktop search results. This leaves search advertisers with the 3-4 text ads that appear above the organic results and the 3 text ads that appear below.

The first question many have asked is why would Google remove potential revenue-generating ad space?

There’s a couple of reasons according to the experts that spend their days analyzing every move Google makes.

1. Declining Click-Thru Rates (CTR)

The CTR for Google’s side rail ads have been steadily declining for quite some time. As users, we all tend to tune out the right column on web pages since it’s typically filled with ads, and our eyes naturally go to the middle of the page. So the ads that have prime real estate in this middle column perform at a much higher CTR.

According to Search Engine Journal, Google has actually been experimenting with this since 2010 with displaying 4 ads at the top of the search engine results page (SERP) for mortgage-related searches.

2. Increased Ad Bidding

With the removal of side rail ads it’s a guarantee for Google that search advertisers will flock to the prime 3-4 top position ads, which get the majority of clicks. This will likely drive up the cost per click and create some more competitive bidding – resulting in more ad revenue for Google.

3. More Seamless User Experience

Google is continuing to focus on creating a seamless and unified search experience between desktop and mobile. This latest update correlates to what searchers experience on mobile with ads only appearing at the top and very bottom of the search engine results page (SERP).

4. Cleaner SERP

Without the side rail ads this cleans up the SERP and leaves more room for Knowledge Graph results as shown below.

Also, with Google’s intention to now display 4 ads at the top of search results, for certain search queries, Google needs to be sure the SERP isn’t too ad heavy.


What to Expect From This Update:

4 Ads for “Commercial” Listings

So will 3 or 4 ads now be appearing at the top of the SERP? Well, it depends.

Google has stated that for “commercial” search listings such as hotels or airfares, where it’s apparent the user has an intention to buy, there will now be 4 ads displayed instead of 3.

Depending on whether your company falls under this somewhat loose “commercial” category, expect to be faced with more competition with your organic rankings and with your current AdWords campaign if you’re actively advertising.


Potentially Higher PPC Rates

As noted above, since search advertisers will no longer have the side column ad real estate, they’ll be forced to bid for the more competitive ad positions at the top of the SERP. This could start to create a bidding war for competitive terms and drive up the cost per click for those terms.

If you're already feeling the pain of your Google AdWords campaigns getting more expensive, now would be the time to be sure you're actively creating fresh content through a dedicated blog. This helps to ensure you rank in the organic search results and can help to scale back or possibly eliminate (depending on your industry and competitors) your reliance on paid listings.

A key recommendation with securing organic search visibility is to target long-tail keywords. Only focusing on the competitive 1 or 2 word keyword phrases will be an uphill battle and take significant time and resources to rank favorably.

More Competition for Organic Search Results

With up to 4 ads now appearing for certain search queries, this pushes the organic SERP listings below the fold as you see in the example above for "hotels in chicago."

This doesn't mean search users will only click on the paid listings but it does mean they'll get the initial impressions, which could start to impact the number of click throughs for the top organic search results.

If your company doesn't fall under Google's definition of "commercial" listings you likely won't see a drop in organic search traffic. But if you do fall in this category and begin to see a drop in organic traffic you may want to consider experimenting with an initial AdWords campaign and see how it performs for you. You can start slow with a modest budget but give it some time and experiment with different keyword combinations.


With this change to Google's search results still being very new (1 week as of today), it's important not to panic or take immediate action. Continue to monitor your website and AdWords metrics and see what type of impact there is, if any. You may find this has a more gradual impact or no impact at all.

As we've learned with Google's other updates over the years it's crucial that you have a diverse SEO strategy that isn't too reliant on one approach or tactic. From our own experience and with helping clients navigate the changing search landscape, a commitment to creating unique and helpful content for your target buyer personas and actively promoting this content through social and paid methods, you're creating a more sustainable and effective approach to being found online.

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Topics: Search Engine Optimization

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