Random Acts of Google: Right Rail Ads Deprecated, Just Now

Late last week, after 4pm Pacific Time for most of us, Google rolled out an update that deprecates all ads on the right rail desktop searches, leaving only the top three (occasionally 4) ad spaces running. This will have an impact across industries. Anyone who uses paid search to generate traffic for any purpose will see an impact on their accounts. But it might not mean what you think it means…

What does this mean?

Let’s start at the beginning. Google makes money from each ad click, so it makes sense to assume that right rail ads underperform to the point where Google would even test out this format. Google began testing the deprecation way back in 2010, and it’s taken this long to get to this point. The data on right rail ad performance is born out in Mediative’s 2014 eye-tracking study. We found that only 0.7% of users click on the right rail ads, vs 3.16% in 2005. In addition, we found that the move towards mobile has actually guided searches to vertical rather than horizontal searching.

Ads are disappearing?

No. Ads are moving to the page bottom and in some cases one additional ad will show at the top. It’s more of a change in the SERP landscape. In fact, some might find a competitive advantage to having four top ads rather than three. The alignment brings desktop searches much closer to mobile searches, something that has already happened on tablets.

Rising CPCs?

We know that the test has been going on for a few weeks, and over time we’ve seeing rising CPCs across the board. We can expect more as competitors enter a more aggressive bidding war for fewer top ad spaces. Mid-level companies will feel pressure as major brands with deep pockets outbid on brand and nonbrand terms. The good news is that with a smaller impression pool to fish in, CTRs will likely increase for those who can remain in the top position.

Coverage vs Conversions

It will become more challenging to specify ‘favourite’ keywords and get coverage for them. With so few ad slots to fill and limited budgets, it will become even more important than before to focus on keywords that truly perform and bring in worthwhile traffic. The days of bidding on keywords just to appease someone who wants to show up for specific words whether or not they perform is over!

Product Listing Ads

PLA boxes will continue to show above or to the right of search results, and there may be ads in the Knowledge Panel. According to Google’s specific statement, a fourth ad will only show on ‘highly commercial searches’ This refers to searches like ‘hotels in [city]’ or ‘car insurance’.

Google ads

SEO Impact?

The knowledge graph and the local pack just increased even more in importance. Make sure your citations are in order. Some may prefer manual updates, or a listings service like Yext or others, to make sure that all your local listings point to exactly where they need to. Then talk to your SEO consultant about making the most of the knowledge graph. A marriage of Paid and Organic search is absolutely necessary to ensure coverage for all your important topics.

Good news for Bing!

Bing searches have already seen a steady increase year over year and the deprecation of right rail ads on Google will impact Bing ads, which serves four top of page ads and often five or more right rail ads on desktop. This will be of particular interest to B2B customers who are likely attempting to reach Bing searchers already.

Bing right rail ads

Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook all stand to benefit from Google retiring ad units. Though they operate through interests, demographics and behaviour along with keyword searches, social networks will likely see an increase in interest and advertising budgets as businesses recalibrate.

What do I do next?

Observe your accounts and take a long look at your lower-position ads. See how much you’ve spent in the last year or so on just the position 2.1 and lower ads. If you didn’t spend much, it’s because people weren’t clicking on them anyway! Anticipate an increase in your CPCs across the board with higher competition and look at your other channels. Then think about your other digital channels. Is your website optimized? Do you have a strong Bing presence? Can your customers find you on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat? It’s still the beginning of the year, so this is the perfect time to spring clean your inbound funnel and ensure you have a strategy based on strong data and diverse sources.

Change is inevitable

The best insurance against ‘random acts of Google’ is a good partnership with an expert in SEM and PPC. Having help on strategy, tactics and the best way to respond to the randomness that is the Google algorithm. Whether in-house or with an outside consultant or agency, make sure you talk through your business goals, your overall strategy and your budget. There will always be a strong case to be made for connecting searchers with your product, services and content. The only thing that changes is the way in which we make those connections, using paid search.

Julia Vyse
When not in the Adwords UI, Julia can be found in jazz clubs and music festivals listening to music, celebrating music, writing about music and generally enjoying music. Possibly as a result, she is not a morning person.