Google’s Move to Four Ad Format Will Prompt Business Change

Written by Nate Wood - 23 Feb 2016


Google search

For the last 15 years, ads have been a prominent fixture within our search experience. Google has generally always adhered to the same format: three ads above the organic results and a varying number appearing on the right-hand side of the search engine results pages (SERPs). Over time, Google has experimented with the ad space, introducing product ads and even testing image extensions within text ads, and the ad space has steadily grown to accommodate more and more of the result-page real estate.

In December 2015, Google started testing an altogether different approach: the removal of ads on desktop searches. Rather than heaping more ads into a crowded space, Google has taken the seemingly bold step of removing the right-hand side ads. The removal comes at a price, though, as the three text ads we’re used to seeing above the organic results have now been joined by a fourth. With four text ads now above the organic results, what are some of the main implications for search marketers?

What exactly has Google done?

Google has removed any text ads from appearing on the right-hand side of the results page, while at the same time increasing the number of ads above the organic results from three to four. Currently, Product Listing Ads (or Shopping results) and Knowledge Graph boxes are still showing within the right sidebar for some queries, but whether these will be their permanent residence is unclear.

Before and after search results   

Why has Google done this?

It’s no secret that Google has been highly focused on mobile for the last 12 to 18 months. In 2015, desktop searches were overtaken by mobile, increasing the importance of the device within the search space. This trend is only increasing.

The year of the mobile arrived at last, and Google is well prepared for it. The changes to the desktop ad layout brings the desktop results page a step closer to that of mobile, merging the search experience across devices.

Google on mobile

Google’s introduction of enhanced campaigns in early 2013 and the rollout of cross-device conversions in late 2013 were steps to encapsulate a multi-device search journey that Google has seen coming for some time. By merging the experience, Google will make it easier for searchers to use multiple devices and hopefully cement the role of Google SERPs in many information journeys.

What will the impact be?

This rather simple change could have a substantial impact for search marketers. Both the paid and organic results will be affected.


The obvious impact is the reduction in advertising space. Where there had been space for up to 11 or so advertisers, there is now only space for four. This will increase competition for that space, driving up cost-per-click (CPCs) and making it difficult for some advertisers to secure a prominent position on the page. Advertisers that would normally occupy positions five and above will now likely see a decrease in paid search traffic.

The combined impact of less advertising space and the pushing down of organic results leads to potential brand issues. Certain sectors have a high element of competitor brand bidding, increasing the number of advertisers for a brand term. Some businesses rely on the organic space to pick up their brand traffic, but this alteration may force some businesses to start securing ad space for their brand terms.

For retailers, there is likely to be more emphasis on having a good quality product feed, optimised to push key product lines. Presence within the shopping results should already be a key focus for retailers engaging with search, but this has now become more important.

Finally, CPC increases will start to push some advertisers out. Or, at least force them to refine their targeting and to advertise more tactically in order to get the best possible traffic at the best possible price.


On search results featuring this change, organic links will be pushed further down the page. For some users, this may result in all screen-space above the fold showing only paid advertising. This is bound to have an impact on the click-through rate for the organic search results and some sites may experience traffic loss as a result. This will be a particular concern for sites that are not present in the paid results.

In the medium to longer term, the increased competition in the paid space is likely to spill over into organic. This brings with it both opportunity and risk.

With the removal of the right-hand ads, brands losing out in the paid bidding war may look to compensate by shifting focus to organic, particularly where their sites are not occupying the top ranking positions. Marketing teams may see more value in improving organic rankings to get their pages a few positions higher than in spending significant extra budget competing for just four paid ads.

Advertisements to the right have been removed

At the same time, with organic results now further down the page on average, there is likely to be a flurry of activity among sites at risk of losing organic click-through as SEOs look to protect what they have or minimise any losses.

One thing this does highlight is the need to look beyond just ‘rankings’ when measuring and reporting on a site’s SEO performance. In this scenario, some sites will be losing organic traffic without any change in ranking. This demonstrates why it’s important to consider metrics such as the click-through rate reported through Google’s Search Console data.

Changing how businesses think

A positive outcome of this change is that it will force many businesses to fully investigate and understand their digital strategy. What is the value of delivering a top four search ad beyond the last click conversion? Are there brand value reasons for a business to advertise? If so, what are these reasons and are they defined clearly? Does the business understanding of brand value play a part in the digital strategy? All of these are healthy questions for a company to ask themselves regularly, and changes such as this prompt a review of the answers.

Marketers will now need to look across their channel portfolio and start blending performance, no longer segmenting channels and managing them discretely but instead as part of an overall plan. Even now, many businesses have segmentation within their internal structure that divides up marketing activity, producing separate reporting lines, separate commercial targets and separate accountabilities.

With the mobile results unaffected, and share of traffic to mobile increasing, many businesses will be considering their mobile presence and strategy. Mobile has been easy to ignore until relatively recently, particularly for advertisers who do not necessarily see the conversions at the end of the mobile tunnel. Now is the time for all businesses to review their mobile strategy, defining the role of mobile and leveraging it accordingly. IMRG produced a report in February 2015 that showed that 40% of all ecommerce sales in the UK come from smartphones and tablets. This is only increasing.

What should you do?

The changes and corresponding CPC increases may price some businesses out of the paid search space. For others, the effect will still be increased CPCs, but perhaps better ad engagement. Fresh Egg advises the following:

  • Don’t knee-jerk react – Analyse and strategise. Understand your changing position in the SERPs and react in an educated fashion. Simply increasing your bids is not the answer, without some analysis as to what this will do to overall performance. Conduct a full evaluation and put in place some monitoring procedures to give you the information you need to make informed decisions. There will be an initial period of instability in bids as the market reacts, but this will start to die down. If you can ride out the storm, it might be wise to do so
  • Review your organic search strategy – Measure the impact of these changes by assessing where organic traffic has been lost. Both Google Analytics and Google Search Console are invaluable tools for this. Ensure that the search snippets for your pages are as compelling as possible, and directly answer the needs of the user. Doing this may help to minimise any losses, as well as take advantage of any opportunities arising from the reduction in the quantity of paid ads. The key to a healthy strategy is to avoid becoming over-dependent on any single channel or keyword group for traffic. If this is the case, diversify, and diversify now!
  • Experiment with other channels – If you do find yourself priced out of the market for certain terms, reassess how you can engage with the audience using these terms and experiment. Adopting new channels or re-energising existing ones can open up unforeseen opportunities. Diversification of activity is a good thing.
  • Develop a mixed marketing model – The great thing about digital is it enables marketers to understand the performance detail of a particular channel. The downside to this is that many marketers then treat those channels in isolation or become fixated on the detail. A wider picture view can often free-up channels to adopt more adventurous strategies because the overall efficiency of all channels combined allows for this
  • Start remarketing – If you’re not already remarketing, investigate how remarketing can help. Typically, a large majority of website traffic leaves without doing exactly what you need them to do, so remarketing can be a cost-effective way of achieving website goals without always trying to acquire new visitors
  • Review your mobile strategy – Mobile is not going away and behaviour is changing. Read the following blog post over at Econsultancy and take a good, hard look at your own mobile presence. Mobile is no longer an extension of the desktop experience; mobile behaviour has its own patterns and requirements

To discuss the implications of the Google Ad changes for your marketing strategy in more detail, please contact us directly.