Google’s Search Results Page Changes

Changes to search engine results page layout prompt a checkup of healthcare SEM efforts

Google’s search engine results page (SERP) layout on desktop computers is changing.  Here we consider the impact and implications for healthcare and pharmaceutical marketers and extend recommendations in response.

Previously, two or three paid search text ads would show at the top of a page and the very top ad could show ad extensions such as Sitelinks. Six ad slots were possible on the right-hand rail, and as many as two could show at the bottom, while 10 organic results would show in the center.

Now there will be up to four paid ads at the top which can each show extensions, none on the right-hand rail, and three at the bottom. The “new” desktop layout mirrors the way ads have always shown on tablets (with default browser settings) and is closer to the way they show on smartphones, neither of which have had a right-hand rail.

  • The new layout, previously tested intermittently, has begun to phase in more rapidly in recent days.  The likelihood of having four ads appear at the top of the page is said to be greatest for “highly commercial queries” – those that Google determines convey strong user intent to make a purchase.  In a statement, Google said the new layout is meant to generate “more relevant results for people searching and better performance for advertisers.”

The vacated right-hand rail will show Product Listing Ads, Knowledge Graph boxes, provide an area to test newer ad formats, or be left blank.

Bing and Yahoo have not made a similar announcement and are not known to have similar plans right now.

Implications

Here are some implications:

  • Organic search results for some keywords may now be pushed down as a result of a fourth top-of-page ad position and more liberal use of ad extensions. As a result, traffic from these keywords could become more reliant on paid ads. However, in other cases this may be offset by the elimination of paid ads in the right rail.
  • With fewer total ad positions available ad positions on the first results page, a rise in CPCs is likely for competitive keywords, especially unbranded.
  • Brands typically show in ad positions one or two for branded searches, and could also see upward pressure on CPCs from below as others who conquest their trademark compete over position four. Brands that are not currently conquested by at least three competitors should be less affected.
  • Quality Score, a function of (i) the relevance of the keyword, ad copy, and landing page to each other; (ii) the perceived authority of the landing page itself, and (iii) the presence of ad extensions – now more important than ever. While advice on Quality Score has not changed, the rewards and penalties have now widened.

Action Plan and Recommendations

The implications yield a clear plan of action for paid search strategy and some supporting recommendations for SEO and content strategy:

  1. Monitor any changes in ad position, cost and performance associated with Google’s new layout, suspending automated bidding until any fluctuations in the auction environment have stabilized.
  2. Take care to ensure that any bid adjustments resulting from the desktop layout changes do not unintentionally affect non-desktop bids.
  3. Monitor changes in paid vs. organic traffic resulting from the new layout dynamics.
  4. Monitor impact on double-serving strategies – a reduced-inventory environment may alter the calculus for a single advertiser having more than one active bid for a given keyword (branded vs. unbranded, patient vs. professional, etc.)
  5. Focus optimizations intently on Quality Score
  • Every effort should be made to optimize landing pages and expand on-site content as much as the regulatory process allows.
  • Use available ad extensions whenever possible. The ability of each of the top four ads to show extensions expands a brand’s ability to own more SERP real estate and serve more relevant ads. In addition to standard Sitelinks, often overlooked pharma-safe extensions include Call Extensions and Callout Extensions.
SEMBrett Landry