Working in SEO or PPC can feel very much like navigating a minefield, where each land mine is a Google update. You need to think carefully before each step you take, otherwise you risk ruining the entire operation by stepping on an unwanted surprise.

However, while Google’s algorithm updates may be perceived as traps, they are there to improve our users’ experiences using search engines. Moreover, they push optimizers and account managers to pay more attention to search engine marketing trends and, ultimately, stay ahead of the competition.

This time around, Google didn’t take us by surprise with a new algorithm update (although the Penguin update is still to be released). Instead, they changed the layout of their Ads: rather than seeing ads on the right side of the screen, they will now be displayed only at the top and bottom of SERPs.

On the face of it, this doesn’t look like a huge change – after all, it’s just the location of the ads that has shifted, right? Well, the update is actually more complex than it would appear – here are some of the most important things you should know about the new Google ads layout.

Not That New, But Definitive

You might not remember, but Google started experimenting with four ads above the fold long before even Panda and Penguin were a thing. The ads layout was changed to fit four ads before the first organic result back in 2010 – but this was applied only to real estate searches.

Since then, many more aspects of Google have evolved. Today’s most popular search engine looks and feels almost nothing like the one we knew five years ago. Of course, the principal concept remains the same: providing people with information. But, beyond the surface, Google continually revises how to remain relevant according to the context and intent behind searches.

A study by Moz.com reveals that, two months ago, only 1% of the SERPs displayed 4 ads – whereas now, more than 36% of the SERPs display them. What’s more, Google themselves have made an official statement about the update – so we can stop speculating on whether or not this change is going to be definitive.

Below you can see how Google’s top ads have evolved from December to February:

Graph

Google’s number of ads over a two-month period

Mostly Good News for PPC

Up until less than a month ago, we saw at least 11 ads in our SERPs (three at the top of the page, eight right-side, and interchangeably at the bottom). After testing the water with removing the right-side ads, they are confirmed to be no more.

Now, only seven ads will appear in SERPs (a maximum of 4 above the fold and 3 at the bottom). Although this won’t affect high commercial queries that result in Product Listings, or information displayed in the Knowledge Panel, there are several issues that ensue from the SERP renovation.

Here you can see a “Before” and “After” example of the update:

Final

On one hand, it could improve click-through rate. This can be seen from an analysis ran across iProspect UK clients, for example, where the click-through rate was 14 times larger for ads above search results than for right-side ads.

On the other hand, some PPC specialists believe that this update will bring a drastic increase in cost per click (CPC). With a lot less ad space to compete for, the cost needed to reach the top four spots may skyrocket in a very short amount of time.

Will It Affect SEO?

Only time can tell. With higher click-through rates for the ads displayed at the top of the page, and four (rather than three) ads pushing organic results further down, SEO efforts may have to suffer in the short-term. However, SEOs still have the ability to use AdWords to see what keywords are popular in search to optimize websites accordingly.

In general, it’s agreed that Google’s layout update will lean more towards a well-balanced SEO/PPC ratio. Still, it will be extremely interesting to see what happens with the so-called “heat map” from now on as well. In 2014, Moz published an article about an eye tracking study conducted by Mediative. According to that research paper, in 2005, most of the users’ eyes were focused on the top left part of the SERP, while in 2014, the heat map had moved towards the center of the page, with more focus on the top 4 items listed above the organic searches (e.g. carousel results, ads, and so on).

Below you will see an exemplification of the aforementioned heat maps discussed by Mediative and Moz:

heatmapfinal

If the center of the users’ attention moves downwards in the new ad layout, it is likely that the first organic results will get more clicks than until now (which will have a positive effect on organic SEO). However, if the users will choose to focus more on the first four results (as they did until now), the first organic results may be negatively impacted.

Again, only time can tell whether or not SEO will be drastically influenced by Google’s latest changes.

Last spring, everybody was talking about the Mobilegeddon and perfecting their sites’ mobile versions. Google has started this spring in full force with its unannounced layout change, and an upcoming-but-still-mysterious Penguin update is pending too. And, because all roads eventually lead to Google, we’ll inevitably be dancing to its tune yet again to see a return on our search engine marketing spend.

So, here goes another adventure in SEM, and where we’ll end up is yet to be discovered…

But that’s the fun part, right?