Breaking News: Google Continues Cannibalising Search Results
So the recent change in how Google displays its ads on its search engine has already pulled up a number of interesting outcomes with agencies that manage large accounts reporting a number of standouts.
An increase in CTR of 16% across SERPs should be pretty concerning to folks in the organic space, and frankly to advertisers as well. I’m not saying these results are instantly stealing 16% of traffic from organic results, but there’s certainly been a migration as a result of this change; however significant or insignificant is yet to be seen. Aaron at EliteSem
That’s quite a big chunk and is echoed by what icrossing saw too with big increases in CTR for the new ad slot.
Positive click-through-rate impact for top positions (+5%) and PLA (+10%), as competition at the top right has been eliminated.
Negative click-through-rate impact for positions 5–7 (-8%) as they moved from top right to bottom of the page.
Negative impression impact for positions 8–10 (-69%) and click impact (-50%). However since this segment accounted for a very small percentage of impressions in the “before” period, their loss doesn’t represent a significant impact.
There’s no doubt a slew of these across the web. Look at any account with a large enough dataset and you’ll likely see similar patterns.
But what does this really mean for organic? It’s pretty obvious what it means for PPC. In the short term, for competitive queries the new position four ad slot seems to be doing a sterling job at stealing organic click share. If CTR’s are up across ad slots, then it follows that available click share MUST be down for organic, even if we account for the loss of side ads, right?
I was talking with a client yesterday about conversion rates on site.
We had all been a little perplexed in how conversions rates had dropped off of late and had tried a variety of things to identify and reverse.
We looked at the usual suspects of onsite changes, page speed, competitor activity, sector innovations etc and were doing a degree of head scratching trying to establish what was going on. Most channel traffic was up, organic especially. The view was that maybe rankings had decreased for competitive head terms (nope) or that direct and referral traffic had increased due to PR activity and that was impacting conversion rates due to lower buyer intent (a fact, but also nope)
The client noticed that the conversion problem had occurred around the 22nd of February, which funnily enough was around the time that Google rolled out its new land grab. Aha! The smoking gun.
What was really interesting (but surprising) was that the inclusion of this new ad spot, appears to have impacted the click through on high converting pages for competitive search terms. Effectively, for every competitive position attained, visibility has dropped by an order of at least one position.
Is it really the case that people collectively have jumped the shark and no longer care about ads in google as they once did? Has Google created such a neat and compelling ad product that users are now more drawn to the ad than they would be the organic result? Are the ads more relevant today even? Is all that SERP diversity of images, videos, knowledge graph, news results and the like just a massive pain in the Goolies? Are ads the quicker route for commercial intent!? Maybe!
Of course, I’m surmising and using the data witnessed from one account. It may not necessarily be the same for every commercial query and determining what is and what is not a commercial query isn’t a walk in the park either. Just because a query doesn’t have ‘buy’ or ‘book’ in the string doesn’t mean that it’s an informational intent type query.
It’s only when you begin to dig in to your conversion data locally that you’ll even begin to notice, and even when you have your aha moment you’ll be none the wiser as to how to fix it.
In short, the only fix that matters is, to gain increased visibility for your commercial intent queries, and the only way you are going to do that in “Google Four Ad slots” is to buy ads.
Sure, you can up your activity in your other channels and up your efforts targeting queries of lesser commercial intent and create more wow moments in your PR and general marketing efforts but make no mistake. Those organic opportunities are continually diminishing as Google seek to eat more of that organic pie.
For those interested, it might also be interesting to take a little look at CTR generally and look at a few of the tactics Google has taken over the years.
Looking at CTR historically
If you look at click throughs around positions over the years you’ll see that it’s an interesting picture. Many of us will have read the various click through studies detailing how pos #1 gets x % position #2 y% position #3 z% tailing off the further you go down the SERP.
Here’s an old graph from Internet Marketing Ninjas showing the optify data
This is old of course and came from the days when there was a max of two ads above the fold at the top.
However, it does show the general picture and variations over the years show similar curves and it’s pretty safe to say that with the advances in PPC ads since (smart links, stars, better ad copy, blah blah) that those numbers and their respective share has likely diminished since as ad clicks, knowledge graph type distractions have gained click share.
Eye tracking and clicks
Heatmaps show us that generally, much of our attention is taken by the space above the fold.
A page loads, we scan it, see what we need and click it and many of the studies produced have helped inform ad placement, nav placement, button placement and the like.
This eye tracking study below shows the google of old 2005 and the google of 2015. The golden triangle versus the um…red guy with no arms and legs.
What’s really interesting is the whole background colour change in the ad slot in the image to the right. Note the background is some kind of distinctive yellowish colour.
Do a search today, and that colour distinction is no longer there. The only differentiator is the word “Ad” and that’s diluted by other distractions like ad links and gold stars.
Many of the features that Google used to show for its organic results, user rating stars for example are now seen in its ads, but increasingly, not in its organic results.
It would seem that increasingly in the organic portion, attention is taken away at every opportunity. One could be forgiven for concluding that Google sought to confuse the consumer by continually shifting such features around and blurring the lines between organic and paid. After all, we aren’t stupid are we? We don’t need to see the ads with a clearly defined different background colour, do we.
Some might say that it would appear that if it’s commercial and you monetise it, then the Google of today wants you to pay for those clicks.
For businesses looking to seek visibility for commercial queries, they are effectively a pay for inclusion engine today. If you want visibility, then they want you to pay for it.
It’s a risk laden strategy. Altavista did the same in 1998 and killed itself.
Users didn’t want ads shoved in their faces and users left in droves, enticed by the thing that was all Googley.
Google aren’t stupid and have learnt from the mistakes of their predecessors. They do lots of testing and use feature creep to change things. Revolutionaries they are not.
I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions around the bait and switch tactics and overlaps of paid serps versus organics. There’s no reason why they’d seduce users with rich snippets, only to snatch them away and leave them hanging around in their paid results, no reason at all.
If you are seeing similar things in your campaigns, decreased conversions whilst organic traffic has increased, and it fits in with these date ranges, do let me know in the comments.
Just to be clear, I didn’t personally identify the reason for reduced conversions. A team member at the client put forward the hypothesis and the whole 4 ad slot scenario seems to fit. I’d love to say who that is, but client confidentially and all that stuff… Hat tip Nick!
Posted on: 6th April 2016, by : Rob Watts