How do Google’s changes to search results affect you?

How do Google’s changes to search results  affect you?

Google has had a busy few months. Not that it ever stands still for long, but have you noticed the changes it’s made to the format of search results (SERPS) in the last few months? They may have had a significant impact on your business. Here’s why.

August 2015

Changes to local listings in search results

In August 2015, Google released a new format for local search listings. (If you’re not familiar with the phrase, local listings are the slightly indented pack of search results which appear when you’re looking for a local business or service, often accompanied by links for reviews, directions, their website and a map.)

Before August, these local listings (also known as the 7-pack, local pack or snack-pack), were a block of seven local businesses. In a dramatic move, Google changed this to just three. 

Local pack showing 3 search results

The competition heats up

As you can imagine, the competition to be one of those three suddenly got really hot. If you used to be one of the lucky seven and now found yourself out in the cold, you probably noticed a fall in the amount of organic traffic being driven to your website. For some small businesses, reliant on local custom for their services, that spelled disaster.

The only way for them to claw back some of that traffic was to resort to paid advertising.

That wasn’t the only bad news

Google logoAt the same time that Google reduced the size of the local pack, it introduced a bigger map and more adverts at the top of the page (especially on mobile devices). This all took up more real estate, pushing the local pack lower and reducing its visibility. Even if you were one of the lucky three, you may still have found your traffic dipping as users either clicked on an advert near the top of the page or gave up scrolling before they came to the local pack.

Again, many businesses felt the pinch and turned to paid advertising to give their traffic a boost. This in turn has increased competition in Google Ads; more advertisers are crowding the same space, all jostling for good advert positions. This has the potential to drive up costs as advertisers attempt to bid their way to better visibility.

It all sounds like a win-win situation for Google so far. A few months later, having rattled the local search landscape, Google turned its attention to how it displays adverts in the SERPS.

February 2016 – More layout changes impact paid advertisers

Google shook things up again in February.

The traditional layout of two to three paid adverts at the top of the page and a column of adverts on the right-hand side was replaced. There are now up to four adverts at the top, none at all on the right-hand side and three at the bottom of the page, under the organic listings.

In a nutshell, this reduced the maximum possible number of adverts on a page from as many as 11 to just seven (with ads in position 5, 6 and 7, beneath organic listings, getting about as poor a click-through rate as you’d expect).

Speculation about the impact on Google Ads advertisers was divided: with space being given over to four adverts at the top of the page instead of three, some say that competition for those top spots should be lower, which would help to cap costs.

On the other hand, advertisers who were previously content with fairly visible right-side-bar positions may not be as willing to bid for adverts at the bottom of the page. If your bidding strategy is for good visibility, the odds of cheap clicks in the top positions just got a lot lower.

My prediction is that the Cost Per Click for positions one to four will steadily increase as more advertisers jostle to avoid relegation to the bottom of the page.

The effect on organic search

Google Ads advertisers weren’t the only ones to be affected by this shake up. The increased number of adverts at the top of SERPS has effectively bumped organic results further down the page.  On some desktop computers and tablets (and on all mobile devices) the top organic search result is no longer visible above the fold.

What should you do?

Local search

You need to work hard to gain entry to the coveted 3-strong snack pack. Proximity to the user isn’t enough; your website needs to send strong relevant signals, as does any site that links to you; reviews and social signals are important factors and visitor behaviour is also important.

The wide-ranging ranking factors for local search merit a blog post on their own, but for more information, this post from Moz is an excellent guide.

Organic search

Organic real estate continues to shrink as Google introduces new SERP layouts: more adverts, bigger maps, news, Knowledge Graphs and featured snippets, to name a few. It’s never been more important to optimise your site well, not only so you rank well in the traditional organic SERPS, but to maximise your chances of appearing in these other features.

Featured snippet

  • Can you get your articles into Google News results?
  • Do you explain things well? If so, your answers could appear as a featured snippet
  • What can you do to feature in the local snack pack?
  • Could Google Ads top up your traffic and give you a good ROI?
  • Can you drive more traffic through improved social activity (this isn't related to organic search, but it's still a viable option for many businesses)?

Paid advertising

More businesses are turning to Google Ads to plug the gap left by lower organic traffic. For the uninitiated advertiser, it’s vital that you:

  • structure your campaigns well
  • optimise them thoroughly and regularly
  • know whether you’re making a profit

It sometimes seems that Google is gradually herding us all towards paid advertising. Recent SERP changes certainly point that way. For all that, Google Ads is still a profitable option for many businesses if you know what you’re doing.

Google has hundreds of Google Ads tutorial resources if you're thinking of the DIY approach, but the best chance of keeping your costs down while still turning a profit in this crowded space is to get advice from an expert.

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