The SERP Revolution: the 4 Reasons Google put 4 results at the top and Zero at the side (and 2 implications for SEO and Google Ads)

As of February 18, 2016, Google Ads has gradually increased its presence in SERPs where 4 ads (instead of 3) appear at the top (the premium position) and ads no longer appear on the right side of the search page.

The escalation of this new SERP design is actually the final phase of a test that had been going on for a couple of months and only recently involved, as noted by Moz, affecting almost 20% of SERPscompared to the previous 1%:

Four Ads On Top The Wait Is Over Moz.

This innovation not only changes the design of SERPs, but also brings, as we will see, important practical developments, involving SEO and Google Ads.

Let's start with the design change. Before, a SERP consisted mostly of:

  • usually 10 organic results;
  • Up to 3 Google Ads sponsored results above the organic results;
  • up to 3 Google Ads sponsored results below the organic results;

The presence of 4 Google Ads sponsored results above the organic results has grown significantly, as Moz reveals again, reaching almost 20% of the SERPs, thus surpassing the search pages with 2 sponsored results in premium position and going to compete with the SERPs where there are 1 and 3 sponsored results:

 Four Ads on Top The Wait Is Over Moz

The revolution in the SERPs is not only marked by the presence of 4 results at the top of the page instead of 3, but also by the disappearance of the results on the sidebar, the right side of the SERP, where traditionally appeared sponsored results and knowledge graph.

It is clear that Google Ads, eliminating the sponsored results on the side, had to increase those that appear below the SERP: as you can see from the chart below, the increase of sponsored results at the bottom of the page travels in parallel with the disappearance of those on the side of the SERP:

Four Ads on Top The Wait Is Over Moz 3

Data of Merkle confirm how the progressive decrease of sponsored results in the side is witnessing the growth of those positioned above and below the organic:

Google Reducing Right Hand Rail Ads for Desktop Searches Merkle RKG

4 reasons why Google has increased sponsored results to 4

Before going into detail about the practical implications that this change in SERPs brings to the SEO and Google Ads, let's try to understand the reasons that pushed Google to change the face of SERPs.

According to Google, the change is aimed at providing "more relevant search results and higher performance for advertisers."

Beyond Google's statements, the reasons can be traced to the rise of 4 factors:

  • the progressive growth of mobile traffic;
  • the presence in SERPs of Google Shopping product listing ads (PLAs) and knowledge graph results;
  • The need to deal with Adblock leaks and future leaks due to the disappearance of Ads on Safari mobile;
  • Premium results get more clicks and look more like organic results;

Let's see them in detail.

Mobile growth

It's no secret that online research is increasingly multidevice: the number of people who use a tablet or smartphone alongside their desktop PC is growing rapidly, rising from 3% to 16% in Italy alone:

 Consumer Barometer uncovers new mobile trends and consumer insights - Think with Google

As of April 21, 2015, Google has made official the.Optimization for mobile devices as a positioning signal: having a mobile-friendly site helps you appear in Google's mobile results, which holds 95% of mobile search traffic.

If the 20% of Google searches are conducted from a mobile device responsive users is a slice not to be underestimated and in constant growth.

There's a problem though: search pages on a mobile device don't have side ads.

Here is that increase to 4 ads above the organic results, a choice that would also seem to involve mobile SERPs, meets the traffic trend of moving more and more to mobile.

The Rise of Product Listing Ads and Knowledge Graphs

One consequence of eliminating the results on the side of the SERP is giving more space to Google Shopping and knowledge graph results.

As you may have noticed, in recent times Google has introduced a carrel or box displayed at the top of the results page allows you to get a more complete picture of what you are looking for.

Here is an example related to the query "Sanremo":

knowledge graph.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the disappearance of Google Ads sponsored results on the right hand side of the SERP is that it frees up more space for Google Shopping results, Product Listing Ads, as you can see from the SERP below for the query "camping tents".

As you can see, the increased space on the side allows Google to insert a second row of sponsored ads for Google Shopping:

product listing ads

The presence of Knowledge Graph results and Product Listing ads had already caused an effect: the progressive loss of performance of sponsored results on the side of the SERP, increasingly overshadowed by these two types of results.

AdBlock, Apple and the disappearance of Google Adwords

The news has been going around for a while now: Apple is testing a new ad block for its Safar browseri, who holds no less than 25% of market share on mobile.

Google will therefore have to face another possible loss, in addition to that of the 7 Billion dollars lost to AdBlock.

Banner Blindness and Premium Results

The last aspect is the natural consequence of the rise of vertical results such as Knowledge Graph, Google Shopping, hotels...which have decreased the performance of Ads side results.

Not to mention how premium results look more like organic results, preventing you from falling into the trap of the banner blindness che hits the side bar.

Now that we understand the phenomenon and the possible reasons for this SERPs redesign, let's go see what impact this change has on SEO and Google Ads.

The 2 implications for SEO and Google Ads

Let's cut to the chase: what are the implications of this change in SERPs?

At a superficial glance you might think that the introduction of an extra sponsored result in premium position and the disappearance of the ones on the right can only touch Google Ads, since they are sponsored results.

But let's not forget an important aspect: the introduction of an additional result in a premium position further crushes the organic results, leading to a possible decrease in the CTR.

But let's see in detail all the consequences of this revolution in SERPs.

The collapse of the CTR in SEO

Let's do the math: if before there were 3 Ads results on top of the organic results, not counting the possible presence of results of the blended searchwhat happens to the organic results?

Let's take the SERP related to the query "personal loans":

personal loans Search with Google

As you can see:

  • the first organic result, in an absolute sense, occupies position 5, no longer 4;
  • in above the fold there is only 1 organic result left.

It doesn't get any better where in addition to the 4 premium Ads results we also find results such as maps or other, as in the local query "hotel milano", where the first organic result comes to be 8th in absolute terms:

 hotel milan Search with Google

Shall we do the math?

If the average organic CTR of positions 4-5 on the first page, according to Catalyst's 2015 CTR study and the Advanced Web Ranking study is between 5 and 10%, this means that in the SERPs we could expect a further decrease in organic CTR.

In our case, PrestitiOnline, the top organic result in the "personal loans" SERP, could take home as many as 5% of clicks.

Much worse goes to the 2nd organic result, which in addition to a position below, discounts the disappearance from above the fold.

Google Organic Click Through Rates in 2014 Moz

What about Tripadvisor, 1st organic result under 4 premium results and 3 maps? It could take home less than 4% of clicks.

Google Ads: less ads = + competition = + CPC

If in SEO the introduction of the new SERPs could lead to a decrease in organic CTR, it's not better for Google Ads, where 3 knock-on consequences could occur:

  • the decrease in available space could lead to more competition and therefore an increase in the cost per click;
  • the CPC increase, on the other hand, could favor those who work well on quality score but also those who have more budget;
  • as a knock-on consequence, if the increase in CPC will lead some to exit the competition, this could be in favor of SEO, the only alternative left.


Let's recap the journey so far.

We started from the observation that the tests made in recent times by Google Ads have led to a situation of an additional ad appearing in a premium position, above the organic results, increasing from 3 to 4 ads, and the disappearance of the sponsored results in the side section of the SERPs.

This news can be traced back to 4 factors.

First of all, the progressive conquest of mobile traffic, which is becoming preponderant. But on mobile, the ads on the side don't show up, hence the need to make up the loss with integration above and below the organic results.

Google has faced more losses.

One of them is the disappearance of ads due to applications such as Adblock, which led to a loss of nearly $7 billion and Apple's intention to block ads on Safari.

The introduction of Google Shopping and Knowledge Graph ads gradually overshadowed the ads on the right side, which lost performance.

All these reasons may have prompted Google after a series of tests to abandon the lateral positioning of Ads ads in favor of an ad higher up and ads below the organic results, not to mention that the latter, having the first line of description incorporated in the title, look more like organic results, avoiding the effect of "banner blindness" of the ads on the side, avoided precisely because more obvious advertising and outside the context of organic results.

But what does this change mean for SEO and Google Ads?

The effect on SEO is clear: the presence of an extra result in a premium position further crushes down the organic, decreasing the CTR.

With 4 premium results, only 1 organic result remains in the "above the fold" area.

But if, according to statistics, the 4th result only manages to collect 5% of clicks, this could lead to further lower CTR in SEO.

Not to mention that the presence of the results at the bottom could remove some other organic results, which would then remain even less than 10, as is already the case in many SERPs.

What about Google Ads?

Fewer ads means more competition, but more competition means more cost per click.

And this can have 2 consequences: leaving the SERP in the hands of those with more budget and those who work better on Quality Score.

But it could also have a positive result for SEO: those who can't support the new CPCs will be forced to turn to organic results.

How will the situation evolve? We'll see. In any case, let's be ready for the new SERPs revolution.

How do you see it? Let's talk about it in the comments!

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