Over the past two years the world of online search has changed dramatically. Long gone are the days of search engine results pages (SERPs) only showing 10 simple search results per page instead, Google presents users with a myriad of different layouts depending on their search term or query.
Whilst the search engine has been through many face-lifts, one constant among each and every change is Google's continued focus on user-experience and delivering relevant results to users. Let's take a look at how Google has advanced their search offering for users in recent memory.
Changes to SERPs
Organic results have seen the most intense transformation. With Google trying to increase user-experience, SERPs now include many features that show rich information relating to the search term.
A feature that now takes up valuable real-estate in SERPs are rich cards. An evolution of rich snippets, rich cards create a new way for site owners to present previews of their content for the result pages.
If you're searching for a specific business, like a local restaurant, chances are that the SERP looks very different from two years ago. Business listings have changed dramatically with the help of Google My Business and local searches taking the top spot above standard organic results.
At the start of 2017, Google also introduce People Also Ask (Related Questions) boxes in SERPs. Appearing at the very top of the search results, these accordion-like question and answer boxes push organic listings way below the historical 'fold' line. Taking up prime real estate, there have been many articles written by Webmasters on how to take advantage of this feature.
In terms of your typical organic listing, there has been a significant change to how they are presented. Late last year, Google announced that meta descriptions would double in size from 160 characters to 320 character, providing users with extra information directly from the SERP.
Space for paid ads
Early in 2016, Google stopped showing ads in the right-hand rail, reducing paid search positions on page 1 from 10+ to a maximum of 7. They added 1 more ad position at the top of the page (bringing the total up to 4) and placed 3 ads at the bottom below the organic listings.
Another game-changer that Google implemented was introducing Expanded Text Ads to replace standard text ads. This meant that ads were now 2x bigger. Expanded text Ads introduced a second headline and an extra long description. This has given advertisers more scope in which to design copy and more chance to entice potential customers to click.
Within the retail vertical, with no texts ads down the right-hand rail of the page, Google Shopping ads are now displayed at the top of the page or in a new right hand grouped listing. Ads at the top are shown above traditional text ads, and so have prime position to compete for searchers attention on relevant queries. Those (un)lucky enough to be in the right hand box face a race to the top and challenges with shared images and product titles.
Why have the SERPs changed?
The overarching reason for all Google's updates is to deliver more accurate and relevant results to users based not just on their search term, but the context of their query. Many of these changes have also been driven by technology including the rise in mobile, voice search and AI.
57% of searches now begin with a mobile device. Whilst Google's customer's search behaviour changes, so does the context of where SERPs will show. If users are searching from a mobile, they expect and need a SERP that aligns with this format.
Google has also evolved its understanding of search queries and the intent behind them; hence the introduction of the Knowledge Graph.
For example, a results page for high commercial intent keywords (keywords which imply that the searcher has the intent on buying a product/service) may contain 4 ads at the top of the SERP because the consumer wants options to buy what they are searching for. They don't care whether its an ad or organic listing, and they don't need other rich information features.
An example of this is the search term "house movers reading", this query shows high commercial intent because it implies that the searcher needs a moving service in a certain location. Here's what the top of the SERP looks like:
As you can see, Google shows the maximum amount of ads because that will help the searcher find what they're looking for.
This principal of intent is reflected in every search query, so depending on what the user wants from a search, Google can use a mix of different features to serve the user with the best information as possible.
As mentioned previously, all of these reasons are with one goal in mind; improve user experience. This is the overarching reason why Google has changed so significantly in the past two years, and will continue to do so into the future.
What does this mean for SEM?
While the restructure of information being shown is great for the user, traditional organic listings and therefore SEO, have taken a hit.
For high commercial intent queries, the combination of ad placement and the continuing dominance of mobile has meant that organic listings are showing either at the bottom of the users search view or below the fold.
This is most obvious on mobile devices where, if Google shows just 3 search ads, the entire screen is filled with ads; pushing organic listings below the available visible space. The dominance of mobile has made it increasingly difficult to ensure consistent organic visibility, further promoting to use of AdWords campaigns. In fact, organic search only produced 26% of all visits in Q3 2017 and the overall CTR of organic rankings has dropped 37% from 2015-2017.
Overall, no matter on what device your organic results are being shown, space within the SERP is limited. The addition of new features that keep the user in the results page have reduced overall visits to sites. 34% of searches don't even receive a click because the query has already been answered. With less clicks available relative to the number of searches that are being performed, it's even tougher for organic to win a click below the fold.
This is further backed up by research carried out by Wordstream, who state the click-through rate for queries which show a featured snippet is down 39%.
What It Means For PPC
For paid search marketers, removing right-hand side ads and adding the extra 4th ad position has seen mixed results. Average click-through rates have risen from 1.75% in Q4 2016 to 2.5% in Q4 2017 which is great news PPC managers monitoring this quality metric. For the advertiser, this looks to increase cost and potentially negative spend.
Surprisingly, the ad position with the biggest increase in CTR is position 3, which has more than doubled. In terms of the new expanded text ad format, the extra space for creative copy has resulted in a 20% increase in CTR.
As a result of reduced ad positions seen above the fold, competition for these topspots has become fierce. This has only been heightened by the advent of Mobile. More marketers are bidding to gain a top position and as a result, the average CPC is up 25% YoY and at an all-time high. The skyrocket in average CPC means that advertisers budgets don't spread as far, so less leads/ conversions are being gained.
In Q1 2017, shopping accounted for 52% of clickshare for retailers, marking the first time shopping clicks have exceeded clicks on text ads. Google Shopping has now become the go-to channel for search engine advertising in the retail vertical. With shopping ads placed above standard text ads, it's become necessary for retailers to use Google Shopping to gain the valuable attention of potential customers over competitors.
With all-time high CPCs, it's never been more important to make sure that you're targeting the correct audience. If clicks are going to cost you more than they ever have, the user who clicks needs to be worth it. Using multiple targeting methods to make sure you're reaching qualified leads, who are more likely to convert, can help to maintain good ROI, even with increased cost.
What to expect in the future
We can expect to keep seeing rich answers showing up in SERPs at an increased rate; this only looks to increase with voice search. Studies now show that up to 40% of search results show direct answers without the need for the user to click.
With the rise of rich answers, look for Google to monetise these accordingly. With less need for users to click-through from the results page, clicks and CTRs on traditional text ads will decrease, and so will Google's ad revenue. Expect for Google to test different ad types within these rich information features.
Voice search is also a technology taking consumers by storm. By 2020, 50% of all searches will be by voice. SEO in a voice-led world will become even more competitive. Instead of having 8-10 results listed on a page, only the top result will be read out as an answer to search queries. This means that featured snippets will become even more important.
In 2015, Google introduced RankBrain, an artificial intelligence programme that helps Google process search queries. With RankBrain, Google's algorithm is constantly learning and changing which means the goal posts for search optimisation are also in constant flux.
As for PPC, AI has already started to make a big difference in the way we approach processes like bidding and writing copy. AdWords offers automated bid management at campaign, ad group and keyword level. Whilst ad copy can be automated via methods such as dynamic search ads.
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