Sidelined: What Do The 4 PPC Ads At The Top Of The SERP Mean For You?

March 21st, 2016 / Aidan Johnson

Competitive queries on desktops and tablets just got much more cutthroat. The Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) now include:

● 4 ads at the top of the page instead of the 3

● Increased site links for the top ads

● No ads on the right hand side

That’s right. From 19 February 2016 onwards, the ads on the right hand side of a Search Engine Results Page (SERP) will no longer exist for highly competitive keywords. It now seems inevitable this will be rolled out globally and become the norm.

In their place, Google has left the side­bar empty (excluding product links, as shown in Section 2 on an internal Google memo below). Google, as a private company, is answerable to shareholders, and is driven by profit margins. The cost benefit analysis of the beta testing must have demonstrated to Google that the increased the number of clicks (and revenue) from the top 4 ads overwhelms the loss of the revenue from the deletion of the right hand placed ads.

The 4 ads taking up the prime real estate are further enhanced by the inclusion of various new extensions. It is critical to ensure that your ad headline has a strong Call To Action (CTA) that includes or mentions the use the various ad extensions (site links, call and call out extensions etc) to ensure your ad optimizes its Click Through Rate (CTR) – which, by the way, is affected by the size of an ad.

[Google Memmo 1]

Google's New SERP Layout

The top 4 paid ads now take up the majority of the “above ­the fold” space, as well as the inclusion (something which has been in place since 2011) of the three ads down the bottom of the page. This has been offset by a decrease from 10 to 9 organic searches – meaning there are now nine organic results on a standard page, without news and info boxes.

What Impact Have The Changes Had?

Firstly, position 3 in the paid ads has significantly increased the amount of clicks it is receiving (in most cases, the CTR has doubled). Position 4 appears to be obtaining a similar number of clicks as the old position 3.

Why has this happened?

We believe the introduction of the fourth ad has impacted organic search detrimentally. As we know, the ultimate goal of Google is to increase revenue from their online ads. This appears to have been achieved in part by pushing the no 1 organic search result down the page (sometimes below the fold). Just like in property, position matters. Paid Per Click (PPC) ad positions 3 and 4 appear to be the prime beneficiaries – both of which generate more revenue.

We note that this change only affects desktops (which are under half of all global searches these days). Tablet searches, as shown in another Google memo, have only had minor changes:

Google SERP Memo

Why Has This Happened?

Money seems to be the big motivator here. Most users out there aren’t actually able to distinguish between the PPC ads and the organic links, so they tend to click on the highest (or most visible) links. By drawing attention to the top ads especially, Google is able to extract greater amounts of revenue from online advertisers.

The introduction of the fourth ad is defended by Google on the principle of user experience claims. By having a flow of “natural” looking ads (paid and organic), Google has a much more user-friendly experience. The real result of this, however, is that the unpaid organic ads are disappearing below the fold.

Another, more benign, reason for the change is that, given the increasing reliance on mobile devices, Google is streamlining their SERPs in order to become user-friendly and similar across all devices, desktop, mobile & tablet. By having a more universal SERP, Google’s new, sidebar-less approach allows users to have the same experience regardless how it is being used.

How do the change affect me?

A good question. Here’s an internal Google memo regarding these changes:

Google new SERP layout
Google bottom ads

You may find that your PPC campaign has had a change in metrics. Perhaps you now have more people clicking on your ads? Or maybe less? Perhaps you are having more impressions, lowering your CTR (or vice versa)?

There are many ways that your ad campaign may experience changes, either positive or negative, each circumstance is individual. What we can state for certain, however, is that it is important for your PPC ad to have rich site links, and an ad that has an optimized (large) volume.

Also, congratulations if you are sitting on Position 3. Statistically speaking, your ad should be receiving a considerable jump in clicks. But to take advantage of this, you should ensure that your ad is properly optimized (que Predikkta).

Outside of the PPC ad world, page 1 for organic search has just got more competitive. 1­3 organic ads have been pushed to page 2. So the standard 10 organic search ads to a page is now 9. Additional aspects, including news feeds, will, on occasion, push further organic ads on to page 2.

With more eyes (and clicks) being drawn up into the ads, it will become increasingly likely that top organic results will experience a slight downturn in clicks ­ especially if they don’t start until under the fold.

This will have knock on effects. With one less organic spot on the SERP, it will become slightly harder to get on page 1. You are now competing with more companies for less spots.

So, even if you don’t have an AdWords campaign, these changes can and may have an impact on your online business.

The Future?

There are debates at the moment in the SEO community as to what all this will entail. There are some marketers out there who view this as an overall positive change, saying that those preaching “doom and gloom” are overreacting and the SEO community has weathered much worse storms before.

However, bearing in mind that calls about “the end of SEO” are hyperbolic (even bordering onto neurotic), there are some very negative consequences that may emerge:

1. Google’s valuing of bigger business at the expense of smaller businesses. Due to the sudden increase in competition to get to those top four spots, businesses will be forced to spend more. Furthermore, with an increase in clicks, each ad campaign will increase in cost, regardless if the value of the phrase itself changes. This trend will favour big business.

2. Increased ruthlessness for organic searches. As organic searches results get shunted further down the page, and with the change in their number to nine, competition to get the top organic position will become much fiercer. Indirectly, this will again tend to favour those companies that can afford to spend time and money on stellar content, a good linking campaign, and that generally have a larger reach.

These trends do reflect a worrying turn away from small businesses towards large companies that can afford expensive AdWord campaigns.


Google has once again changed itself. By altering the SERP landscape, it has created a situation which is affecting many search results (and therefore CTRs). Even with the final figures still crystallizing, it is clear to see the future is grim for small businesses.

However, as with all SERP changes, it is important to learn how to adapt to the new rules. After all, Google is the one in charge here (unless everyone jumps onto Bing/Yahoo in the immediate future), and the best marketers can hope to do is roll with the punches.

The new SERP will present new opportunities, so monitor it and your competitors carefully to see how they react. Overall, we all look forward to learning more over the coming months, and seeing what changes there will be.


Predikkta explores how Google’s new SERP may look smooth, but this smoothness hides flaws.

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*Predikkta has sourced several external independent global tools to analyze websites.These tools do not reflect on occasion the internal website analytics, but are recognised global tools and provide accurate comparative results for measurement against competitors.

**The views in this article are those of the author