Google has a long history of regularly updating how ads are displayed in search results, including the most recent change to how ads display on search result pages. This time, the solid green “Ad” label was replaced with a new version that—unless you’re looking closely—almost blends in with the URL displayed next to it.
Visual history from Search Engine Land
This is another in a long line of recent changes designed to drive more clicks to ads than organic results. With ads becoming less distinguishable from organic results and taking up more real estate above the fold, SEOs need to be prepared to measure and combat the resulting organic traffic loss.
According to Merkle’s most recent Digital Marketing Report, click-through rates on search ads were in decline in early 2015. However, by Q4 of 2015, ad clicks had grown 26%, and they grew another 20% by the end of 2016. A variety of SERP and ad display changes led to the recovery of ad clicks. Over the last 10 years, Google has slowly been visually conforming paid ad spots to organic search snippets. Some of the most recent changes have not only camouflaged ads, but given them some preferential treatment:
In addition to conforming the visual design to organic results, expanded text is giving paid ad spots more real estate on SERPs. And it’s working for Google.
When changing the ad label from yellow to green—and then from solid green to a green border—Google reported that user testing proved people had no trouble distinguishing between paid and organic results after these changes. But Merkle’s research paints a different picture:
Virtually all of the changes Google has made to help drive increased ad growth have, in effect, harmed organic search growth.
If more ads are appearing above organic results—and if those ads are easy to mistake for organic listings—it may be tempting to abandon SEO and focus budget and effort on SEM instead. But doing so would be a poor decision.
Even with significant growth, ad clicks still claim a miniscule portion of overall traffic: of the 60% of searches that result in clicks, fewer than 3% result in clicks on paid listings.
Of the 60% of searches that result in clicks, fewer than 3% result in clicks on paid listings.
The better approach is to monitor for traffic changes that could be the result of increased ad clicks, and take steps to recover from any lost traffic:
If traffic loss is the result of search ads, you have two options:
Additionally, there are other strategies that can help make up for lost traffic—regardless of the cause of the decline:
As an advertising-funded search engine, it’s no surprise that Google aims to make ads more clickable and less obvious, and these changes will not be the last in those attempts. But while ads pose more of a threat to SEO today than they did two years ago, SEO remains the ultimate driver of search traffic.
By proactively measuring and reacting to ad display changes, your organic results will continue to drive traffic in spite of ad display changes.