Towards the end of 2015, there were rumblings from people who spend far too much time on the Internet, that Google was about to change the way the search results are displayed. This one was going to be big. It was going to ruin search. It was the end of SEO (again).
The change they were talking about was that instead of the standard three ads at the top of the page, and a row down the right-hand side, we'd just see four at the top and nothing down the side.
On the face of it, this seems like a huge change.
The amount of screen real-estate being taken up by adverts has been growing for years, and this seems like another attempt to take away even more space from organic results.
So, the SEO community lost it.
Forums were discussing the end of the organic search results and the dominance of paid-for advertising, it was armageddon, we may as well just give up and go home.
But what is the reasoning behind this? Why would they get rid of those ads altogether?
The first thing to keep in mind is that Google doesn't tell us why they're doing these things. You can bet, however, that they've tested the bejeesus out of it, they don't do things on a whim.
We can speculate, though.
They've been talking for a long time now about moving to “mobile-first” design. This means that they optimise/design/develop for mobile usage first. As mobile results don't have a right-hand column, it would make sense for them to take it away.
Also, it's likely that money is, at least, part to do with it. Google is looking to boost its AdWords revenue, and this would seem to show that they want more people clicking at the top of the page. On the whole, it seems that the layout is far cleaner, and so it might help to drive people towards those top ads.
And then there's the data. It seems that hardly anybody clicked on those side ads anyway:
Won't this ruin Organic clicks?
It would make sense, wouldn't it? I mean, with most of the top of the page being taken up by paid advertising, doesn't this mean we're organically doomed?
First off, let's look at a big whopping myth, that of the “above the fold” page content.
You may have heard it when discussing your website with a designer. We may have mentioned it at some point, but it suggests that you should put all your calls-to-action at the top of the page. People don't scroll; they need to be force-fed the “buy” button.
Of course, this turns out to be nonsense.
People, it seems, are quite intelligent. They know how to use a mouse and if they're interested in what you have, they're willing to scroll down a bit to find out more.
And there's data to back it up.
Marketing Experiments showed a 20% increase in sign-up when a form was at the very bottom of a page:
We found this out from a customer about ten years ago. At the time, we were developing web applications, and we'd written a system where people sign up for investment property information.
The sign-up form started off at the top of the page, right next to the content discussing what information they'd be getting.
The customer, as an experiment, removed the form and moved it to an entirely new page. They added a button to the bottom of the current page saying “sign up here”.
That's right, they removed the form entirely. This meant that in order to sign up, the customer had to scroll all the way to the bottom, click on a button, and then go to a new page to enter their details. This would, on the face of it, sound like putting barriers in the way of customers.
On the contrary.
Sign-up increased by 40%.
So don't assume you have to spoon-feed your visitors, and also don't assume that because search results are lower down the page that people won't scroll, they will.
It's going to take a few weeks, maybe months to see if this really has any significant effect on organic results, but so far things look business as usual.
Chatter on the SEM forums is suggesting that people are getting more traffic coming through, not less.
What should I do then?
Nothing. Carry on as usual. Google isn't going to destroy SEO and content marketing.
Even though AdWords makes them money, it's propped up by years of research and investment in the organic results.
Without organic, AdWords wouldn't exist, people would move on, so they have to get a happy medium between paid ads, and free.
Of course, some pessimists will give up. They'll say they can't win in Google.
Well, good. That means there's more space for the rest of us!