At the end of February, Google unleashed the most enormous change of all time. (Ts & Cs apply)
At least that’s what I thought, but when I spoke to Aaron, he had a very different take on it.
We both agreed that the changes could have an enormous impact on businesses that rely on organic traffic.
And that many AdWords-reliant companies could see a fundamental shift in how their accounts were performing.
But we disagreed on the scale of the issue.
Aaron rates as it as an “interesting but meh“, while I’m leaning more towards the “unprecedented in the history of time” side of things.
I’m more prone to hyperbole than Aaron.
So we decided to record an unscripted discussion of our take on the situation. As well as our respective positions and theories, we also came out with some solid and actionable strategies to help businesses not only survive the new Google, but thrive in it.
Oh and if you prefer to read rather than listen, the transcript of the conversation is underneath the recording.
Dave: This is Dave Collins and Aaron Weiner from SoftwarePromotions. I’m Dave and I’ve been doing SEO for clients and ourselves since 1997.
Aaron: And I’m Aaron Weiner, and I’ve been doing AdWords since 2005.
Dave: So this whole thing, we’ve never done this sort of format before. It’s a bit of an experiment, that came out of something pretty big that happened at the end of February in Google. We’ll get into the nuts and bolts of it in a few moments. But the short version is that Google changed how ads are displayed in the search results. At around the end of February, wasn’t it?
Aaron: Yeah, it was the last few weeks of February. Google rolled out this big change to their system on how they’re displaying ads. In fact how they’re displaying all the content on a search results page.
Dave: Right. And the nutshell explanation is that at most there will be four ads at the top of the search results, and at most three ads at the very bottom of the organic search results, with no ads on the side. Correct?
Aaron: Yeah, there are no ads on the side. No more AdWords, text ads on the side. But there are some instances where Google will inject a shopping ad. So these are the little icons for various products that you typically see in a box, a square box on the side. But those will only be for certain types of searches that deal with products.
Dave: So for the vast majority of the searches we’re seeing no ads on the side at all. Just some on top and some on the bottom.
You can tell we’re experts, some on top and some on bottom!
So this whole idea for having this discussion came about as all of this went live at the end of February. And we had two quite different stances on the whole thing. I felt, and still do feel, that this is the biggest change that Google have made since they packed up their equipment out of Sergey’s mum’s garage, and moved into real offices. I really feel this that is the biggest change since Google began.
Aaron: I’m not so sure it’s such a big change. It’s definitely going to have lasting ramifications, but I think the jury’s still out about how big of a change this will prove to be in the long run.
Dave: Yeah, we’ll see. If I’m proven to be incorrect, I may edit this and disguise it so it sounds like you’re making the incorrect prediction…
But let’s talk about what’s actually happening and what could happen. What’s the main thing that you’re seeing? How would you sum up the actual changes, the nuts and bolts? [I have no idea why I keep referring to nuts and bolts.]
Aaron: There are no longer these ads on the top, or ads on the side. In the past you could target your ads so that you wouldn’t have to spend so much, so that your ads would potentially be in the initial view within your browser. So somebody comes in, does a search, and they would initially see your ads somewhere around the top of the page. They didn’t have to scroll down.
Whereas today if you’re bidding a lower bid, where you tend to see average positions of maybe four or lower, your ads could in a sense be invisible.
Dave: Right. So let’s say you’re searching for something with a lot of ads displayed. At my fairly high resolution, I might see six or seven ads before these changes. With three at the top and a whole bunch along the side. Whereas now, at the top of the page, I’m only going to see those four.
Aaron: At the most you’ll only see four, in some cases you’ll see one, maybe two. It all depends on the search. But you will no longer have those ads on the side, and for some advertisers, that’s going to be a real problem.
Dave: I’m guessing that also means if, for example, it’s a search where a lot of ads are being displayed. We’ve now got a maximum of seven ads being displayed on a page. There’s going to be a very sizable difference in performance, I’m assuming, from an ad in position five, which could be at the bottom of the page, and position four, which is still at the top.
Aaron: Right, that’s going to be the tricky thing. That remains to be seen, exactly how that’s going to play out. But in the past, it was more of a known quantity. Most advertisers knew that you could have your ads in position four, and sometimes do better than the ad in position one.
Dave: Because that position four was in position one effectively, as it was at the very top of the right hand side.
Aaron: Yeah, just at the very top. But now that’s gone, so no longer an option.
Dave: So still nothing major has changed!
Aaron: I don’t know about major!
Dave: We’re onto the semantics already!
But what about the reasons for these changes? For there’s only one possible explanation for this, well actually two explanations for this. One is Google want to make more money, they are after all a business. They test these things and they know what they’re doing. I’m pretty sure they’re going to make more money as a result of doing this.
The second reason is the convergence between what we see in our desktops and what we see in our phones, tablets and other devices. Because I’m not sure of the details, you’ll probably know. But mobile ads have been displayed in this sort of way, having four at the top for a while, haven’t they?
Aaron: I’m not exactly sure about that. I don’t think there were ever four at the top on mobile, I think it was always three at the most. Ever since they launched this, then they’ve sort of packed the top with four. But I would definitely agree, I think Google are driven first and foremost by money. This change is going to make them more money, because the top four ads are now going to become a lot more competitive.
Dave: I think you made the point when we had the conversation originally, that it’s going to be interesting to see what happens with Google’s bottom line with the reported earnings. Even though that’s going to obviously take a while, but that could prove to be quite interesting.
Aaron: Yeah. Next year’s financial reports will be very interesting to read.
Dave: We also both agreed that the biggest impact here is going to come from the actions of others. As in because there’s a smaller number of ads at the top, because organic’s getting pushed down the page, more than ever, you’re not in this isolated bubble, and obviously this applies in the pre-change era as well. You’re always competing with your competition! So what they do has an enormous impact.
But in a way, I’d have thought a lot of advertisers are going to be jostling for those top four positions. So when one of them raises their bids just a little bit and maybe pulls themselves up from position five to four, people are going to be fighting over those spots, wouldn’t you say?
Aaron: Yeah, absolutely. I think there will be this leapfrog-style approach, where you’ll start seeing less impressions, lower average positions. And then what are the levers or knobs that you twist, turn or pull? You’re going to start reaching for bid raising. Or your competition will be increasing their bids and you’ll just have this continued effect of moving up and down, up and down. In a sense a prolonged bidding war with everyone else.
Dave: This takes me back. This takes me back to my start of experiencing PPC and I’ve completely forgotten what it was. Was it goto.com?
Aaron: Yeah, and then that became Overture, and then eventually Yahoo.
Dave: Yeah, exactly. It became Overture, that then became part of the mighty Bing/Yahoo alliance. But that was very much what it was about, it was all about positions, and the routine was I’d log in on behalf of our clients. And you’d very clearly see this keyword we’re in fourth place, you have to spend an extra five cents to get up third place. We’d do it, we’d instantly get better results.
The advertiser that we just leapt over would then say “I don’t like that one little bit”, so he’d raise his bid. So basically the brilliance of their system, from their point of view, was that it was simply bidding war, and the only way to do well back in the day, was you just spent more.
So I remember starting off with clients with new accounts and we would literary bid, one or two cents a click for some pretty good keywords. Fast forward to the end the year and we’re already on $4.50, fast-forward another 12 months and we’re looking $12, $15, because everyone keeps raising their bids. It’s a little like an online deja vu in a way; I feel up to a point that we’re going back to the bidding wars.
Aaron: Yeah, absolutely.
So far things are going well for most of our clients. They’re not being impacted by this, but I imagine when most of their competition, or most of the competition, start catching wind of this, they’re going to start making changes on their end and it’s just going to get more competitive and more costly for the individual advertiser.
Dave: Yeah, I completely agree. But something that you need to know is that Aaron is our AdWords person. He lives, sleeps and breathes… actually I’m not sure about the sleeps bit, but he lives and breathes AdWords.
Aaron: I do, I do have an occasional AdWords dream!
Dave: That must be pleasant! Let’s move on. But Aaron’s job, his profession, and what he’s incredibly good at is AdWords. So for the clients who are lucky enough to have Aaron managing their accounts, he’s not going to give only reasonable performance. So what I’m saying to you, Aaron, is that for your clients, you’re handling their accounts very well. And were doing so before these changes as well.
So you’re not going to see their important keywords in an average position of six or seven. They’re going to be doing better than that. I think prior to these changes, a lot of people could say, “we can’t afford to be in the top few, but do you know what, we’ll get an average position of six, seven, even eight and it works. It just works for us.” I think they have the potential to be greatly affected by these changes.
Aaron: Yeah, Absolutely. If people are living at the bottom of the results and potentially thriving at the bottom, that’s most likely going to change.
Dave: Right. So for them it’s very much, it’s a new ball game.
Aaron: They’re going to have to figure out. They’re going to have to figure out new ways to maneuver this, to work the system, take on new skills or seek outside help.
Dave: And we’ll get onto that. So let’s talk about, when we had the discussion originally, we identified three main groups. It’s over-simplifying the situation, but in a sense the three groups of people that are going to be affected.
Aaron: Dave, before we continue on to the different groups of who’s going to be affected, what’s actually happening in terms of the organic search results? Because we didn’t really touch on that. What are you seeing with your SEO clients?
Dave: This is a typically evasive SEO answer, which is both, “a lot,” and “I have no idea.” There is an enormous amount going on in SEO in the last few years, that’s got nothing to do with this. Enormous, great, volatility, the likes which I’ve never seen before. I’ve been doing SEO since 1997, so I’ve seen a fair amount of change. But the level of upheaval is just huge.
There is a major update on its way. Everyone’s waiting for that… well all SEOs anyway! There are ranking fluctuations all over the place. The bottom line is, it’s almost impossible to actually point to any solid reliable data. We didn’t have these steady levels before the changes, so it’s impossible to say that “since the end of February we’ve seen X, Y or Z that is definitely down to the changes”.
So in a way the jury is still out, we need to wait and see. But I think this change has got the potential to affect the SEO results, maybe even more than the AdWords results themselves, because for quite some time the organic results have been sandwiched between the ads anyway. Now this Google knowledge graph without getting in the technicalities, that’s where Google effectively scrape other sites. When you search for things, search terms like “things to do in Chicago.”
Before you get to the actual organic listings, you have different pictures, different information, item facts about the city and that sort of thing. So in a way the format, the structure for some search queries is ads at the top, knowledge graph.
Then you have a small number of organic listings and then ads on the bottom and then Google suggestions underneath that. So the organic is really starting to get squeezed out.
Aaron: Right, but you’re still seeing 10 organic listings, right?
Dave: No, 10 is common, but not always. Nine seems to have become fairly common recently, but sometimes it’s less. The point is that the knowledge graph, as we’ve all seen can be very, very flamboyant and colorful. It’s huge, it occupies the full width of the browser. It scrolls, it’s got all sorts of facts, figures, images and even maps in there.
Then you have the fact that the ads stand out quite deliberately, and then the actual organic listings are quite pale by comparison. There is very little you can do about this. Site links seem to be getting a little bit less prominent right now, but that may or may not be coincidence. What it means is the organic listings are still there, but the competition has become more intense. So if you’re targeting fairly competitive keywords and you’re in organic position, ranking position of let’s say three for your given keyword.
Aaron: Right. First page, but on number three.
Dave: Yeah, third organic listing down. If you’ve got four ads above those, then you’ve got two of your organic competition on top of you… so four ads, then you’ve actually got six listings above you. Which means it’s probably not going to be in the first section of the page at all.
You’re probably going to have to scroll down to see them, and if there’s knowledge graph in there as well, without a doubt, you’re going to have to scroll down. So organic’s there, SEO is not dead in any sense. But they’ve been sandwiched for a while between the ads and the knowledge graph, and that sandwich, the bread has become a whole lot thicker right now. And the actual meaty organic listings, they’ve just got a whole lot tighter. How is that for a weird analogy?
Aaron: It’s making me hungry!
Dave: Me too actually, let’s move on!
So we identified three different groups of types of businesses, and how they’re going to be affected by these changes. So the first group that we identified is what we called organic reliant, meaning your particular website relies most heavily on organic traffic.
So if you have a look at your channels, see where your traffic is coming from in analytics, you may for instance see 60%, maybe 50% of your traffic coming from organic. Meaning, if you get heavily hit by these changes or any other organic changes, and your traffic from organic is halved, you are going to feel that enormously.
So this is echoing what we’ve just been speaking about really, those precious listings are now going to be pushed down the page. It’s that simple, there is going to be less visibility. Like we said, the number one, even if you were in the first organic place for your keyword, you could have four ads on top of that, possibly some knowledge graph as well. So what we discussed, I’m seeing quite commonly nine organic listings on the page. If you’re on a competitive page, it’s got knowledge graph and it’s got ads.
Ninth position organic is to all intents and purposes pretty much dead. It’s like being on the second page. There is so much to see and click before someone gets the opportunity to click on your site that it’s just not going to be happening. There are all these case studies out there, I suspect you’ve read similar things, Aaron, about AdWords side of things. But these case studies that show how massively the click rates reduce according to ranking positions.
I can’t remember figures, but for instance the first ranking organic listing might get 50% of the clicks, the second place might get 30% of the click, the third place might get 5% of the click. It trails off dramatically and obviously once you’re on page two, most likely you’re not going to get any clicks at all.
Aaron: Right. But now all that is going to change due to this major change in Google, all those figures. But most likely they will play along those similar lines of the further down you are on that page, the less likely you are to be clicked.
Dave: Right. But even first place, means potentially you’ve got four clickable ads or more above you.
Aaron: First place organic.
Dave: First place organic, yeah.
Aaron: And now been pushed further down that page.
Dave: Exactly. Some people, the people who quite incorrectly believe SEO is dead are jumping on this and saying, “Well, now even more than ever this is the final nail in the coffin” type thing. But you couldn’t be further from the truth.
Yes, some searches may produce less clicks on organic listings than before. There’s a pretty good likelihood of that, but not all of them. So if you’re giving up on organic as a result of this, you’ll fall from grace.
And if you’re not going to be there on the top of the first page, someone else is going to get those clicks. Because people don’t always want to click on ads. There’s a whole lot of different reasons why people sometimes avoid ads, and sometimes, let’s face it, people search for things that businesses can do or solutions, products, or services that there are no ads for at all. So organic is still very much there, but it’s all going to be very different.
Aaron: Then there are the AdWords reliant companies, the businesses that are heavily relying on most of their sales to come through the AdWords channel and they’re going to be impacted in a number of ways. One of the main ways is undoubtedly cost, that’s just going to be increasing, because there are going to be less ads at the top as we’ve already mentioned. There is going to be heavier competition for those initial four spots, if there are four spots in a particular search that you’re on.
If you’re in a heavy competition advertising realm, then more people are going to be going for that. Your competition will constantly be trying to outbid you, to get their ads at a higher position. You’re going to start seeing lower average positions, you’re going to see less visibility on your ads. So in turn, less clicks on them, most likely. It’s going to fluctuate.
So at some point you’ll probably be winning, and then your competition will wake up, and they’ll then increase their bids and they’ll be above you. But in the long run, it’s just going to be more costly.
Dave: Do you think we’re likely to see new patterns as a result of people running their AdWords accounts differently?
Aaron: Yeah, absolutely. I think that in the past, like we said before, position four used to be a cheap way of getting clicks, because you were at the very top of the page. Now that’s not the case. It remains to be seen how the bottom ad group, the bottom three ads, how those are going to perform.
It also remains to be seen how not being on the first page will play out, in terms of keeping your bids low? In a sense it’s a whole new world, how this plays out. Also when there are only four ads, and not so many ads on the side, people might be more inclined to click those. So we might actually see higher click through rates on some of those ads, because there are less for people to choose from.
Dave: That makes sense. I think something neither of us touched on yet , is that more people are going to at least consider spending on AdWords who aren’t now, or potentially raising their bids. Because let’s face it, it’s always easier to get quick results from AdWords than SEO. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be affordable or it’s going to work well, but you can plonk down your credit card today, and start getting some traction. Whereas SEO, as we all know, takes a whole lot longer.
So I’m guessing it would be sensible for companies to say, “if we’re not spending on AdWords at all, let’s look into this and let’s start experimenting. If we are expanding, let’s spend more and see if we can get better results as well.”
Aaron: Right. If you were the organic reliant group, and you start seeing things decline, yes you’re going to start working more on your SEO. Yes you’re going to be digging into that, but you’re also going to be going over to AdWords. There’s no doubt about it, because you’re going to want to be recovering lost ground.
Dave: Which is a smart move anyway, not having all your eggs in one basket.
And that brings onto the third group, who are what we call the AdWords and organic reliant. Again, going back to the channels, these are the businesses who see that most of their traffic comes from a mix of SEO and AdWords. How do you think they’re going to be affected?
Aaron: I think if anything, they will fare the best, because they haven’t placed all their eggs in one single basket. They will be able to in a sense sail through this new world, in a much better standing than someone who’s solely reliant on AdWords or organic.
Dave: I suppose ultimately it’s a lot easier to spend more time and money on these things than learn from scratch, and then start spending more time and money. So it’s a good position to be in.
So… let’s talk about the actual practicalities. Let’s start with AdWords. You’re an AdWords account holder, what should you actually be doing about it?
Aaron: I think one of the most important things is to monitor your performance very closely. Keep a very close eye on your clicks, your average CPC and your average positions.
Dave: Wouldn’t that have applied before, or has something changed?
Aaron: It definitely would have applied before, but nowadays with the increased competition, it’s going to be that much more important to pay attention to external factors, how are they going to impact your performance? Are your competition increasing their bids? Are you starting to see less clicks? Are you starting to see lower positions? Are you coming down?
Dave: I suppose in a way if or when things go wrong in AdWords, because you’re not monitoring these things, it’s going to go pear-shaped a whole lot faster.
Dave: What else should AdWords account holders be doing?
Aaron: As I said, monitor performance closely. In the end, when you start seeing those, your average CPC rising, or you start seeing lower average positions, you’re going to have two potential levers to pull. One of them is you’re going to have to either pay more, which I suspect most of your competition, if they’re not savvy AdWords advertisers, they’re going to reach for that one. Or if you are skilled at AdWords, you want to work the system better. For example acquiring new skills from the SEO realms.
So that would be doing more keyword research, going beyond those head terms to the long tail terms. Getting much better keywords, finding better keywords that your competition aren’t bidding on, they’re less competitive, and will potentially be less costly.
Dave: Are there any other specific things that AdWords advertisers can be doing?
Aaron: If you’re bidding on brand terms along with your normal terms, with your regular non-brand terms, if they’re all grouped together inside one campaign, I would definitely recommend separating them.
Because brand is going to be performing very differently than your non-brand terms, and it’s still important to go after your brand terms, because most likely your competition will be going after those, as part of their efforts to gain more ground in this new world.
Another thing would be to start using all of the AdWords ad extensions. Ad extensions are site links, reviews and call-outs. The call extension if you’re accepting phone numbers.
Use them all, use whatever makes sense. But definitely use them, because they’re going to make your ad more enticing to click on, and ultimately you use AdWords to get your ad clicked on. If you have the possibility of running PLA ads, this is also a great time to start getting into them! Because as we said, there will be no more ads on the side, but PLA ads, product listing ads, will be shown on that right-hand side at the very top. So that’s another opportunity for you to get a click. Another thing that I would say is, don’t close your account down and give up, don’t walk away from this. Keep at it.
Dave: I’m guessing, some people, some companies and therefore some competition are going to say exactly that, aren’t they? People are going to say, “It did work before, it’s not working now, so let’s just freeze the account.”
Aaron: People that are not listening to what we’re talking about, and not hearing about what they should be doing will see their cost are rising and eventually might say “You know what, I’ve had enough. We can’t live in this expensive world of AdWords!” So they shut down their account. Then in turn you’re going to have less competition on that front, and that could actually bring you a higher position.
Dave: So it goes back to what you touched on before, we’re going to see new cycles aren’t we, new behavioural patterns that we haven’t seen before.
Aaron: Right, right. People getting out of it and then you having this opportunity to get ahead.
Dave: Right, okay. So interesting is good! From an SEO point of view, there’s a surprising overlap. What Aaron and myself have found over the years is our skill-sets, the techniques and approaches we use for handling AdWords and SEO, are really quite different. There isn’t that much for an overlap.
But now, that’s changed slightly. I think that monitoring your keywords has become more important than ever before. It doesn’t matter what you use – but don’t use just monitoring your own keywords in your browser! We’re not going to get into that right now, but carrying out these manual searches is not a good way to do it. If nothing else, have a look in your Google search console. What used to be the Google Webmaster Tools account.
Have a look there, see what’s happening for these average positions. Because like we said, position four in organic listings has a potential to be position eight in terms of other items that are above it. Or potentially worse. So more than ever, you’ve got to start monitoring these things.
As always, trends are more important. A sudden fluctuation on the day, like before, is nothing to panic about. You want to see what happens over the course of weeks and months, as opposed to days.
I believe that keyword research is becoming a digital super power, more so now than ever. Really being able to get your head around how to do keyword research in new, original, and effective ways, is massively important – both for AdWords and SEO.
In a sense from the SEO side of things, it’s same old, same old, but actually doing it is more important than ever. You still have to create really well optimized content. But it still has to be primarily created for humans, rather than Google spider. So that particular tip, there’s nothing new in there. That applied before.
But again, because everything is being pushed down, positions five to nine on that page one is nowhere near as effective, organic-wise as positions one to four. The same principle applies I think to the new SEO. It’s not less important, it’s more important than ever.
Most people are throwing up their hands in despair at SEO already. It’s too difficult, it’s too complicated. It’s too time consuming, it’s too technical, and it’s too scary. “What if I make these changes, Google hate it and stamp on me?” Actually for you and your business, that’s great news! As in it’s great news that most people feel that way about SEO!
It’s great news that most people don’t get around to SEO, because this is the time that taking small steps to improve your SEO can actually reap the greatest benefits. There’s never been a better time to get into SEO.
So to wrap it all up, we both gave different advice for AdWords and SEO, but unusually there’s a lot of common ground there. Because you and I both talked about the increased importance of monitoring performance.
Aaron: Right, absolutely. Right now you need to be watching very closely what’s happening. If you’re in AdWords, what’s happening in your AdWords account? I’m guessing from the organic perspective, if you’re not looking in the search console to see, or if you’re not using some tool that monitors your rankings, you definitely have to start looking into that area.
Dave: I think the other common ground that we both touched on is keyword research and long tail keywords. Which I think are, for both sides, the organic and the paid, this is potentially a way to bypass most of these restrictions.
Aaron: Yeah, absolutely.
Dave: So that’s it. We will possibly do this again at some point. And we will definitely keep you informed as to where this develops.
We keep an eye on all of this across all our clients’ accounts – AdWords accounts, Analytics accounts and Google Search Consoles. And the good news is, we do share what we find, and in a very actionable way!
We have a weekly email that goes out every Tuesday, called the Google Demystifier! There’s no sales pitch, it’s just we share something very useful, very actionable. And we get excellent feedback from our subscribers! If you want to sign up for it, and you really should, just go to any page of our website at SoftwarePromotions.com.
At the bottom right, there is going to be a little slider that pops up. You enter your name and email address, and you’re on there. If you try to leave our website (and woe behold the person who tries to leave our website!) you will get an even more aggressive, in your face means of signing up. We genuinely only share very, very useful, actionable information. So not surprisingly, we both wholeheartedly recommend it.
Thanks for your time, and watch this space!