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Google Makes Desktop Search Look More Mobile-ish to Milk More Shopping-Ads Cash

Farewell, right-side ads.


If you type a Google search on your desktop computer right now, odds are good that the results will look different from the same search last week. That’s because Google made a seismic shift in its bedrock search page, ditching ads that appear on the right side and adding up to four paid ads above the unpaid or “organic” listings.

In essence, Google has rebuilt desktop results to resemble mobile ones, an indication of its effort to push advertisers to spend more readily on handheld devices, where a bulk of searches now happen.

It’s also a way to make more cash, as Google’s share of revenue per search ad has slid recently. For years, Google ran up to eight paid ads on the right side in desktop mode. While the total varies for each search, there will now probably be fewer paid spots for each result — and, therefore, a scramble by advertisers to bid more in Google’s auction.

“They’re trying to squeeze the brands to work a lot more,” said Shreya Kushari, SVP of search marketing for DigitasLBi, an ad agency. “Our cost-per-clicks are going to go up because we’re going to bid aggressively to be on the first four.”

New search results, without right side ads.
New search results, without right side ads.

A handful of search blogs picked up on the changes on Friday, which came after Google has quietly tested them for years. In the past couple weeks, results with four ads went from around two percent of searches to one out of five, according to data from online marketing firm Moz.

A Google rep confirmed that right-side ads are kaput. “We’ll continue to make tweaks, but this is designed for highly commercial queries where the layout is able to provide more relevant results for people searching and better performance for advertisers,” the rep wrote.

Sans ads, the right rail on desktop searches is now blank whiteness.

With two exceptions: 1) Google’s “Knowledge Panel” — its own results for renowned people, places or things. (A search for my boss, for example, fills up the right rail very nicely.) And 2) Product Listing Ads (PLAs) — commerce searches that trigger Google’s own comparative shopping service. (Like one for the iPhone 6.)

The Knowledge Panel is a key part of Google’s ongoing effort to serve up immediate results — often its own content, rather than external links. From the intel we can gather, PLAs are a growing business for Google. Plus, they’re a hedge against Amazon, which draws a rising share of product searches, a looming threat to the core moneymaking part of the entire Alphabet, Google’s parent conglomeration.

Marketing software firm Kenshoo reported that ad spending on PLAs grew faster than regular search during the holiday quarter — jumping 33 percent overall and 111 percent year-on-year on mobile devices, compared to 13 percent growth for paid search. (That’s for search platforms in aggregate, but we can safely assume that Google is taking the biggest slice.)

A rise in shopping ads is good for Google, so long as advertisers spend them with Google. And it explains why the company is now limiting its paid search real estate, and giving the shopping ads prime location.

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