The best, and sometimes worst, thing about paid search is that while everything changes…it all stays the same. I’m specifically talking about the ever-dynamic world that is Google AdWords. There are always small tweaks and adjustments, and usually, the wide-sweeping changes are few and far between. The latest and greatest of these changes has been the removal of sidebar ads.

There are plenty of opinions floating around about how or why this change has been rolled out, but the overall reasoning coming straight from Google is three-fold (and keep in mind, I’m paraphrasing here):

  • This has been an ongoing test for user satisfaction, so it’s not an “out of nowhere” adjustment
  • The removal of sidebar ads makes for a less cluttered SERP (better user experience)
  • More similarity between mobile and desktop SERPs makes for a more seamless Google experience across devices

This is all well and good, and quite frankly I’m not even discrediting those reasons for the change. In fact, I agree with them because even as a search marketer I find myself overwhelmed from time to time with the overall number of characters on a given SERP (yup, I said it…what?). What I would like to address are the additional reasons that I believe may be lurking behind sidebar ad removal or what I like to call my SBA conspiracy theory (insert detective tv show theme music here).

Here’s what I think is happening…

Advertisers and account managers are becoming more educated and focusing on creative & improving account relevancy thus moving away from the “pay to play” bid increase method of higher ad rankings.

As PPC has become a highly competitive market, increasingly so year over year, even our very own Hanapin team has built regimented ad copy testing procedures and diving back into account structure and segmentation as the framework for improving performance. So where’s the conspiracy here? It’s simple – as these advertisers and account managers find ways to succeed without paying more for clicks, Google isn’t making click revenue as easily as they used to. This does *not* mean they aren’t making more profits (more advertisers in general allows the needle to continue moving up and to the right for them), but smarter advertisers means less click bid-driven budget increases for higher rankings.

If the engine is making less money on those sidebar ads for that reason, removing them eliminates some opportunity to trust relevancy improvements more than bid increases to drive your brand into the top 3-4 spots above the organic results.

Statistics have shown that as the top position ads have become more attractive and take up more real estate on the SERP – searchers tend to choose those ads or an organic result below them (aka not the sidebar ads).

You’re going to see a pattern here, but if potential clicks are going to organic results when the searcher doesn’t find what they’re looking for (or just doesn’t like ads period) in the top ads, that means less PPC revenue for the engine. That theory in mind, it makes sense for Google to eliminate those positions as options and, by proxy, require advertisers to bid more for higher positions that remain. Or drop to the bottom positions, or drop off the first page entirely, but I digress…

You’ve probably heard Google has doubled down on offering AdWords management services in the last few months.

If some mid-tier advertisers (specifically those who show up most in the sidebar ad space) can’t seem to manage in the new PPC ad landscape, doesn’t it reason that they could call on this offer from the Google team for help? The problem I’ve always had with the engine offering these kinds of services is that they’re not ultimately in a position to own the performance – just the clicks.

Unlike an agency, you can’t really “fire” Google. If you need to advertise to the largest pool of potential searchers for your brand, their engine owns the vast majority of the search share. You can always take the management back over yourself or take it elsewhere, but your dollars will probably be back to them in some form or fashion.

I want to be clear that I’m absolutely not saying the Google team builds and manages accounts in this engagement to fail. I know some have been incredibly successful, but it’s hard for me to believe that is the case in the bulk of those instances.

So does the removal of the sidebar ads drive a certain percentage of advertisers into the arms of this Google-managed approach? Maybe. If it does, they could impress an “increase your bids” strategy on the account and if the client agrees…more revenue for AdWords.

Let me reiterate for one minute, now that my thoughts and concerns are on the table, that I’m not implying that Google has made this change solely for selfish or revenue-driven reasons. Our Google agency reps have been phenomenal over the last year about:

  • Getting in touch with us for betas that are excellent fits for our clients
  • Providing market data for new clients or prospects
  • Coming to our offices to train with us and learn more about our clients and our team

That said, you can’t deny that some of what I’m saying makes a little sense, right?

My greatest fear for Google is that this change pushes more ad spend, whether it be due to confusion, anger, lack of performance or whatever else, toward social engines or even over to Bing Ads (gasp!).

What do you think? What other reasons do you see playing into the decision to sunset sidebar ads? How do you see it impacting your PPC strategy, either now or in the future? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section. And thanks for letting me rant a bit!