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The gradual merging of paid and organic listings

Sam Sheppard
Sam is one of CandidSky's SEO Executives. He has a keen interest in digital marketing as a whole, with a particular enthusiasm for organic search.

September 28, 2016

4 minute read

Earlier this year, Google changed the placement of their paid listings by removing all listings from the right-hand side of their search engine result’s page.

To help account for this change, they increased the number of ads in the main listings from three to four. A few months later, this was followed up with two further changes to the design of paid listings: 1) the addition of paid ads in local map packs and 2) the ‘Ad’ tag colour was changed from yellow to green (note: the same colour as the URL next to it). The next planned change is for each listing on a result’s page to be contained within its own box.

A screenshot of Google's results for the keyword 'all inclusive spain holidays'

Google’s results now contain four paid listings, no side-ads, and green ‘Ad’ tags.


Every time you click on a paid listing, Google makes money. A lot of money actually – the search engine giant made $52.4bn from advertisements across their websites and products in 2015. Despite this though, statistics from a study by Goo Technologies show that most people ignore adverts.

It’s clearly in Google’s interest to increase the number of people clicking on their adverts; but how can they do this if most people continue to ignore paid listings? Answer: by hiding in plain sight.

Changes to the design of the search engine results page have undoubtedly blurred the lines between what’s a paid listing and what’s organic, making it more difficult for users to quickly discern any differences between the two. It seems to be working too, a recent report from Ofcom showed that 51% of search engine users were unable to identify adverts in a results page. Some would suggest these changes constitute a form of dark pattern UI, but if Google can increase the global click through rate (CTR) on ads by even a tiny fraction then they stand to increase revenue significantly.

What does this mean for SEO?

As an SEO, I welcome these changes – the search engine results look a lot cleaner now – so this is certainly not an ‘SEO is dead’ post. Far from it in fact, despite ads that do exist being harder to differentiate there are a few things to keep in mind: 1) there are now fewer ads in total, meaning that user attention is less likely to be diverted away from the main organic listings, and 2) despite the changes, organic listings still get a much higher click through rate. That said, great optimisation has become even more important, with the top spots even more sought after as more organic listings are pushed below-the-fold. So, what can we do?

  1. Make organic listings truly standout with star ratings, compelling title tags and relevant meta descriptions.
  2. Ensure your local SEO is in great shape, and get in the map pack for any keywords returning a places box.
  3. Recognise that a great digital marketing strategy incorporates both paid and organic channels, and run a well optimised PPC campaign to complement your SEO.

What does this mean for PPC?

The general assumption when Google removed right-hand side ads was that pay-per-click costs would rise. It made sense – there are fewer on-page ads, so the simple rules of supply and demand suggest the remaining advertising space should become more valuable. However, since the change our PPC team haven’t noticed any significant increases in bidding costs.

Instead, we have seen a general increase in the click through rate across all campaigns, which suggests that Google’s design changes are working. More importantly, it highlights the increased value and importance of PPC as a digital channel. Costs are the same, but there’s an increased chance of getting a click through – what’s not to like?!

Final thoughts

Google can only go so far with the merging of paid and organic listings. Search engine users come to Google for the most relevant answer to their query, and despite strict quality-testing in PPC, organic listings still tend to be the best result. As such, if Google was to give too much of the results page to paid listings their product would lose it’s high level of quality, leading users to simply go elsewhere.

Nonetheless, it’s important to remember that search engine results are not static resources, and their appearance can have a significant effect on user behaviour, so for your business to make the most out of digital it’s vital to have a structured and well-planned search engine marketing strategy.

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