Four Ads on Top: The Wait Is Over


For the past couple of months, Google has been testing SERPs with 4 ads at the top of the page (previously, the top ad block had 1-3 ads), leading to a ton of speculation in the PPC community. Across the MozCast data set, 4 ads accounted for only about 1% of SERPs with top ads (which matches testing protocol, historically). Then, as of yesterday, this happened:

Over the past 2 weeks, we’ve seen a gradual increase, but on the morning of February 18, the percentage of top ads blocks displaying 4 ads jumped to 18.9% (it’s 19.3% as of this morning). Of the 5,986 page-1 SERPs in our tracking data that displayed top ads this morning, here’s how the ad count currently breaks down:

As you can see, 4-ad blocks have overtaken 2-ad blocks and now account for almost one-fifth of all top ad blocks. Keep in mind that this situation is highly dynamic and will continue to change over time. At the 19% level, though, it’s unlikely that this is still in testing.

Sample SERPs & Keywords

The 4-ad blocks look the same as other, recent top ad blocks, with the exception of the fourth listing. Here’s one for “used cars,” localized to the Chicago area:

Here’s another example, from an equally competitive search, “laptops”:

As you can see, the ads continue to carry rich features, including site-links and location enhancements. Other examples of high-volume searches that showed 4 top ads in this morning’s data include:

    • “royal caribbean”
    • “car insurance”
    • “smartphone”
    • “netbook”
    • “medicare”
    • “job search”
    • “crm”
    • “global warming”
    • “cruises”
    • “bridesmaid dresses”

Please note that our data set tends toward commercial queries, so it’s likely that our percentages of occurrence are higher than the total population of searches.

Shift in Right-column Ads

Along with this change, we’ve seen another shift – right-hand column ads seem to be moving to other positions. This is a 30-day graph for the occurrence of right-hand ads and bottom ads in our data set:

The same day that the 4-ad blocks jumped, there was a substantial drop in right-column ad blocks and corresponding increasing in bottom ad blocks. Rumors are flying that AdWords reps are confirming this change to some clients, but confirmation is still in progress as of this writing.

Where is Google Headed?

We can only speculate at this point, but there are a couple of changes that have been coming for a while. First, Google has made a public and measurable move toward mobile-first design. Since mobile doesn’t support the right-hand column, Google may be trying to standardize the advertising ecosystem across devices.

Second, many new right-hand elements have popped up in the last couple of years, including Knowledge Panels and paid shopping blocks (PLAs). These entities push right-hand column ads down, sometimes even below the fold. At the same time, Knowledge Panels have begun to integrate with niche advertising in verticals including hotels, movies, music, and even some consumer electronics and other products.

This is a volatile situation and the numbers are likely to change over the coming days and weeks. I’ll try to update this post with any major changes.


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