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Adwords moved closer on August 12 - has it hurt organic traffic?

 5:18 pm on Aug 30, 2009 (gmt 0)

Over on the WebmasterWorld AdWords forum there's a discussion going on (Are Sponsored Links Closer? [webmasterworld.com]) discussing a move Google made August 12th to push the paid ads to the left, closer to the organic results. In that thread, I've noted that SEM firms are seeing 10-15% higher CTR on paid ads since this change.

Question to SEO folks here - are you seeing less SEO traffic since then, or no change?

[edited by: tedster at 6:57 pm (utc) on Aug. 30, 2009]
[edit reason] added the link [/edit]



 7:34 pm on Aug 30, 2009 (gmt 0)

That's a good question. We had a short discussion of the Google layout change in this forum too - [webmasterworld.com...] - first spotted on August 6.

From the stats I can access right now, I see no clear impact on organic traffic. Later on I will have access to a much larger data pool. I want to compare the data for businesses that are running Adwords and also have good organic ranking on the same keywords. None of them have noticed seeing a significant change so far (and it's been two weeks) but they may not have been looking for this specific issue, either.


 10:42 pm on Aug 30, 2009 (gmt 0)

I believe that overall web traffic has been moving back up from its normal summer lull during the latter part of August, so that could account for some of the increase in adwords clicks during that period.


 12:59 am on Aug 31, 2009 (gmt 0)

Maybe, but only if organic traffic showed a similar increase, correct?


 1:15 am on Aug 31, 2009 (gmt 0)

If overall web traffic has recently increased, then total Google search volume has probably inceased too. But I'm not suggesting that this could account for ALL of the increase in adwords clicks, only some of it.


 1:23 am on Aug 31, 2009 (gmt 0)

Right - so the question for this thread is if the change in layout has DECREASED organic traffic. I suppose we should first account for any seasonal increase when we look at the organic stats, before we conclude whether the new layout has impacted organic traffic in any way.


 4:42 am on Aug 31, 2009 (gmt 0)

Well, a slight decrease in organic traffic here since the change, but too many factors exist for anything conclusive. Are they testing font types/sizes, along with the ad placement change? If not, those might be the next tests we see. Handing out organic traffic isn't really their ultimate goal. Right?


 6:45 am on Aug 31, 2009 (gmt 0)

Google did this for one reason - increase RPS (revenue per search). A second major concern would have been the usability of the search results pages - I would imagine that they would only do it if they could avoid that.

They wouldn't have done it if they hadn't been sure it would increase RPS and they would have tested this before they launched to ensure it was positive. So if the RPS goes up, the CTR on the organic results must have gone down.


 5:04 pm on Aug 31, 2009 (gmt 0)

So if the RPS goes up, the CTR on the organic results must have gone down.

That's not a certainty, hence the opening post's request for what effects on traffic we are seeing.

The layout change might generate more clicks altogether from the same SERP. The 15% increase in ad CTR might be coming from a biased sample of search terms. There's all kinds of possibilities here, so reports of actual organic traffic changes are really what this requires.


 7:30 pm on Aug 31, 2009 (gmt 0)

I've now had a chance to look at a much larger data set. There is a nice uptick in CTR from Adwords since Aug 12, but it's more like 4%-5%, not 15%.

However, I am not seeing any discernable cannibalization of organic traffic. I've even isolated some accounts that rank well organically and also do paid search.

Solid data analysis is challenged in several ways:

1. This layout change only affects browser windows that are wider than 1000px, and the effect is rather negligible at a 1024px resolution. In other words, the average user is not seeing a difference, and those with wider browser windows who are seeing the difference are more likely to be power users. Because of that, they relate to the ads and organic results a bit differently.

2. Organic rankings have been showing a lot of churn this summer, so establishing a decent baseline for comparison is challenging.

3. An extra compication is that total searches have gone zooming in the past year according to Comscore [comscore.com]. So if you try to compare to the historical traffic record from last year, that's a major factor to take into account.

4. Any business whose ad has been promoted to the top of the page has no layout change. Just possibly, the new proximity of ads on the right might steal away traffic from those ads that are showing "up north".

5. The real business metric should be CPA, not CTR. For the accounts I've checked, growth in acquisitions are not keeping pace with the uptick in CTR. More people are just "kicking the tires" when they click on ads, in other words.

We're trying to come up with a more definitive sample so we can zero in more precisely on the thread's opening question about affects on organic traffic.

So far, I still see no significant loss of organic traffic or organic conversions. This could mean that the same number of searches is generating a higher number of clicks on the same SERP. It is true that in these accounts overall traffic is slightly up, and that increase is mostly from Adwords, not organic.


 12:56 am on Sep 1, 2009 (gmt 0)

Great analysis, tedster, thanks for sharing it. I hear what you're saying on the challenge of data analysis for this, but sounds like the 4-5% uptick in CTR is for campaigns you've looked at, which at least validates that this has brought the meaningful increase in CTR that one would expect from such a change.

Very interesting, too, that you're not seeing acquisitions keep pace with the increased CTR. I haven't looked at that yet (I will, though), but it stands to reason that if the add'l ad clients are additive (meaning not taking from organic), that the CPC/CPA equilibrium the market was at prior will only end up being perturbed for the time it takes the market to realize conversions didn't keep pace.

I've no idea how long that is, but I'll bet it's more than a month and less than a year...



 2:33 am on Sep 1, 2009 (gmt 0)

The layout change might generate more clicks altogether from the same SERP.

I'm not sure about this. With the analysis that you've preseneted there's no control group - so something else might have changed that we don't know about (or that we know changed but not by how much - e.g. volume of search queries) With that kind of analysis you might find correlation but not causation.


 3:50 am on Sep 1, 2009 (gmt 0)

The Comscore article I linked to above show that total Google searches have increased 58% in the past year (ahead of the all-internet numbers at +41%). So we do have a ballpark idea of increased search volume at Google.

However, it seems very unlikely that there would be a stepwise jump in total search volume right on July 12. Still, you are correct to point out that my idea is only conjecture and not at all an established cause for the jump in paid CTR.

The list above is only part of the difficulty in pulling applicable data from the past month's numbers. As time allows, I'll get back to that job.


 5:05 pm on Sep 1, 2009 (gmt 0)

Not that it's helpful in any way, but as a user, I hate the new layout. And it's not an "I'm resistant to all change", it's a "We're doing this from a purely financial standpoint in that we know it will drive more ad clicks". Visually and from a UE, it is way too cramped on my eyes.


 5:23 pm on Sep 1, 2009 (gmt 0)

I didn't notice it too much but the new layout makes more sense to me a user as for organic traffic I haven't seen any real change and I don't advertise with Google at the moment.


 6:43 pm on Sep 1, 2009 (gmt 0)

Right - so the question for this thread is if the change in layout has DECREASED organic traffic.

I haven't seen any change in Google search referrals. It's possible that some types of pages--such as e-commerce pages whose titles and snippets read like ads--might be affected more than information pages are. (The person who's looking for information on unicorns, unicorn breeding, or unicorn obedience competitions probably isn't going to be distracted by a "Unicorn Discounts" ad even if it has been moved closer to the organic results.)


 9:21 pm on Sep 1, 2009 (gmt 0)

This is really interesting - I didn't know google did this, but since around mid august I've definitely seen a 10% or so decrease in my referalls, and haven't been able figure out why, as my rankings are mostly the same.

This could explain a few things..


 4:57 pm on Sep 8, 2009 (gmt 0)

Just a quick update on this topic - on the SE Roundtable blog, latest results for the CTR poll they're conducting shows:

1) Increased AdWords CTR: 24 (50%)
2) Increased organic CTR: 4 (8%)
3) No change in AdWords CTR: 7 (15%)
4) No change in organic CTR: 7 (15%)
5) Decreased AdWords CTR: 1 (2%)
6) Decreased organic CTR: 5 (10%)


 3:36 pm on Oct 17, 2009 (gmt 0)

From Google's Q3 earnings report:

Imran Khan - JP Morgan
Q: How much of your sequential growth was driven by Ad Quality improvement?

Jonathan Rosenberg (Google)
A: "Again, we don't tend to break that out. We had a very good quarter from Ad Quality's perspective. I can tell you the significant things that we did. The biggest things, probably in order, or close to order, were the UI tweaks that we did for results pages. We changed the maximum width, decreasing the spacing between the search results and the right hand side ads on wide screen. With that it increased the click-through rate on the right hand side ads and I think we did that some time around the second week in August.

We also did some more work on showing more goods at good ads and expanded match. But we don't give a specific sense of exactly the percentage that that resulted in. The more significant of the changes occurred in mid-August."


 4:42 pm on Oct 17, 2009 (gmt 0)

Thanks for that shorebreak. I guess we can assume that someone's organic click didn't happen if an Adwords click did.

It's possible that the SERP in question would have receive no click at all before the layout change, but somehow I think that situation would be rare. And it's also possible that more searchers would have returned to the same SERP after their Adwords click. But the most common scenario probably includes a slight hurt on organic traffic with those other possibilities.


 6:51 pm on Oct 23, 2009 (gmt 0)

Is it just me, or did the AdWords ads on the right side get *even closer* today than there were as of the Aug 12th change described above?

I just did a search on both my computers, and no matter how wide I make my browser, the ads are never more than 12-14mm further to the right than is the case when Google's organic SERP layout is at its minimum. I never measured that maximum expansion differential when the original change happened Aug 12, but if memory serves me correctly it was 20-40mm at that time.

Anyone else care to comment? If I'm right, then I'll bet Google has another good quarter...


 12:05 am on Oct 24, 2009 (gmt 0)

At first I thought the same thing - but then I started working with a screenshot from August and one from today. The distance was exactly the same for me. I realized that my eye was being fooled by Adwords in the top position.

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