Blurring the Lines Between Paid and Natural Search Listings: The Impact on Search Performance

Over the past few months, Google has made some subtle changes to the look of its top position sponsored listings. These changes have, in the aggregate, made top sponsored listings look remarkably like natural search listings.

Over the past few months, Google has made some subtle changes to the look of its top position sponsored listings. These changes have, in the aggregate, made top sponsored listings look remarkably like natural search listings.

In January, for instance, Google lowercased the display URL for all paid search ads (e.g., Example.com became example.com). The new lowercase display URL now matches natural search URLs. A few weeks later, Google began allowing top position paid search advertisers to move the first line of description ad text into the title of the listing. This can be done for any listing by placing punctuation at the end of the first description line. By moving the first description line into the title, the paid search title looks more like a natural search title.

Other recent changes have helped top position paid search ads blend into natural search results. These changes include the lightening of the paid search box’s color and a change to the box’s right-side label from “Sponsored Listings” to the less noticeable “Ad.”

What do these changes mean for paid and natural search performance? Performics’ 2010 Search Engine Results Page (SERP) Insights Study found that two-thirds of searchers know the difference between paid and natural search results. However, in light of Google’s recent changes, fewer searchers may be able to tell the paid and natural listings apart.

Many searchers click on natural search listings because they believe natural search is less biased than paid search. Yet, as the lines between paid and natural search listings blur, searchers may be more likely to click on a top position paid listing. Thus, paid search clickthrough rates (CTRs) may rise while natural search CTRs may fall. Performics’ 2010 SERP Insights Study also found that 20 percent of searchers frequently or always click on paid search ads. This year could be a different story.

In light of these changes, advertisers should pay close attention to both paid and natural search CTRs, especially for brand queries. For example, most advertisers run a top position paid search ad and rank first naturally for their brand name. Google’s changes could divert clicks from the natural listing to the paid listing, which means advertisers will be paying for clicks that they used to get for free.

This is fine if the cost per order/lead from paid search remains at or above goal, but if click costs rise and order sales and leads don’t, advertisers need to refine their paid search campaigns. This includes employing landing page optimization strategies as well as testing paid search site links to better direct searchers to the exact page they’re looking for.

It’s generally easier to use paid search rather than natural search to direct a searcher to a defined landing page that’s optimized to drive conversions. Thus boosting paid search CTRs — even at the expense of natural search CTRs — can drive more conversions. The key is ensuring that paid search landing pages are optimized.

It’s clear that Google’s changes blur the lines between paid and natural search listings. Will Bing and other engines follow suit? That remains to be seen, but in response to this change on the industry’s leading engine, advertisers now have an opportunity to boost paid search CTRs. Advertisers must be strategic about their programs and remember that in order to stay efficient, they must ensure that more clicks ultimately yield more sales/leads.

Have you seen a difference in your search programs as a result of these blurred lines? Have questions about how it might impact your campaigns? Contact me at craig.greenfield@performics.com.

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