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2016: The Year in Google SERP Updates

Once again, ‘tis the season for year-end roundups. When we sat down to discuss the changes Google made this year to its search engine results page (SERP), one thing stood out: the heightened prominence and interactivity of Google Shopping ads. 

While Google’s SERP retains a familiar spartan look and feel, it — along with some AdWords controls — has changed over the last 12 months to reflect a shift in consumer preferences for more relevance and better cross-device experiences. And though we’re admittedly pretty partial to Shopping ads, it’s tough to deny that they embody a step up in both of those areas.

Let’s explore 2016’s big Google SERP changes, what they mean for the future of e-commerce marketing on the world’s most trafficked site, and how Google Shopping ads fit in.

Google Drops Text Ads From the Right Side of Desktop SERP

It’s hard to overstate how much buzz this one got here at Sidecar HQ. We’ve written quite a lot about the effects of the update on CPCs and the growth of Google Shopping ads since the change, as well as laid out strategies retailers can use to take advantage in Shopping.

But stepping back and looking at the change from Google’s perspective, my feeling is that they are aiming for a more consistent experience across devices and screen sizes. If we’re being honest, text ads on the right side of the SERP felt very, shall we say,10 years ago; the new look and feel is cleaner.

In terms of information hierarchy, the redesigned desktop SERP also very clearly prioritizes results that will be most useful to searchers. When you consider that the results returned often come in the form of Shopping ads, it bodes well for retailers who are seeing results from them.

Desktop SERP Get Its Own Scrollable Shopping Carousel

On one hand, this update again speaks to Google’s push for more uniformity across various devices: The mobile SERP has long featured a scrolling carousel of Shopping ads.

Google SERP Updates

More interestingly, it suggests that Shopping ads are, in fact, a welcome presence for many consumers. Google is renowned for the degree of analysis its products undergo, famously testing 41 shades of blue for the toolbar across its pages to determine which one garnered the most clicks.

And Google also tested this feature before making it permanent, so it’s safe to assume that users were enthusiastically interacting with it. That this feature opens up even more ad inventory and gives retailers a better shot at showing up on the first page of results only sweetens the deal for retail advertisers.

At Last, Tablet Bidding Comes to AdWords

After being unveiled during Google’s Performance Summit in May, the function finally started appearing in advertisers’ AdWords accounts in August. And I mean it when I say, “finally.”  

While it was a long time coming, the feature was well worth it. It’s all part of an acknowledgment on Google’s part that tablet and desktop are NOT the same things. Not much more to say about this one, other than head on over to AdWords and get started with tablet level bidding — if you haven’t already, that is.

Shopping Ads in Image Search Officially Launches

After testing Shopping ads in image search for a long while, Google made it official as part of its initiative to help advertisers be more useful to mobile searchers.

Google Shopping Image Ads

I see this as further confirmation that Shopping ads, beyond simply being a winner for both retailers and consumers, are becoming a dominant revenue stream for Google, too. The ads are effective, so Google is finding new places for them across its products.

Just like text ads in the late 90s, Shopping ads are clearly becoming a critical component of Google’s business, and if I were a retailer, I’d be excited about this evolution. The best part? Shopping ads on image search offer a lower CPC than those on Google.com.

Customer Match Comes to Shopping

When this feature first dropped, I was mainly excited about the potential of Shopping ads to generate more robust returns for retailers using them.

Reflecting on things, it seems like this move was done to keep up with Facebook. Owing to its ubiquity, Google has had the luxury to not really worry as much about audiences. However, as Facebook continues to gain market share, Google has definitely taken notice.

It’s notable that while Facebook is notorious for collecting user demographic and behavioral data to lure advertisers to its networks, Google’s demographic targeting and remarketing capabilities are minimal by comparison. Perhaps more demographic targeting parameters will come to AdWords?

Also worth keeping an eye on is Google’s commitment to user privacy when and if it continues to build out those audience capabilities.

Showcase Shopping Ads Beta Introduced

This could be the most seismic shift on Google’s SERP: Showcase ads that expand into a virtual storefront for an advertiser. See below for an animated walkthrough from Google.

Google Showcase Shopping ads

Since their launch, these ads have proven rather elusive. I’ve encountered a few, but only rarely. This is a shame because we’d like to see more of them. It’s a step in the right direction that Google is making efforts to be more relevant for top-of-funnel queries and give shoppers an experience where they can browse an array of products, more closely mirroring the real-life shopping experience.

My prediction is that, as they become more prevalent, top-of-funnel clicks to Showcase ads will convert at a higher rate than those to traditional Shopping ads. Because shoppers will have more options to choose from, it’s a safe bet that fewer early clicks will be purely navigational or driven by price. If Google can engineer a means of distinguishing between top- and bottom-of-funnel customers when serving up search results, that would be extremely powerful.

Hopefully, there’s more coming soon on the Showcase Shopping ads front, but check out this post for a refresher.  

If there’s a single unifying theme to Google’s 2016, it’s an emphasis on consistency across devices to delight users who shift fluidly across devices (aka everyone). Google admitted as much at its May Performance Summit when it unveiled many of these updates and revealed that more than half of its trillions of searches happen on mobile.

This is definitely a step in the right direction, but perhaps a better question is how much further can Google go here? Mobile traffic keeps surging year after year — and conversions are beginning to tick up accordingly — so there’s certainly plenty of more innovation still to come.

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