You’ve Already Been Affected by Paid Ads for High Commercial Queries

Grace Adato February 29, 2016

How Paid Ads Make Ecommerce SEO Strategy Even Harder

When Google makes an update the same types of questions come in right away from clients about what it means for SEO and their strategy, and what should they be doing differently or prioritizing? While it’s only been about a week since Google’s announcement of a desktop SERP layout change removing right-side ads for “highly commercial queries”, now is the time to prepare by benchmarking your “highly commercial queries” traffic and CTR. This will allow you to make better decisions on what strategies to keep, add or update.

Increasing the number of paid ads at the top of SERPS for highly commercial queries has been tested over the years. In 2010, Google experimented with mortgage queries, in August 2015 mobile users saw an additional ad in the SERPs, and the end of 2015 there were more reports of 4 ads on desktop SERPs. Much to the dismay of SEOs, this new change is clearly giving priority to commercial queries and advertisers.

What are highly commercial queries?

  • Generally speaking, the term is used for queries in which Google perceives an intent to purchase.
  • However, what you deem highly commercial may differ from Google’s definition.
  • Examples of intent to purchase keywords may include:
    • Research keywords: free, download
    • Buy keywords: buy, coupon, discount, deal, shipping
    • Product keywords: specific brands, review, best, cheap affordable

Commercial Product Keywords

laptops serp

buy beats by dre serp

Commercial Buy Keywords

vitamix blender review serp

buy handbags serp

A lot of people are either asking why the change, wondering if SEO is dead again, or what they can or can’t do about it. From my experience, these could be reasons why:

  • Revenue and Paid Search preference: Google wants to make money, and their research shows moving the ads will improve CTR for advertisers.
  • Mobile & Local: Google says they are improving user experience with more local and featured snippets above the fold on mobile, now they are standardizing the mobile SERP with desktop.
  • PLAs and Knowledge Graph: Removing ads to standardize the layout on desktop provides room for PLAs and Knowledge Graph boxes.
  • Intent: Google is pushing hard for site’s to optimize for intent — especially with RankBrain — they want to get smarter about a user’s intent.

With the layout now having an extra ad on top of the page and as many as 3 text ads at the bottom, there is less distraction on the right side of the page which conditions users to expect something helpful on the right like a knowledge panel or products. I imagine this is very intentional, not just a standardization process to make this simple for Google.

Ecommerce SEO & Intent Optimization

Because commercial keyword queries are likely to include brand names, specific products, pricing, or reviews, ecommerce SEO will be affected in those areas. To combat the paid ad changes, you could audit your Paid Search campaigns, but that is very likely to increase competition (and budget), especially since commercial queries are highly competitive already. For big brands with a big budget – Paid and Organic need to work together!

For smaller brands or brands without room for PPC budget increases, less competitive long tail queries will have more room for success. I think the answer is intent optimization which means there are no shortcuts to simple keyword and on-page optimization with highly competitive broad keywords. It will take diligence to choose keywords with less stiff competition, and scrutinize the pages that rank for those keywords for Meta data, schema, and image optimization. Can you make your page stand out from the rest in the SERPs?

buy beats by dre serp 

Intent Optimization & Long Tail

paid ads clicks
Source: WordStream

It is very interesting to note that in 2012, a WordStream PPC CTR study found that 64% of clicks went to paid ads for keywords with high commercial intent. I think this further supports the fact that Google is very interested in making money by supporting its paid advertisers.

We no longer have the luxury of optimizing thousands of pages for broad keywords, even with a bunch of backlinks, and ranking in top 10. If you do rank in top 10 without much optimization, you should consider yourself lucky. If you don’t, then long-tail traffic will be the best place to focus. A standard ecommerce product grid page and filters are not gong to standout.
Featured Snippets
Notice in the below example that the featured snippets may not be at the top of the page, but the answers are not from Apple or Beats by Dre, but Walmart and a financial news site appear.

buy beats by dre snippets

Local SEO Matters

If a site does have brick and mortar locations, it is highly advisable to make sure you are prioritizing your local strategy — for the Local Pack in Google Maps and local on-page optimization — in addition to organic optimization for search, image and knowledge graph queries for intent. Remember that many Local Ranking Factors exist just like SEO and Paid.

local seo rank factors
Source: Moz

It will be important to do the best optimization job as possible, since we recently learned from Local SEO Joy Hawkins that Google filters local results too (even big brands), if they’re low quality or duplicate. Don’t get caught in that filter trap or your efforts will be fruitless.

radioshack dallas serpradioshack serp no filter


For those sites without physical locations recommendations are still the same: prioritize optimization of search, image and knowledge graph queries for intent. I think this is the game Google is going to continue pushing on us: how well can you optimize for intent. Not keywords, but intent.

What Should SEOs do? Benchmark!

How this change affects individual websites will be unique.

  • It will require analytics benchmarking, monitoring traffic and CTR for your unique “highly commercial queries”. Start by identifying those queries!

As for importance of organic positioning, it can be looked at in both ways. It’s either more important to be #1 or it’s becoming less important because #1 is further down page and less valuable.

  • On the other hand, it’s important to note that the number of organic results on the first page may not change (if images, news, etc. are not present), just that the page is now longer to scroll. Blended results will change the number of organic results, but the paid ads do not cut down on the number of total organic results.

Google is forcing us SEOs to provide better user experience and get smarter about the intent of queries we optimize for.

  • This means more focus on intent optimization which can be Meta data, schema, optimization for images, and knowledge graph.


  • REVENUE & PAID PREFERENCE: Because Google has “determined the average CTR for Right Hand Side Ads is poor”, I believe this is another revenue move for Google not just for improving advertiser performance. It was also widely believed to be a revenue move when Google took away Organic Search keyword data, but available for Paid Search. However, Google always says they are about providing the best experience and protecting user data (*wink)
  • MOBILE & LOCAL: Adding more ads and local results above organic is similar to what mobile results have morphed into recently. In 2015 there were a myriad of changes to the SERPs that keep pushing organic results further down the page: Local Pack, Knowledge Graph, Featured Snippets, Paid Search Sitelinks, and expanded PLAs. Google has also been saying for years that they prefer mobile-first design and could be standardizing the layout.
  • PLAs and KNOWLEDGE GRAPH: Both have become more important to the layout so removing ads from the sidebar provided that room. This is also another reason for Google to standardize the layout to match mobile.
  • INTENT: Highly commercial queries are about buying intent which is an extremely competitive market. Invest in Paid Search, long tail & featured snippet optimization.

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