Google is constantly testing and tweaking its search results pages and presentation of ads, with the aim of better UX and of course, monetising its pages more effectively.
The two are not mutually exclusive, as the better the user experience, the more people are likely to use it and therefore attract advertisers and clicks.
Dr Peter J Meyers, Marketing Scientist at Moz, has been keeping tabs on tests carried out by Google, and he has some very interesting predictions of what the SERPs will look like next year.
His article on Moz.com looks at a number of changes, including the knowledge graph and greater use of boxed results, but I'll be focusing on changes to the appearance and placement of PPC ads.
Dr Meyers launched “Project Algo Alert” last year, which would later become MozCast. The original intention was to measure fluctuations in keyword rankings, but this has evolved into various 'weather' stations.
One of those systems is Feature Alert, which detects when Google launches new search features. The Moz article explains this better than I could.
As Dr Meyers explains:
A side effect of the system is that, at large scale, it frequently catches Google in the act of testing new features and UI changes. Keep in mind that Google ran 7,018 “live traffic experiments” in 2012 – while we probably capture only a small number of them, these tests allow us to get a glimpse into what’s coming next.
While any given change may be rejected (Google launched just over 9% of the changes they tested last year), some changes appear repeatedly in testing and in different formats over time, strongly suggesting that Google is intent on launch.
Another area to look at is mobile. Google is anxious to repeat its desktop ad success on mobile, so it's the focus for many UI experiments.
For example, the yellow text denoting paid ads was recently introduced on mobile, but Google looks to be bringing this to desktop search (see below).
How will Google change its ad formats?
Dr Meyers has provided us with a number of screenshots showing future ad formats.
Yellow ad labels
Here, the ads are marked more prominently with the yellow 'ad' text, something Dr Meyers believes is due to the EU settlement, rather than by choice.
However, while the ads are more clearly labelled, aside from that the ads look more like organic results, as if Google is trying to offset the effect of the label.
As on mobile, Google is also testing ads at the foot of the search results page:
Ads in slide deck
This is an interesting test, and could be a very big change. With Google's Knowledge graph, we're accustomed to seeing useful information related to searches here, such as this one for Newcastle Utd.
It seems that Google is now testing large paid placements in this area:
This is potentially a very big change, as these ads don't really look like ads. In fact, Dr Meyers calls them 'ads in sheep's clothing'.
The product specifications make it look more informational than advertorial, and it could be that Google has been 'training' us to look for info on the right hand side to make it more likely that we'll click there.
Here's another one, for insurance. While the ads have the familiar shading, the presentation is more informational than ad-like. This seems to have been tested and then rolled back:
Is Google attempting to make ads seem less like ads?
I have suspected that Google has tweaked the background of its paid ads now and then, seemingly to make the ad shading less visible, and therefore more like an organic result.
It has also been experimenting with banner ads for some brand searches, something which contradicted previous statements from Google.
Also, the ads for its insurance comparison have done away with the shading, making them a kind of hybrid paid/organic result.
Dr Meyers also predicts that Google may start to place ads within organic results, rather than sticking to the top and bottom of pages, as it aims to improve their effectiveness.
I asked him if Google is seeking to make ads less 'ad-like':
Conspiracies aside, the economic reality is that Google is a roughly $60bn company with over 80% of its revenue wrapped up in advertising, and the vast majority of that is click-based.
With consumer behavior on mobile evolving rapidly, there is tremendous pressure on Google to drive more ad clicks. At the same time, it's under increasing scrutiny from US and EU regulators, so is fighting a difficult war right now. If Google has to give into the EU and label ads, then it's going to be working hard to offset that with new tactics.
What do you think? Are these changes likely to happen? How will they affect paid search marketing?