Google AdWords Serving Four Search Ads at the Top of the SERP

12.9.15 I By Rhian Ryan, Shawn Hardie & Mike Gauld —

Prime Search Real Estate Expansion Poised to Impact Paid and Organic Search

What has Changed?

Image: Dr. Pete Meyers/@dr_pete

Google AdWords has begun testing inclusion of up to four paid search ads at the top left hand side of the search engine results page (SERP). Previously, no more than three ads were served in top-of-page positions with all other ads placed on the right side of the SERP.

Placement of the fourth paid search ads pushes the first organic listing below the fold.

This move is similar to Yahoo, who has been serving four top-of-page ads for some time.

Google has yet to confirm details of the scope of the test or plans to serve four ads going forward in perpetuity.

Why is this Important?

The top left portion of the SERP has long been called the “golden triangle” because it captures the most attention from users scanning the SERP.

The addition of a fourth ad places the first organic listing outside of the “golden triangle.”

Brands should expect their SEO programs to be impacted. Impressions are likely to remain consistent, but CTR and traffic will likely decrease as there will be less “above-the-fold” real estate on the SERP. There may now be a very minor difference visually between some lower-positioned paid search ads and organic listings.

In regards to Paid Search, over 60% of search engine users click on ads in the top three positions. Introducing a fourth ad position is likely to prompt advertisers to become more aggressive with their bidding strategies to gain entrance into the coveted top-of-page section of the SERP.

More aggressive bidding from advertisers in lower positions (5+) could drive up click costs for those in top positions (1-3) as they will need to defend their share of clicks against a growing competitor presence.

Advertisers that successfully capture the fourth position will benefit from an increase in clicks and CTR which could boost advertisers’ quality score and, in turn, reduce cost-per-click (CPC).


As a first step, brands must monitor the SERP to validate if keywords within their portfolio have been impacted by this test.

If you’re an advertiser and your paid search program is impacted, DigitasLBi will run an analysis to determine fluctuations in KPIs such as CTR, Quality Score and CPC and monitor against prior performance benchmarks. Based on outcomes, we would prescribe tactics to defend against click share erosion while staying in-line with campaign target parameters.

For SEO, we recommend that brands reset their expectations as the environment is changing. SEO is still very powerful, but you are not likely to see the same performance from the same content as you did last year, even if your “organic position” or “rankings” haven’t changed. SEO performance will still be strong, but changes such as this push down results and introduce new competitors for each click.

Invest in content, especially mid-to-upper funnel: consumers use search at every level of the consumer journey, and with the rise of quick answers and universal organic results (infographics, videos, FAQs, etc,…) this is one area where organic listings still relatively dominate click SOV.

Lastly, look at the big picture. Brands that analyze paid and organic search performance separately will struggle to adapt and succeed in the changing face of the SERP. We must look at keyword coverage across paid and organic search holistically to craft a search experience that is optimized with the end user in mind.

Rhian Ryan is VP/ Director of Search Marketing

Shawn Hardie Headshot
Shawn Hardie

Shawn Hardie is Associate Director, Search Marketing






Michael Gauld
Mike Gauld

 Mike Gauld is Associate Director, Search Marketing