The Role of Non-Brand Text Ads in an Evolving SERP

Non-brand paid search text ads are decliningThe Google SERP now presents three types of formats when someone searches for a product:  Organic, PLAs, and Non-Brand Text Ads.  These same three options have existed for a few years, but the PLAs used to be buried below the fold and were called Product Search (and Froogle, a really long time ago).

All search marketers know that visibility drives volume, and with PLAs now showing at the top of the page and non-brand text pushed below the fold, clicks to the image-friendly PLAs have soared; whereas, clicks to non-brand text ads are on the decline. 

What’s happening with non-brand text ads is similar to recent evolutions on the SERP causing volume shifts with organic.  All of this has to do with the placement of the formats.  Note that on the following screenshot, there are only 2 organic listings above the fold vs. 12 paid ads (4 non-brand text and 8 PLAs).

pla pic 3

Winning the top paid spot on the Google SERP not only gives an advertiser prime visibility but also pushes everyone else down the page, below the fold.  On the right-hand side where the non-brand text listings used to be, you now either have Google+ and Wikipedia listings or PLAs showing above the fold.  Non-brand text ad units are now down the page below the fold.  On the following screenshot, there is only 1 non-brand text ad vs. 8 PLAs above the fold.

 pla pic 1

And below the fold, there are 5 non-brand text ads on Page 1 of Google.

pla pic 2

Beyond the better visibility, the popularity of PLAs for retail is largely due to the visual ads rather than text, and this is precisely why they have been given prominent placement on the SERP.  If someone is looking for a particular product, they prefer to see it rather than read about it.  With PLAs now diverting many of the clicks away from non-brand text, is this good or bad for retailers?  The answer it is that it depends on a retailer’s visibility on PLAs:  those who show up in the top 8 slots should be more than recouping the clicks they have lost from non-brand text.  If they are not showing on PLAs and previously had good placement on non-brand text, then they are likely seeing declines in their overall paid search volume.

Note the following paid search accounting in Year 2012 (pre PLA) vs. 2014.

Equation A 2012:  Brand + Non-Brand = Total Paid Search Volume

Equation B 2014: Brand + Non-Brand + PLA = Total Paid Search Volume

If visibility on PLAs is good, the old plus new equation should be the same (and hopefully be larger since PLA conversion rates and click-through rates exceed those of non-brand text not to mention organic YOY growth of retail, in general, on paid search).

If Equation A is higher than Equation B, one of two things is happening:  First is that visibility for the retailer on PLAs is poor or non-existent resulting in other retailers winning those clicks.  Second is that it is possible that the retailer is not considering PLAs paid search at all.  Either they are counting it in a different bucket or maybe lumping it in with Comparison Shopping Engines.  In the latter case, paid search is not really declining since PLAs ARE paid search (spoken from a 12 year paid search veteran!).  Rather, the decline is simply a matter of how they are being accounted for.

Mobile PLAs represent a great opportunity for retailers, but too few launch them because they are spooked by the notoriously low conversion rates of non-brand text on smartphones.  They should take another look:  the way PLAs now render on smartphones has actually improved conversion rates on mobile.  The navigation feature with sideways swipe is more appealing to users than the below-the-fold non-brand text ads which require a user to page down on their phone – something most people are not likely to do on a small screen.  Secondly, PLAs link the searcher directly to the product page on the mobile site, which gives a nice boost to the conversion.  With Holiday right around the corner, the time to retest mobile PLAs is now!

non brand mobile pla

For paid search advertisers facing large declines in clicks from non-brand text, should they turn it off completely?  The answer is No!  Following are some optimization tips and considerations to turn non-brand text back into a winning source of sales.

  1. As more advertisers drop out of non-brand text completely, CPCs should drop enabling previously marginal (and potentially high-volume broad keywords) to make it into the keyword portfolio
  2. Assess the assist value of non-brand terms to conversions on PLAs and Trademark.  You don’t want to disable a core assist term lest sales fall off elsewhere.  Attribution tools can easily facilitate this analysis.
  3. Create non-brand ad groups that mirror the top selling products in PLAs.
  4. Use PLA query reports to inform new non-brand keywords
  5. If it is ultimately determined that non-brand text ads are no longer driving sales efficiently, move the non-brand ads to the brand advertising budget which is a fantastic way to drive top-of-the-funnel awareness – especially considering the alternatives of other less trackable modes of brand advertising.

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