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How Google’s recent mobile design changes impact both paid and organic search


Google recently released mobile design changes.
On mobile, paid ads more closely resemble organic results.
Organic search results now feature a favicon icon.

Change is part of the inherent nature of search. Launched ahead of yet another major algorithm update, Google recently rolled out a design refresh for mobile search results.

In comparison to a core algorithm change, design alterations may seem relatively minor. However, as we will explore in this article, the new design could have a profound impact on both paid and organic search for your business. This revamp is part of a much longer pattern of behavior where Google is smudging the traditional visual boundaries between paid search (PPC and Display ads) and organic search results.

Search design impacts user behavior

In search, design matters as much as—or perhaps more than—the text of the results (officially, “search engine result pages,” or SERPs) themselves. Layout, colors, and other stylistic choices influence our pattern recognition and quickly help “clue” users in to what they are looking at, often at a glance. This visual coding is important throughout all of digital marketing, but it’s especially critical on mobile devices, where users are often quickly scanning search results.

The way things used to be

Throughout the years, Google has readily experimented with how they present paid advertisements alongside organic search results. Way back in the halcyon days of 2007, paid search results showed up with a colored background (first blue, then yellow, green, sky blue, lavender, yellow, and then brown), a green hyperlink, and a “Sponsored Link” disclaimer in the upper-right-hand corner of the ad. In other words, paid results were visually coded in a way that allowed users to easily distinguish them from organic SERPs.

Turning of the tide

Starting around 2013, Google make a relatively radical change and removed the colored background from paid results altogether. Replacing it was a small, gold (now green on desktop) ad indicator to the immediate left of the green hyperlink. Compared to earlier designs, this visual indicator of a paid search result was far easier for users to miss.

When you look at the totality of Google’s search design changes, a clear trend emerges: the search giant is moving toward a point where the paid and organic results more closely resemble one another.

The new design

This brings us to the present. This latest change removes the green “Ad” indicator icon and green hyperlink, replacing it with black text. This is the closest a paid search result has ever come to looking like an organic one. To the average user quickly scrolling through results on their phone, they might as well be indistinguishable from one another.

What is the impact of this?

For one, Google AdWords and paid search has grown considerably over the past decade—a greater number and wider variety of businesses now invest in paid ads than ever before.

In addition, mobile users now far outnumber desktop users. Unsurprisingly, all of these design changes are geared around how people use search on their phones. For example, mobile search does not use the traditional pagination of Google desktop results, instead opting to load more and more results as the user continues scrolling down on their phone.

With this change, a significant amount of scrolling is required on some searches to get to organic results. Take a mobile search for a keyword such as “AC repair,” for instance. In order, this search returns local service ads, paid search ads, and a Google Maps feature with relevant local businesses before getting into the true organic SERPs. That’s a lot of scrolling, and many users may not even get to the organic results before engaging with an ad or a Google information box.

Favicons: an olive branch for organic search?

In a vacuum, the changes to paid ads on mobile mean that organic results are surrendering more territory and importance. After all, if paid results are above organic results already and now have less visual coding to distinguish them as ads, it begs the question: is optimization for organic SERPs even important anymore?

The answer is yes. Organic results will always play an important role in search. A well-optimized campaign is the backbone of a successful online presence for any business and good SEO strategy has positive benefits in your local listings, Google Maps results, and more.

What’s more, Google paired their new mobile redesign with a new feature for organic results: favicons (i.e., a small icon representing a brand or website) now appear next to the SERP.

This is a clever twist on the concept of visual coding in search. Through favicons, it is organic search results that have the potential to stand out. This small icon on mobile helps catch the eye of scrolling users and make a quick in-the-moment connection between a familiar logo and where the link is taking them.

The next steps for your business

Given Google’s unified approach to search design, it would not be surprising to see this mobile design eventually make its way to desktop users, as well.

Since a majority of U.S. searches are now made on phones and tablets, the design change is already a reality for customers searching for your business. Our team will be measuring the impact of the new design on the paid and organic campaigns of our clients, and then making further adjustments to adapt to this new search paradigm.

For those businesses that have only dipped their toes into the waters of paid search, it’s time to jump into the pool. Now more than ever, robust and smartly managed PPC and Display campaigns are the key to connecting with customers online.

Contact our team today to learn more about how we can help grow your business.