If you spend time on Google's search engine results pages, or SERPs, you may have noticed something funny at the beginning of the year: There are now four paid ads at the top of the page and none on the sides.
Beginning in early 2016, Google started testing SERPs that displayed four paid ads at the top of the page. This is up from the one to three top page ads previously displayed.
This change caused a big stir in the SEO community, and it has important implications for marketers.
What Google's New Four-Pack Looks Like
In many ways, the new "four on top" feature isn't much different from the old display format. The four top ads continue to feature links and local business information — the number of ads displayed is simply higher.
In addition to the fact that the number of ads at the top of the page has grown, it's important to note that the prominent right-hand column ads Google used to display have disappeared.
While this may not seem like a large change, it alters the way the SERPs are organized and places increased importance on ranking at the top of the page.
How Marketers Can Adjust to Four-Pack Ads
While the SERP change is a big deal, there are plenty of ways for marketers to adjust. Simply follow these tips:
1. Shoot for "Answer Box" Content
While the presence of four paid ads at the top of the SERPs may make it harder to snag a No. 1 ranking, it's still possible to land a prominent position. One of the best ways to do this is structure your content so that it appears in the "answer box."
The answer box, designed to offer answers to simple queries such as, "Do mice like cheese?" falls below paid ads but sticks close to the top of the page, so it's a wonderful way to get your content noticed.
2. Optimize Your Content for Local SEO
If your company has a physical, local presence, optimizing your content for local SEO is critical. Because of the way Google displays local results (with paid ads, maps and local pack content), it can be nearly impossible to get noticed, even if you're on the first page.
With this in mind, boost your chances of appearing more prominently by getting customer reviews; claiming your listing; adding in all relevant location, hours, contact and company info; and updating your details often.
3. Focus on User Experience
While ranking well is critical in the "four on top" world, it's wise to avoid the temptation to throw yourself fully into technical SEO. Remember: Google is a complex beast, and human satisfaction is still a critically important ranking factor.
With this in mind, write content that answers questions, helps readers resolve issues and provides value. Thanks to the rise of semantic search and user-focused content, material that targets a topic does better in the SERPs of today than it ever has before.
The Future of Google's SERPs
This recent Google update, like many others, can be attributed to a push toward mobile-friendly design. Since mobile platforms don't display right-hand ads (and since mobile search surpassed desktop search last year), it makes sense that Google would do away with these ads.
What's more, the popularity of knowledge panels and other "smart" implements has made the existence of right-hand ads obsolete, so it's highly likely that they're gone from the SERPs for good.
While the new four-on-top display style can feel jarring, there are many ways to continue earning prominent rankings, and marketers who follow these tips will have no trouble getting noticed.