SEO: How to prepare for paid ads in the local pack


Earlier this year, Google announced that it would begin showing paid ads within the local search pack results during the SMX Advanced Local Workshop.

We’ve since started to see this change ‘in the wild’ as Google rolls out a test phase, and it’s already having an impact on the organic visibility of businesses within the SERPs, both on desktop and mobile.  

It’s a move that seemingly reflects Google’s preference for paid content above free, organic content across the board; in a change earlier in the year, AdWords search network ads began taking up the top four SERPs positions (despite being removed from the sidebar), pushing organic results ever further down the page.

Social reach has been threatened by paid ad constraints for a while now, with marketers finding they have to pay to get their content to reach audiences they could previously have reached organically. 

Savvy marketers are spotting the potential opportunities and pitfalls of this move. On one hand, it’s a change that could be seen to threaten the organic SERPs by pushing them further below the fold (particularly pertinent on mobile).

On the other hand, it’s a chance for PPC managers to put their budget and skillset to developing a strong paid presence in the newly available spaces. 

Here’s a roundup of what we know so far about the local pack update, and how you can prepare to make the most of it:

What we know about local pack ads 

Paid ads have been appearing in the local pack since Google announced the changes at SMX in June as part of the testing phase, though Google hasn’t formally announced the details of the change or when they will come into full effect.

The paid ads currently appear at the top of the local pack, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw more of the local pack positions taken by paid ads in the future. 

There were suggestions that paid ads could replace local pack ads, however the screenshot below from early August clearly shows one paid ad above three organic results.

In terms of functionality, it is still unclear whether the local ads will have a separate bid option to normal search, however it is likely it will fall into the mobile bid adjustment. 

The change will likely be more noticeable within mobile SERPs due to the fact that there will be more competition for the smaller display space on a mobile device, compared to desktop.   

Planning for paid ads in the local pack 

For greater insight, I asked one of our senior SEO executives Charlie Norledge to give his take on how this might impact local search marketing.

“Google’s move to monetise the first positions in the local pack is a challenge for SEOs and those businesses without a paid ads budget. With the top place taken, the remaining space for organic results is limited, making it more competitive to rank on page one, and even impossible on some mobile devices where the organic results will be pushed way down the screen," he said.  

“This latest update follows the trend of Google’s ever-growing encouragement for businesses to take the paid route, a journey which has also included the movement of paid ads from the side of the SERPs to the top, and an increase of three visible ads to four earlier this year.  

To date, Google has not formally advised paid advertisers on how to take advantage of the new local pack ads

“Organic results are already found halfway down the page and this change to the local pack is going to challenge businesses who are targeting a local market without a paid advertising plan in the same way," Norledge added. 

Paid ads and the end user 

What will be the effect of this change on the consumers searching for a ‘coffee near me’ or ‘restaurant in Nottingham?’. Not a lot, really.  

The end user will still be presented with a similar number of results in the local search pack, the only difference will be that one, or more, has identified as an ad.  

Google’s strict quality guidelines ensure that the paid ads will not have a spammy appearance, and with paid ads and organic results looking ever more similar, the consumer is unlikely to differentiate between the two at the SERPs stage; they should just hope that the business paying for paid advertising is also paying for the best coffee beans! 

How to prepare for local paid ads 

To date, Google has not formally advised paid advertisers on how to take advantage of the new local pack ads.

But we can predict that the ads will use a combination of the keyword targeting in the account as well as the Google My Business information that is linked with the AdWords account. 

If you’re thinking about how you can prepare your business to take advantage of the new paid advertising spot, there are a few things you can do now: 

  • Ensure that your, or your clients’, local pages are up to date and linked with an AdWords account
  • Check that you, or your clients, are using local SEO techniques to give the clearest signals to Google of your business location, including citations and reviews, to give the best chance of ranking organically in local SERPs
  • Review your, or your clients’, paid advertising budget allocation to ensure it’s applied intelligently using geo-targeting options -  you need to be aiming for organic position three or above to be visible alongside a paid ad in a local pack and avoid being one of the results that is removed to make way for paid ads

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