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What Google's March Updates Mean For Your Site

What Google's March Updates Mean For Your Site Lauren Polinsky
Last month Google implemented a layout change to their search engine result page (SERP). Despite user objections, a short test period led Google to implement an aesthetic update by mid-March.  Jon Wiley, Lead Designer for Google Search, announced: “Towards the end of last year we launched some pretty big design improvements for Search on mobile and tablet devices (mobile first!)…Today we've carried over several of those changes to the desktop experience.”  After some initial review, we’ve discovered the immediate effect the changes have had on websites. Despite the feedback Google has received, the change in layout is permanent and thus, we have provided this document to detail these changes.

Major changes in the New Google Layout:

1.    Increased font size & spacing for titles

2.    Underlining removed from links

3.    Removal of shaded background from paid ads

Increased Font Size

The first noticeable change was the increased font size for page titles. The increased point size and width of the font means fewer characters are presented in search results. Current best practices in SEO have stated that page titles should remain under 70 characters. While modern browsers support longer titles, Google SERP pages have historically truncated titles lengths to 512 pixels, roughly 70 characters, and use an ellipse to signal additional text. Searchers are unable to see these additional characters until they click through to the page. The increased point size for the page titles reduces the total characters visible within 512 pixels on desktop results leaving roughly 50 characters of text to show searchers:

For brand mentions that occur at the end of page titles this may reduce the visibility or completely take it away from the search results. However, it seems at this time that mobile – smartphone and tablet results – have not had title fonts increased and those SERPs still show the standard 70 character page title.

No More Underlined Links

Webmasters know that underlining text identifies that text as clickable, or anchor text, that will direct the searcher to another relevant page relating to that phrase. When Google initially began its foray into search back in the ‘90s, their results were often referred to as a “sea of blue links.”

Google has tested this feature multiple times in the past, but as web design has changed over the last few years, it’s not surprising that Google is testing results with no underlined links in them again. Now that Google is reverting back to search results with no underline links marketers will need to work harder to own more of the search result page with targeted keywords describing the page’s content in each title.

Paid Search Ads Updated

Along with the updates to the organic listings, Google also updated the paid listings to feature a lighter background and a standout yellow Ad tag on their CPC ads; a design that mirrors the mobile search experience. Until recently Google distinguished paid ads by placing a shaded background behind paid results:

In addition to changing the background, Google also updated the Paid results for some brand searches. Now deep sitelinks within the Paid Search results that resemble organic sitelinks appear to almost blend in with the first organic result on many exact match, brand searches:

This new layout blends the Paid Ads and Organic results even further, making it much more difficult for a user to distinguish the two. As a result, it is increasingly important to monitor paid and organic campaigns from a holistic perspective to understand how these changes are affecting campaign KPIs.


The updated change to Google’s results prompted many questions. Initially, looking at organic data from Google Webmaster Tools our target, nonbrand phrase monitored shows the organic impressions have remained flat while the clicks decline. Monitoring only the organic performance shows us a steady decline in clicks, starting late in the week of March 9th which we feel is the date the results were adjusted:

Our preliminary research led us to pull reports from Google’s Paid & Organic Reporting in AdWords in order to determine if the Paid ad clicks were increasing while Organic clicks decreased. In reviewing our nonbrand keyword phrase, we uncovered that during the third week of March there was a shift in habits from searchers:

Further research and data gathering will be performed over the next month to determine the aggregate impact this layout change has caused. What appears to be a small update, unnoticeable to many, has major implications on click through rate for organic search results.

Lauren’s experience in website optimization goes back nearly a decade, where she began her online career as a coordinator for a national retailer & catalog company website, often working on multi-channel organic search optimization...

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