Does the First Position on Google Really Matter?

It has been drilled into our mind time and time again that we have to be number one. Coming from an SEO background, I was accustomed to spending months doing everything in my power to get to that sweet (top) spot. But as SEOs in particular have learned over the last few years, rising the ranks isn’t as easy as it once was – we’re talking a slew of savvy competition, twitter results, local maps, and paid search ads pushing the coveted number one spot farther and farther down the page. And, perhaps surprisingly, the struggle is real for paid search marketers as well.

We are in a fortunate position having our PPC ads placed above the organic search results. Of course, we pay for these prime positions, but unlike SEOs we have the opportunity to get the highest ranking results immediately.

Being First Position on Google Doesn’t Come Cheap

Many paid search marketers jump in head first thinking they have to do whatever it takes to get their ad in the first position – even increasing their budgets. But is first all that it’s cracked up to be? If you’re looking to maximize impressions and clicks and you have a flexible budget, then it might make sense for your business. In some cases, the industry is not as competitive and the top spot won’t break the bank. But in other cases, the cost differences are significant and could spell trouble for your budget management:

First position on Google cost versus fourth position in paid advertising

Marketers often justify going after the first position because it increases brand awareness. As Doyle Digital explains, we shouldn’t be focused on attempting a branding exercise in AdWords – it’s a direct response form of advertising that should be making you money immediately.

The competitive nature of the auction and the blood-thirst we feel for number one has driven up CPCs for everyone and distracted from the fact that maybe number one isn’t always the best bet after all.

The Case for Third and Fourth

Following the removal of right-hand ads last year on Google, Adobe Media Optimizer ran a study that found CPCs quickly rose for the first position (6%) and second position (7%), but dropped for third (8%) and fourth (10%) positions, indicating that the competition got much fiercer for the top spots after the right-hand side options were no more (our own data showed similar results). While the competition heated up for first and second, the lower positions quietly started making a case for themselves by getting better CTRs and more valuable clicks.

We know better than most that web browsing has changed. We’ve heard of ad blindness before, but it’s less often used when discussing PPC. In a sense even those looking at search results everyday have become blind to them. As SEMRush points out, we’ve become instinctively trained to scroll past the top few ads and focus somewhere on the middle (usually around the bottom ads/top organic search results).

Heat map of first position on Google and other page activity

Using this information, SEMRush conducted a study where they approached their bidding strategy from a completely different angle. Using optimized campaigns they knew would perform and an AdWords script that automatically bid on position three (and four, after the change) with lower bids, SEMRush slashed their spend in half while:

  • decreasing costs by $10K
  • keeping conversions flat
  • dropping CPC from 87$ to 16$
  • decreasing impressions by 72% but increasing CTR 103%
  • raising the conversion rate from 6% to 18%
  • finding more qualified leads that saved time for sales
Savings of not going after the first position on Google

You Don’t Have to be #1 if You Give the People What They Want

It’s a misconception that people hate ads. What people hate is irrelevance. When they are searching for something specific, they want to find exactly what they need – and if your ad services that, then they will come clicking at your door.

Your ad, like the rest of your content, has to be relevant. Your ads have to speak to the searcher with unique copy and informative extensions, strong landing pages, and the right keywords (and negative keywords). Treating your campaigns like this will not only strengthen your quality score, but attract the type of customers you’re looking for. Get into their minds and really dig deep into their search intent. What do they want? And most importantly, what can you offer them that no other competitor can? At this point, they are ready to buy, they just need one last nudge.

As Doyle Digital explains, the recipe for success is simple: use better ads in lower positions that focus on real competitive advantages you offer. Bid strategically and let your message and product do the work to get less expensive clicks that fit in your budget, less “blind clicks” that don’t produce conversions, and better qualified traffic.

“So, you’re honestly telling me that the ‘best quality traffic’ just clicks on the 1st ad blindly without even reading it? Or regardless of better offers being displayed below? That’s not the ‘better quality traffic’ that I’d want to be paying for.” – Andrew Doyle

There’s Only One Way to Find Out

Hey, maybe I’m just rooting for the underdog, but there’s a real case to be made for the non-top spots. As with every aspect of the search world, there is no one size fits all approach. Test, test, test and see what works best in your industry.

Let us know in the comments below where you’ve seen the most success!


Image Credits

Featured Image: Unsplash / Joshua Earle

Image 1: Web Talent Marketing

Image 2: Conversion XL

Image 3: SEMRush

Cassy Trussell

Cassy Trussell

Cassy is Acquisio's Content Specialist and resident Community Manager. With degrees in both Communication Studies and Graphic Design, coupled with agency and freelance design and copywriting experience, she has an ideal trifecta of skills to back up the entire marketing team. A passionate foodie, she can tell you all the best dishes in the city. When she's not writing, designing, or engaging with Acquisio's community, she spends time with her dog Derp, a local Instagram star.

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