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Search results pages function as a "digital shelf" where today's shoppers learn about, compare, and select products for purchase. A prominent place on the digital shelf can help brands reach a vast, interested audience and can mean big opportunities for growth in both sales and overall brand awareness. And as with a store shelf, the better the placement, the bigger the opportunities. So which product placement strategies work best online? Our analyses show that location is key, but size, appearance, relevance, and category terms matter too.

As consumers browse the aisles of their local supermarket, dozens of products call out to them. Those with the best placement— perhaps on an endcap, by the register or at eye level on a shelf— are the most likely to get their attention. Perceptions of quality and market leadership are often influenced by shelf position, too, and brands have paid for just that possibility.

But while brands invest $500 billion per year for better physical shelf space, customers are turning to the web to research, discover and purchase products— throughout the day and across screens and devices. In fact, 84% of smartphone shoppers turn to their mobile phone to help them shop while in a store. One-third of shoppers use their smartphones to find information instead of asking store employees.1 Instead of using retail shelves, these constantly connected consumers browse pages of search results— the "digital shelves"— looking for answers to their questions. And a brand's placement on those shelves can put it in front of the eyeballs and mouse clicks of a huge, interested audience. This can mean a lift in sales and, perhaps just as importantly, a big opportunity to grow brand awareness at the point when your potential customer is considering a purchase.

Be at eye level

Although in-store product placement strategies have been honed for decades, we're just now learning what works best online. One thing we've found is that, just as in physical stores, location matters. It's not about just showing up somewhere on the search results page; it's about where you show up. That's because, as with a physical store's shelves, space on the digital shelf is limited, and the competition to capture the consumer's attention can be intense.

So where does a brand want to be? The answer is at eye level, and on a search results page, that typically means top of page. Here's a good reason why: When search ads are turned off, clicks from organic results don't make up for lost traffic' not by a long shot. Where your ad appears on the page also has a tremendous impact on this phenomenon. Google's most recent Search Ads Pause study for desktop computers showed that for advertisers whose organic search results are in the second to fourth position, 81% of ad clicks are incremental. For advertisers appearing in an organic position of five or lower, 96% of ad clicks are incremental. Even if you are in the top position organically, 50% of ad clicks are incremental. This means that half of all ad clicks are not replaced by organic clicks when search ads are paused.2

Make sure you stand out

Getting noticed isn't just about location. As with products on a store shelf, search ads can grab attention with their appearance and relevance or with the number of valuable options they provide. As we already discussed, top-of-the-page text ads get consumer eyeballs, but they also provide a decent amount of space for a keyword-driven headline, a brief (and relevant) description and a display URL.

Marketers can get even more out of their digital shelf space' and build on the relevance of that text ad— with additional information such as ad sitelinks and stacking ad extensions. Not only do these provide additional entry points to the brand's site, but they also help raise click-through rates (CTR). On average, adding sitelinks boosts the average CTR on an ad by 10–20%, or 20–50% when the search contains a brand name.3

However, these formats work only if they enrich the user experience. It's about relevance. Give the consumer more useful, pertinent information, and he or she is more likely to click on your ad. It's a win for both the brand and the consumer. Ads that provide images, such as Image Extensions and Product Listing Ads, offer another way to enrich the user's experience, showing them what they're looking for:

Owning the digital shelf 1

It doesn't have to be one or the other when it comes to ad strategy. Google's ad system automatically serves extensions where they're most beneficial. In each auction, you'll generally be able to see your highest performing and most useful combination of eligible extensions and formats, so you don't need to guess which extensions will help improve your click-through rate the most.

Always be in stock

Although space on each digital shelf is limited, the good news is that a new one is created every time a consumer performs a search. Keywords offer an important part of a branding strategy: a chance to be front and center when a consumer is looking for a product, a brand or a product category.

Just as they'd pay for placement in the ideal aisle of a store, successful brands make sure they're in the right virtual aisle by bidding on keywords that consumers use at the start of their decision-making process. These are non-branded category keywords such as "face moisturizer," "dog toys," "hairdryer" and so on. Research shows that on average across categories, 48% of people switch between brand and generic search terms at some point on the path to a conversion.4

It's no surprise that bidding on category keywords is so effective; these ads make shopping a lot easier for consumers. Have you ever looked up and down store aisles searching for something before finally asking a store employee where to find it? (Is honey with the condiments or the baking supplies?) It can be confusing, and it's no wonder: According to the Food Market Institute, supermarkets carry, on average, almost 42,686 items.5 There are even apps such as Aisle Finder and aisle411 to help you navigate these stores. Now go online, where just about every product in the world is available, and you see why consumers find search ads so useful— they instantly fill the digital shelf with relevant products. And that's right where a brand should want to be.

The store shelf at scale

This brings us back to where we started: Even when a customer is in-store, 84% of smartphone shoppers are turning to the web to help guide their purchase decision.1 The moment to get products in front of them is when they're making their decision— whether that's at home or in-store, perusing the vast aisles of digital shelves online. By applying some retail know-how, brands can reach a broad and interested audience at all points along the purchase funnel, from awareness to purchase.

Some questions to think about:

  • Do you know which search terms shoppers are using to find your products?
  • Are you represented on those results pages?
  • How do your ads compare to your competitors' ads? Which are more eye catching?
  • Does your ad copy provide plenty of helpful information for undecided shoppers?