Last week Google began testing a new layout for their desktop Search Engine Results Pages in targeted markets, much to the disdain of many users.

Despite widespread complaints, the new design was officially rolled out world-wide on March 12th, as announced by Google’s own Jon Wiley.

And while these changes may not seem like much at first glance, they do bring some potential implications for SEO performance.

Why Did Google Change the Layout?

Google’s Jon Wiley explained that these changes were implemented to “improve readability and create an overall cleaner look”, as well as “making the multi-device experience more consistent”.

Similar changes were introduced to the mobile and tablet results towards the end of 2013, but are these changes good for the desktop experience?

It’s hard to say, but our initial response is that the changes have made it harder to read the results pages, meaning that we’ll be spending more time sorting through the results.

And whether or not you think that’s a good thing will likely depend on how well your site currently ranks for your targeted keyword phrases.

What’s Different?

Google’s new layout made three significant changes to the format of the SERPs, each of which new considerations for those of us working on optimizing websites.

1. Confusing Ads with Organic Results

Perhaps the biggest change to the layout was removing the pale yellow background traditionally used to differentiate Google’s AdWords Ads from their organic results.

This design element had been a staple of Google’s search results for years, making it quite easy to identify which results were paid, and which were natural, at a glance.

Fortunately, Google has kept user interests in mind and introduced a new “Ad” tag to precede each advertisement listing, which should help reduce confusion between paid and natural listings. 

Some users report that these Ad tags make the paid results more obvious, while others are reporting that they’ve been tricked into clicking on Ads accidentally since they assumed that no pale yellow background meant no ads were served for their query.

It’s possible that we’ll see a slight to moderate short-term change in click-through behavior from the SERPs (with more clicks going to paid ads and less to organic results), but we anticipate it will only be a few days to a couple weeks before most Google users adapt to these design changes and return to their traditional browsing behaviors.

2. Shorter Title Tags

For years, SEOs have all been writing Title tags with a 70 character display limit in mind, but as of this design change, that old standby rule no longer applies.

Google’s new layout increased the font size used for page Titles without increasing the container space that holds those Titles, meaning that we now have fewer letters to grab SERPs users’ attention.

In fact, Google appears to have abandoned character count entirely, instead replacing it with a limitation that correlates directly to pixel width, which is unfortunate, since some letters are wider than others.

What does that mean to search marketers? Without access to some kind of third-party tool that measures pixel width according to Google’s standard font style and size, it’ll be harder than ever to tell if your Title is going to be truncated in the SERPs.

What is obvious, however, is that Google has done away with the old rule of never truncating a Title in the middle of the word, as virtually every results page we’ve viewed has included at least one result with words cut up into smaller pieces:

Under Google’s old design, the word “Title” in the tag above would have been cut off entirely, with the ellipsis appearing directly after the word “Makes”, but this new design allows partial words to appear in the SERPs.

It may not be time to rewrite every single page’s Title tag, but we do advise reviewing displayed Titles for top performing landing pages to look for instances where important keyword phrases have been cut off, making the Title tag read strangely and providing users with a jarring or disjointed experience.

We don’t anticipate that this change will have a major (if any) impact on actual organic rankings, since Google has always indexed, evaluated and ranked pages on far more than just the first 70 characters used in the Title tag, but we do advise monitoring inbound organic traffic to watch for sagging performance on your most important organic landing pages.

Any pages that show plummeting traffic should have their Titles reviewed and edited to ensure that the most important keyword phrases remain visible even after this design change.

3. No More Underlines & Even Line Spacing

As Jon Wiley pointed out in his Google+ update regarding the design changes, page Titles will no longer be underlined (even though that’s traditionally been the way to signify links on the web), and all line heights have been standardized.

Mr. Wiley further mentioned that these changes were put in place to “improve readability” and introduce an “overall cleaner look”, which they do, but virtually every article discussing the update is rife with commenters requesting that Google return the results to their previous look.

We don’t see this particular change impacting SEO performance much, other than causing some short-term confusion as SERPs users are forced to adjust to the new layout, but only time (and Google Analytics performance data) will be able to tell the full story.