Periscopix

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Katherine Rocker

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What are ad sitelinks?

Ad sitelinks are a feature of Google AdWords that allow you to include up to four additional links within your pay per click ads, pointing to deeper content within your site. Since they launched back in November 2009 Google have been tweaking how they work, with a number of small adjustments:

  • Originally shown over two lines with two sitelinks on each line, they can now be shown with up to four sitelinks in a single line.
  • It’s now impossible to add non alphanumeric characters in sitelinks - on launch and for a good while afterwards this could be done and often helped to make the sitelinks stand out
  • Even their location within the AdWords interface has changed, with the introduction of the Ad Extensions tab.

A lot has already been written about the benefits of using ad sitelinks. I won’t repeat these here, other than to say that if you’re not using them, you could be missing out on increases in clickthrough rate of up to 30% or more in some cases. Just think about it, does your ad stand out more with or without them?

One question that always stumped me was “why is there space to enter 10 sitelink variations when only a maximum of 4 ever show in the search results?”. The other variations never seem to show and Google doesn’t even rotate them to see which might work best.

So, I thought it was about time we ran an experiment to get to the bottom of this. Here’s what happened...

The experiment

Using our own Periscopix AdWords account I created a new campaign and added a couple of keywords to use for the purposes of this test. I added a standard text ad and then got to work on the sitelinks. The results are below – full list of sitelinks used in bold (with each separated by a hyphen) followed by a live screenshot from Google.

First, lets confirm what happens when we enter the maximum of 10 Sitelinks:

1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 10

Google ad sitelinks test

As we expected, only the first four are shown. But is there a situation where Google may show the later variations? The most obvious occasion might be when some of the sitelink text doesn’t meet Google’s guidelines or quality requirements. So what if we try entering some 35 character words?

A234567890B234567890C234567890D2345 - A234567890B234567890C234567890D2345 - A234567890B234567890C234567890D2345 - A234567890B234567890C234567890D2345 – 5 - 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 -10

2nd ad sitelinks test

It works! Google ignored the first four sitelinks and instead displayed the next four in line. They’ve obviously never heard of hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia.

There was no change when we tried A234567890A234567890A234567890A2345 - B234567890B234567890B234567890B2345 - C234567890C234567890C234567890C2345 - D234567890D234567890D234567890D2345 – 5 - 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 10, so it’s not a problem with the first 4 sitelinks being identical.

So, how about if we make these long sitelinks into more sensible entries (yet still 35 characters long)?

A234567890 234567890 234567890 2345 - B234567890 234567890 234567890 2345 - C234567890 234567890 234567890 2345 - D234567890 234567890 234567890 2345 – 5 - 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 - 10

3rd ad sitelinks test

This is interesting. Google shows the first long sitelink then skips to the fifth. What seems to be happening here is that Google is giving precedence to the sitelinks at the top of the list (1, 2, 3 etc), but more importantly wants to show the maximum of four sitelinks where possible. In the example above there is room to show one long sitelink along with 3 short ones. Adding a second long sitelink would likely mean than a total of only 2 sitelinks could show.

What happens if we slightly shorten sitelinks 2, 3 and 4?

A234567890 234567890 234567890 2345 - B234567890 234567890 234567890 - C234567890 234567890 - D234567890 – 5 - 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 - 10

4th ad sitelinks test

Still with me? This time Google shows sitelink number 2, so it would appear that they’re not just trying to display the maximum number of sitelinks where possible, but are instead trying to display the maximum number of characters. Obviously, 70 characters is too much to display on one line but 65 is ok.

So what is the maximum number of characters we can get Google to show? Let's try this...

A234567890 234567890 234567890 2345 - B234567890 234567890 234567890 234 - C234567890 234567890 234567890 12 - D234567890 234567890 234567890 1 - E234567890 234567890 2345678901 - F234567890 234567890 234567890 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 10

5th ad sitelinks test

The answer, it appears, is 68! Google have ignored my second sitelink here, because it would take the total number of characters to 69, and have instead used the third sitelink.

So far this experiment has only shown what happens when sitelinks appear on one line, but as we know sitelinks will sometimes appear across two separate lines, normally for brand related searches.

So what happens in this case? Well, as you can see below, the first 4 sitelinks will always show. Even 35 character words are showing here. The only situation I can think of when the first 4 might not show (when displayed across 2 lines) is when one of these contains a trademarked term or some other disallowed word that is not eligible to be displayed.

Google ad sitelinks on 2 lines

And so concludes our experiments with Google ad sitelinks.

How can you use this?

The best advice I can give is to keep sitelinks short and to the point where possible to ensure that all 4 will show up in your ads.

Use sitelinks for things that potential customers will find useful or interesting. A good example would be to direct people to a seasonal sale or special offer, though always remember to update these when the offer ends.

More than anything though, just make sure you are using ad sitelinks - they are a great opportunity to help your PPC ads stand out above the competition.

Keep your eyes peeled for more "exciting" AdWords experiments from Periscopix in the future. If you can think of something you’d like us to investigate, please get in touch. If you enjoyed reading this, please consider tweeting it or sharing below.

UPDATE

One of my colleagues asked whether there was a relationship between the search query used and the ad sitelinks shown.

Doing a little testing we can see that there doesn't seem to be any relationship here.

However, we did see examples of Google mixing up the sitelinks shown - this was for a campaign with 6 fairly short sitelinks set up. For this campaign, Google usually shows the first 4 sitelinks in order, but occasionally mixes up this order. More infrequently one of either sitelink 5 or 6 is shown in place of one of the regularly used (top 4) sitelinks.

So, it looks like Google may be testing for things like CTR of the individual sitelink entries (though they don't report on this within AdWords).  It's also difficult to say whether this really is the case. Are they testing the different sitelinks to see which have the highest CTR and then showing those more often, or are they just randomly mixing it up occasionally? Knowing Google, I wouldn't think they'd ignore the CTR data if they were tracking that.

UPDATE - Google now showing 6 ad sitelinks

As of 28 June 2011, here in the UK Google are now showing 6 PPC ad sitelinks for certain searches. So far I have only seen these for brand searches, when there is only one ad appearing in the banner position. They will obviously only show if you have at least 6 sitelinks set up in AdWords, so this is an added incentive to do so.

Google does appear to be changing the order of the sitelinks too. When I ran some checks, the sitelinks weren't always appearing in the same order as entered in AdWords. Again it could be random or it could be that Google are testing how CTR varies with each ordering.

Here's an example:

6 Google ad sitelinks

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