How PLAs cost one client 104k organic visits per month

I’ve been working with an ecommerce brand for 2 ½ years. Now the leading brand in its industry, the site had previously suffered from a Penguin hit back in May 2013, and a manual action for manipulative linking shortly after. We revoked the latter at the beginning of 2014 and have worked hard to regain the trust that was lost as a result of years of link manipulation which subsequently caused the Penguin hit.

Following our appointment in April 2014 the site has recorded impressive visibility growth apart from a small trough which coincided with the “ecommerce update” in 2015 – nothing to lose too much sleep about.

However since the “ecommerce update”, visibility levels have continued to grow and the sites’ non-brand performance is as strong as ever.

ecommerce update

Organic traffic begins to decline

Organic traffic started to decline in October 2015.

Up until this point organic traffic had been thriving, YoY results had seen huge improvement and, as a channel, SEO had by all means returned to its former glory. Then all of a sudden, organic traffic began to drop and with that, so too did organic revenue (based on Google Analytics’ last-click attribution model).

Initially this was attributed to the fact that the brand had begun to cut back on TV advertising spend as well as other above-the-line activity. Of course, this certainly had an effect on brand traffic but, after analysing the data these past few months, we’ve realised that the loss in brand traffic isn’t actually the root cause of the organic traffic drops we’ve been experiencing.

It contributed, sure; but there’s actually a bigger beast altogether that’s eating into an even larger portion of our organic traffic.

The answer – PLAs (product listing ads).

Now of course PLAs are generally a fantastic option for an ecommerce brand and if you don’t already have a shopping feed set up then you should probably go and check that out.

I don’t want to completely hate on PLAs but…

The evidence


We decided to focus our attention on the product pages as around 40% of the sites’ organic traffic lands on these pages.

Below is the trend in organic traffic to the brands’ product pages (2015/2016 vs 2014/2015).

Organic Trends

Traffic to these pages initially began to drop in August 2015 but the decline really started to pick up in the October of that same year. In terms of the traffic numbers the site was losing out on, the below table really helps to put this into context:

Organic visit decline

Since October 2015, the site has been losing, on average, a staggering 104,000 less organic visits to its product pages per month.

So why should I be pointing the finger at PLAs you might ask? Well, in case you missed it, this is what happened in September 2015:


Photo courtesy of Andy Taylor at Merkle.

Google doubled the size of the PLAs which pushed everything else, including organic results, further down the page.

Earlier that same year, Google did in fact announce that they would be bringing out an expandable Shopping ad format which gets larger as users interact with it however, these were in fact made larger (double in size) in September regardless of whether users interact with it, as seen in the image above.

What’s interesting to me is that this change never really got covered by the SEO industry (please point me in the right direction if I’ve missed something) and therefore isn’t being given the attention it deserves.

A Google search for “PLAs increase in size”, “PLAs bigger format” and other variations of those terms, brings back completely irrelevant results which is a scary thought as it suggests to me that not many people are really aware of the impact this could be having on their organic traffic.

Moz’s usually reliable algorithm history timeline often details major SERP/algorithm changes so I’m really surprised this one didn’t make the list.

In summary

Based on the data above and generally what we are seeing with a lot of clients, it’s important for ecommerce brands to be aware of these changes to Google’s search results.

With the brand that has been featured in this post, it’s worth noting that the conversion rate of traffic landing directly on their product pages is typically lower than the site average. So although traffic to these pages has taken a significant hit, revenue attributed to these pages hasn’t dropped off anywhere near as much.

If you are experiencing declining levels of organic traffic you might want to check traffic levels specifically to your product pages right now if you haven’t already. You might be surprised with what you find.

If you have been experiencing similar trends, please get in touch, I’d love to hear more about it.

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