Right now, as you read this, athletes all over the world are working hard and persisting through pain to prepare themselves to represent their country and find personal glory in the 2016 Olympics.

Yet, let's be honest: Except for their families and a few close friends, unless the athletes end up on the podium in one of those top three spots with medals hanging around their necks, all that effort and sacrifice will have gone mostly unnoticed. No one remembers who came in 16th, 8th, or even 5th.

Digital marketers are now facing a similar situation because of recently announced changes to Google's search engine results page (SERP) layout. Google is adding one more paid search result at the top, bringing the total to a maximum of four, while eliminating the ad positions on the side of the page. The new SERP layout also will have three ads at the bottom—although, truthfully, those are much less valuable.

The net effect is that there will be 30% less advertising opportunity on the page—from a maximum of 11 spots to a maximum of 7—which makes winning one of those four places on top about as important (and difficult) as placing in the Olympics.

These changes also have another effect: They continue Google's concentration on larger advertisers with significant budgets and therefore in the best position to bid on those coveted positions. Small and midsize businesses will be less likely to be able to compete for those top spots.

But if you are one of the fortunate few who can compete, you can do a few things to improve your chances of medaling in the pay-per-click (PPC) and click-through-rate (CTR) events.

Be strategic with your ads and messaging

Google uses various criteria to determine who gets those top spots. You can help your cause (and produce better results) if you make effective use of manual AdWords ad extensions, such as apps, calls, and locations. There are seven manual extensions in all—including structured snippets—that can be used to carry a variety of messages to your audiences and encourage immediate action.

With so much to choose from, however, you must be careful to eliminate redundancies, especially if multiple people are working on your AdWords campaign. You want to maximize that real estate by presenting as many options to customers as possible.

That's why it pays to have someone do an ad audit that shows you what consumers are seeing on the SERP. You can then use that information to make adjustments.

Athletes are constantly tweaking their mechanics and mental game to ensure the best performance when everything is on the line. You should do the same. The more you stand out in this new format, the better the ROI will be for your business.

Get more specific with targeting

You always want to play to your strengths. Sprinters usually don't fare well in distance runs, and shot putters generally don't make good decathletes.

Google AdWords continues to evolve, making it easier for you to reach highly qualified audiences. Last year Google rolled out Customer Match, which gives advertisers greater control over which customers to include and exclude for seeing their ads. As long as you have an email address, you can use Customer Match to serve up the right ad based on where customers are in the buying cycle (provided they are signed in to their Google account). It's very effective at pulling customers through the sales cycle, and gets better the more data you have on your customers.

Another great option is Remarketing Lists for Search Ads (RLSA). This Google feature makes it easy to tailor your search ads and campaigns for people who already have visited your website, whether or not they made a purchase. If they had enough interest to click to your site once, they are likely to click again—if you show them the right message. You can use RLSA to capture one of those tops spots based on previous history.

Other targeting features enable you to use Google AdWords to tailor ads and campaigns based on factors such as income and geography. The more you slice and dice your audience, the better opportunity you will have to move your customers and prospects to action.

Take advantage of shopping improvements

Smart retailers can use shopping campaigns and Product Listing Ads (PLAs) to gain additional advantages.

Now that the side ads are gone, those top four spots will stand out even more since there will be fewer distractions. If, typically, you've been in one of the top spots, it's likely you will see a lift in traffic now—good reason to continue to appear in that area. For those who aren't in one of those top four spots, shopping ads are a good way to stand out if/when customers scroll to the bottom of the page.

Either way, you have to get smarter and stay smarter about how and when your ads appear. Just keep in mind that with a 30% reduction in ads on the page, the competition is likely to get fierce. The best thing you can do is hone your skills on feed optimization, negative keyword fencing, and other techniques that will help you ensure the right ads are being served to the right customers at the right times.

Consider other channels

Clearly, Google is the Olympics of search; if you can capture one of the coveted spots, it can do wonders for your business.

But what if you can't? Small and midsize businesses will have more and more trouble competing as time goes on, and even larger organizations may struggle. So it may be worthwhile to consider other channels, such as Bing or Yahoo, which can still yield excellent results.

By testing on multiple platforms you can determine whether you need to keep all of your investment on Google, or whether perhaps you can branch out to others where you can gain a more dominant position.

You also may want to consider alternatives such as Twitter, Facebook ,and YouTube, which also have high traffic. Although those were once considered second-tier, many advertisers are now finding them effective. Look at it this way: YouTube is the second-largest search engine, with more searches than Bing, Yahoo, Ask, and AOL combined. Why not take advantage of it?

Bring home the gold

Unless an Olympic competitor is Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards, the athletes who get the bulk of the attention and glory will be the ones who make it to the podium.

With the changes to Google SERP, it's time to rethink bidding strategies to make sure you take one of those top four spots. You may not make it onto a Wheaties box, but you'll definitely improve your chances of bolstering your bottom line.

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How to Win a Spot on the PPC Podium in the Olympics of Search

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image of Mark Smith

Mark Smith is a co-founder of digital marketing agency KeywordFirst. He has worked in digital marketing since its inception and helped lead the first search engine marketing team at W.W. Grainger.

LinkedIn: Mark Smith