If you rely on search engines to drive traffic to your website and engage potential customers (and who doesn't?) Google's recent changes to its Search Engine Results Pages (SERP) could make a real--and potentially negative--impact.

The design change itself isn't major: The search toolbar has been shifted from the left side to the top of the screen.

According to Google, "With the new design, there's a bit more breathing room, and more focus on the answers you're looking for, whether from web results or from a feature like the Knowledge Graph... we've been working on ways to create a consistent search experience across the wide variety of devices and screen sizes people use today."

Sounds good--but here's what it could mean to your business.

How the New Layout Impacts Organic Search

The new search results page layout means Knowledge Graph listings--those are the boxes of info Google generates on the right side of a search page--are more prominent.

"That could be a problem if you rely on organic search traffic," says Larry Kim, founder and CTO of WordStream, a PPC technology and search engine marketing software company.  "The knowledge graph cannibalizes organic search clicks (which were already on the decline) on informational queries because user queries are often answered directly [on the search results page]--a user doesn't even have to click on an organic listing to get basic information about their query."

How the New Layout Impacts Paid Search

In a similar way, the new layout makes paid search ads more much more prominent.

"By moving the utility bar to the top there is more room for new, larger ad formats like Google Shopping ads," Kim says. Those ads now appear more prominently and closer to the left side of the page where the average user tends to look first.

Plus, "In order to do query filtering or other search refinement, the new search toolbar placement makes the user go back to the top of the page... which is where the ads are located," Kim says.

The Net Impact

Google's stated goal is to improve usability. Creating a consistent search experience across platforms and devices certainly should help accomplish that goal.

But why is Google making changes to the search engine result page layout now? According to Kim, other factors may also be at play.

"I believe the decision to make Product Listing Ads even more prominent right before the holiday shopping season is no coincidence," he says, "particularly after a disappointing Q3 2012 earnings report. If you're an online retailer I believe the new SERP changes make paid search results, and especially the Product Listing Ads, even harder to ignore."