It wasn’t that long ago that Google made a very clear distinction between regular, organic search results and those that show up as a result of being a targeted ad. As a matter of fact, Google’s search ads (though they showed up at the top of the search results page) were encased in a different color than the rest of the search results and were clearly labeled as ads. So set apart were those ads that I often wondered to myself how anyone ever purposefully click on one.
As time has gone by, Google has slowly changed the way they presented ads to users in search results. Instead of set apart ad sections, the ads became a bit more native looking and less obvious. With the most recent change to the search results page, however, Google has gone all-in on the clean look of its layout and the end result comes across a tad bit deceptive. Take a look at the screen grab below and look at the similarity between the ad label and the newly-introduced favicons next to each result.
Now, I must say that this results page (I removed a few carousels and video results) is 100% better looking and much easier to digest. I would take this version of Google search over that earlier mess every day. I like the way it looks, I like how information is presented, and I like the favicons next to the results that help me sort search results at a glance. I know there are many who disagree with me on this new layout, but I really like the look and the similarity between desktop and mobile that has been achieved.
What I don’t like is the slightly deceptive nature of this new format. As you can clearly see in the search results above, the only label on the ads is a favicon-sized bit of text that reads “Ad.” That’s it. No separation, no further indication, no extra heads-up to users that these are paid advertisements versus real, organic results. As a website that lives and dies on Google search visibility, this part is a tad bit concerning to me. We work hard to provide useful, relevant information on the web and count on organic search results to drive traffic to our site.
One of the strengths of Google’s search is the fact that it is the backbone of the way we organize information online. Google has been turned into a verb to replace “search for” for heaven’s sake, so the impact it has on our online habits cannot be overstated. Nearly everyone uses Google to find things, so it feels like they have a responsibility to stay as neutral as they possibly can in the delivery of this information. Organic search results that follow Google’s algorithm are the way this continues, not paid ad spots. I don’t have issue with a handful of contextual ads in my results as long as we’re just talking about a few at most on a page.
As long as Google doesn’t make the mistake of letting these very-native looking ads infiltrate more of the search results page, I don’t personally have an issue with it. Technically speaking, the ads are still quite clearly labeled. I do think there will be a ton more clicks on ads in search results now, however, and I think people need to be made aware of what is going on and how these ads are being presented with relevant information. Google clearly isn’t saying that they made this new layout change to make clicks a more common occurrence, but at the end of the day we can all see the writing on the wall. Of the $40 billion Alphabet made in Q3 of 2019, $34 billion was made off of Google ads. They’re in this to make money, and a handful more clicks per user will surely make that happen. I just hope it doesn’t go any further than this moving forward.