Google “Comparison” Units Get New Look; Change Highlights Paid Inclusion In Some Vertical Search Areas

Google has had what it has called “comparison ads” for some time, but these comparison units are getting a new look in Google’s search results beginning today. Google hopes the change will better explain to searchers that comparison listings come from companies it has a commercial relationship with. It also highlights how three Google search products now seem to largely operate on a paid inclusion basis. Google was once a vocal opponent to paid inclusion programs.

“We’re changing the design layout of our hotel, flight, credit card and bank account results, which help users complete actions such as booking flights quickly and easily,” a Google spokesperson told us in a statement. “We’ve always disclosed that Google may be paid when a user completes such an action; we want to be clear and consistent in how we do that.”

The New Look

The comparison units appear in the US when people do these types of searches:

  • Flight search
  • Hotel search
  • Financial product search for checking accounts, savings accounts, credit cards or certificates of deposits

In the UK, the units only appear for financial products, specifically for current accounts, savings accounts and credit cards.

Again, the units aren’t new. They’ve existed for over a year for some products. They’re simply getting a new format. Below is an example of the old-style look, which some may still see now:

Here’s an example of how they are changing to over the coming days:

In the new format, the background color that’s used for Google’s traditional AdWords units is gone. The comparison units also carry a “Sponsored” disclaimer rather than an “Ads” one, as with AdWords ads. This seems part of Google’s positioning the new units as something different than ads.

Not Ads, Not Organic Listings But A “Third Kind Of Thing”

Indeed, even though Google’s called these “comparison ads” in the past, it pushed back on that label for them now. What are they called? We’ve yet to get a formal name for them. In talking with us about them today, Google referred to the units as a “third type of thing” — not organic listings, and not ads but something in between.

Clicking on the comparison link will take users to a results page in the relevant vertical search product, be it Google Hotel Finder, Google Flight Search or Google Advisor.

The distinction between these and ads, Google told us, was that advertisers control the keywords, the copy and the links in AdWords. In the results generated by the comparison units, Google decides what listings get displayed and how they get displayed, based on aggregate data that advertisers provide. In most cases, Google gets paid for leads it sends.

While the comparison ads site is still up and shows the program as in beta, participation isn’t open to any advertiser as with AdWords, not does it seem likely to be.

Google says those who want to be in the flight area, or the hotel area or in the financial products area will either already be approached by the right team in Google or know the team to contact. In short, if you don’t know the right place to talk to, apparently you aren’t the right company for these types of ads.

Organic, Paid Placement & Paid Inclusion Listings

This “third Kind of thing” will sound familiar to veteran search marketers. It’s paid inclusion. For those new to the concept, a refresher.

For the most part, Google (as well as Bing) has two different types of search listings. The first are “editorial” or “natural” or “organic” listings, the “main” listings that people tend to think of as the search engine’s results. Google doesn’t charge for people to show up in this space. Its search algorithms try to determine the most relevant sites to list for any particular search.

There are also paid listings, the listing powered by AdWords, where advertisers bid against each other to appear above or to the right of the organic listings. Because these ads grew out of advertisers trying to gain prominent placement, they’ve historically been called “paid placement” ads, even though with Google, advertisers can’t guarantee that their ads will rank well for any particular term, even if they’re willing to pay the most. An ad algorithm takes payment along with overall relevancy into account.

Paid inclusion was once a popular way that the major search engines like Yahoo or Bing’s predecessor MSN Search charged sites to help increase the odds they might perform well within organic search results.

You couldn’t buy a top ranking, but you could pay to ensure more of your pages were gathered up or revisited on a regular basis. It was kind of like buying more tickets for a lottery. You aren’t guaranteed to win, but you can buy more chances.

Google was long the major search engine that stood against paid inclusion, even calling out against paid inclusion as part of its 2004 IPO filing. Microsoft and Ask, feeling the pressure, dropped their paid inclusion programs that year. Yahoo — the last holdout — dropped its program in 2009.

So what’s up with paid inclusion happening at Google, which fought against it before?

Paid Inclusion In The Vertical Space

It’s important to note that paid inclusion is not happening in Google’s main web search results. At the time Google fought against paid inclusion, that was largely where it was happening. Since then, paid inclusion has moved into the province of smaller specialty search engines, where it remains common. Other search engines in vertical spaces, like Kayak.com and Mint.com, include data from companies with which they have financial relationships. Even Bing does this.

Google has come close to paid inclusion in the past with some mixture of sponsored listings in things like shopping and local results, but in talking today with the company, it seems it may be closer to this for some newer search products than ever before, if it’s not already there. I’d argue that it is.

To be clear, Google may have “free” information listed in any of these areas because of data feeds it pulls in or some crawling it does of the web. But it was clear the intention for these products is really to be building a way to compare between services from companies that Google has a commercial relationship with. That’s a fairly big departure from Google’s traditional search products. Google News, for example, doesn’t only feature newspapers that purchase inclusion. Nor does Google Shopping only list merchants that pay to be considered.

Google Hotel Finder, launched last year, appears to be a hotel search engine similar to how Google has a search engine for finding images or videos or web pages. But unlike those other search engines, from talking with Google, it seems most if not all the content in Google Hotel Finder is for companies that it has a commercial relationship with or hopes to have one with — a commercial relationship meaning Google gets paid for leads.

Google Flight Search which also launched last year seems the same situation. Google was unclear about whether businesses were listed for free within the area or why some airlines had booking options or not, if that was only for those with commercial arrangements.

As for Google Advisor which rolled up various financial product searching tools last year, individual sections, such as the credit card area, currently say that Google isn’t paid for offers shown. Yet this area powers the comparison units in Google that are expressly noted as sponsored. Google told us the wording in Google Advisor is being updated, after we pointed out this mismatch.

Will More Paid Inclusion Come To Google?

Even though paid inclusion is fairly commonplace in the vertical space, it still feels somewhat surprising for Google to be doing it. Having a search tool for financial products using paid inclusion even goes directly against what Google’s founders said they disliked back in 2004, as part of the IPO filing’s “Don’t Be Evil” section:

Google users trust our systems to help them with important decisions: medical, financial and many others. Our search results are the best we know how to produce. They are unbiased and objective, and we do not accept payment for them or for inclusion or more frequent updating.

It makes me wonder if future Google vertical search products will go down this route. I’ll be following-up more with Google about this in the near future.

Pamela Parker contributed to this story. 

Related Articles

Related Topics: Channel: SEM | Features: Analysis | Google: AdWords | Google: Partnerships | Search Ads: Paid Inclusion | Search Marketing: General | Top News

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • daveintheuk

    Google is now the thinnest of affiliate sites. Zero content (perhaps they’ll start scraping the Wikipedia page for “credit cards” and showing that in the sidebar to the right now too!).

    Google needs to drop the “best for users” bullshit and start being honest with the world “best for shareholders” is their new mantra.

  • http://twitter.com/RCONNOR111 ROBERT CONNOR III

    About as clear as mud….Have a great day on purpose!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/DH2KQZ5UI3IVMOOO35DLKLYZHM Jim

    Once again I have to say it. Isn’t it strange all these upgrades to these money making arms of Google are happening right now after Google made one of the most far reaching changes to it’s index in 10 years? Adwords gets all these new features and now this. Yes I am being cynical but you have to wonder.

  • robthespy

    You can’t fault them from trying to grab every bit of bread on the table. But they’re becoming way too sleazy!

    And now every Google property is a usability nightmare. The ‘Plex employees need to get out more!

  • jet20

    I’m not at all surprised. You don’t have enough fingers on your hands to count the many instances Google did “evil” last year according to its own age-old policies, so this is just another step over to the dark side. Google has long cancelled the informal contract between search engines and webmasters (we can crawl and use your content for free, you get free traffic). Google the Search Engine was nothing without webmaster’s content. It is the original scraper site, the like it likes to penalize these days. We all accepted it because obviously the deal was acceptable for both parties. This is less and less the case with every day this new, greedy, “filthy rich” Google is proceeding with its plans.

    Already there are moves by the content creators to have Google pay their due for using their content in their websites.  Right now that may be only powerful lobby groups such as the Press (Google News controversy), but expect more people demanding their share in success or telling the GoogleBot to “NoIndex This!”. Google has screwed us over long enough!

  • http://twitter.com/eSocialMediaUSA eSocialMedia

    The more Google gains absolute control over search, apps and online marketing in general the more they will roll over the businesses and individuals that willingly gave them the data to do so.

    My opinion is that each of us either as a business or individual need to gain control over and centralize our own data. From there we control who to share it with, like Google, Facebook or Twitter, either for mutual benefit or for direct compensation.

    If everything about you and your life is eventually digitized and connected, yet you do not own or control that data, where does that leave you? dependent.

    No Index, No Follow, and remove your data from all “data search engines” like whitepages, ZabaSearch, 411, MyLife and more is a first step.

    The mutually beneficial relationship we have had with online companies is now out of balance. We as the data providers need to identify the issue, share it, organize into a group then pull out of this loosely defined, unhealthy agreement to restore the balance.

    The question is, will we do what is right, or what is easy?

  • http://www.realwebmarket.com Pradeep

    looks like Google will ultimately push Google products top!

  • http://www.developmentcatalyst.blogspot.com/ Development Catalyst Admin

    I’d like to think Google  wants  Biz Owners to drive more revenue  to
    its  Google’s search engine Ads or Adwords using the penguin algorithm
    update  .

    I wrote a blog post  about this  here:

    http://www.development-catalyst.com/2012/05/hassle-of-googles-penguin-algorithm.html

  • http://twitter.com/mattchantry Matt Chantry

    Spot on Dave. What I have a problem with is that they still haven’t included prices from the hotel directly in their hotel finder. In many cases it’s cheaper to book directly so they aren’t helping the end user. Just having OTA’s allows them to make a bit of cash everytime someone books. We’ve covered it here:

    http://www.screenpilot.com/blog/2012/05/google-hotel-finder-is-here-to-stay/

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/EFV5KQMVOFDZN4RTT6U5UE6NDM Jordan

    wow, not a single comment so far praising the Goog…… interesting……

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003526005746 Pramisha Patra

    Visit http://compzets.com for FULL version software download @FREE of cost

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003235658603 Choy Skate

    This is good for users where in they are having some problem with regards to credits cards, hotel reservation, flight reservation and etc.. Free Article Directory – http://articlehowto.info

  • http://wogan.me Wogan

    What’s best for the user? Sifting through 9 or 10 organic search results from a hotel query to find a suitable offer? Or getting a direct link to that offer straight after a query?

    If it’s the latter, then how do you ensure that the user experience is top-notch? (Vacancies open, fast page load time, secure vendor, etc)? Just open applications up to the public, and let anyone list? Or restrict it to companies that are willing to buy in to your vision?

    If it’s the latter, how do you pick those companies? The ones who process the most bookings, the ones with the biggest market cap, or the ones willing to take a financial risk, because they’re confident they can live up to the demand?

    Just because it’s good for business doesn’t mean it’s bad for users. The fact you’re even able to complain about it is because a whole chain of companies – from R&D, to telecom, to your ISP, and this very website, exist because their operations are good for business.

  • http://www.webstatsart.com/ Webstats Art

     I actually think that search engine land is a blessing to google i.e. a place for them to get some feedback from others who don’t work for them i.e. constructive criticism.

  • Royal_Martin

    Yeah, Google can kiss my a$$. I am sure we will see the rise of another search engine that will play fair to some greater extent and folks will migrate over. You will never be able to beat the quality of what has been published for free. It is what has made the Internet a great place to learn, socialize, and become a participant of the human race.

    The new Bing with social results getting ready to be rolled out I think has the potential to kick Eric Schmidt square in the nuts so hard Matt Cutts feels it.

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