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.
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