Are Google’s Results Getting Too Ad-Heavy & Self-Promotional?

Google Logo - StockAre Google’s search results getting too ad-heavy and leading back to Google’s own content too much? A new blog post suggesting that Google’s non-paid listings make up only a tiny fraction of the entire search results page has sparked some discussion, though the exact percentage actually varies on how you count what’s on the page and from query-to-query.

According to the blog post by Aaron Harris, co-founder and CEO of Tutorspree, organic search results — listings that are not paid ads but ranked highly because Google thinks they are the best answer to a query — made up from 0-to-13% of a Google search results page.

However, if you measure the page not by pixel count but by actual listings, the situation is brighter than some of the “death of organic listings” proponents might think. Also, some things considered to be “Google” listings might not make sense to count that way.

Here’s what Harris found, along with some further analysis.

Auto Mechanic: Only 13% Unpaid?

When performing a Google search for “auto mechanic” using his Macbook Air with a 13-inch screen, Harris discovered that AdWords paid listings took up 29% of the page (12% at the top and another 17% to the side). The Google navigation bar took up 14% of the page. Unpaid “organic” listings got 13%, with the Google map plotted with local results having 7%, as illustrated below:

Tutorspree Blog — How Google is Killing Organic Search

Vignesh Ramachandran at Mashable experienced similar results when he performed his own test on Google. Using the same search term as Harris — “auto mechanic” — Ramachandran found that organic search results only accounted for an estimated 13.5 percent of screen real estate on his 15-inch MacBook Pro in a Firefox browser:

mashable organic search result test

Caveats & Counting Issues

Two sources coming away with a 13% figure for unpaid listings can sound pretty low. But that’s not the same as being able to declare that all searches are this way. Each search may have a different mixture of paid and unpaid results, based on the ads competing to appear, the location of the searcher and whether Google itself determines if a particular query deserves to be ad-heavy or not.

Beyond the variation from search-to-search, how you measure the percentage of a page that’s deemed “unpaid” isn’t as clear cut as it may seem.

One immediate caveat is the assumption that the map is somehow not worth counting in as “organic” listings. Clicking on the map leads to a page that will have both organic listings and paid listings plotted on a map. There’s a usefulness for search engines to show local information on a map. Arguably, some of the map “percentage” should count into the organic listings.

Another issue is the idea that the search box and navigation links should be somehow counted against Google as some type of new attempt to drive more traffic to Google products. Google’s long had navigation links. In fact, at some points, the navigation and search box unit might have been larger than it is now.

Beyond that is the idea that measuring in pixels is somehow the correct way to go. It assumes that the entire page is seen and interacted with in the same way. It also, oddly, counts the ads on the side as having nearly twice as much space as they actually take-up, because the box around them includes a bunch of white space.

Traditionally, what has concerned search marketers worried about Google (or any) search engine encroaching on the organic space has been to count the actual number of listings, especially those in the middle of the page, where people typically focus their attention and clicks.

By those measures, the example above works out to have 10 listings that are fully visible, with percentages like this:

  • Total paid versus unpaid: 70% to 30%
  • Paid versus unpaid, middle column: 50% to 50%

Those percentages are much better than the “13%” you might come away with from the original blog post. But then again, they still feel pretty low.

Meanwhile, Over At Bing…

For comparison sake, I ran the same search on my own MacBook Air with a 13-inch screen at Bing:

I didn’t try to measure the pixel count, because as explained, I’m not sure that’s the right approach for various reasons. But at-a-glance, it’s pretty clear that an ad-heavy page isn’t just a Google problem. In this example, Bing manages to push all but a single organic listing to the bottom of the page — and only the title of that one shows.

Like Google, the map leads you to a mixture of paid and unpaid listings. Unlike Google, selecting the local listings that appear next to the map sends you back into Bing Maps rather than to the actual business. Google used to do the same but changed this practice about a year or two ago, after criticisms.

Italian Restaurant: Only 7% Unpaid?

For another search, organic listings won even less screen real estate. When Harris looked for “italian restaurant,” the newly introduced Google Local Carousel located at the top of the page garnered a full 30% of the screen real estate.

With the navigation bar still taking 14%, AdWords at 9%, the Google map with 15%, a Google-owned Zagat listings (outside of the carousel) at 4%, organic search results for Harris’s search made up for only 7% of the page:

Again, that’s a shockingly low number at first glance. But, it gets better when you understand more about how the search page actually works.

The carousel links aren’t paid listings. Clicking on them leads to a fresh search results pages for the particular restaurants that are listed. The downside is that, as with Bing, this drives people back into Google rather than over to the restaurants themselves.

That’s disappointing. Google’s goal here is that the carousel is part of its Knowledge Graph, where it’s trying to share answers and information about things, including restaurants. But if someone clicks on the name of the restaurant, there’s a good assumption they just want to go to that restaurant’s page, not get stuck in an endless loop of Google search results.

As said, Google changed how its map results did this in the past; hopefully it will reconsider how the carousel works.

Another issue is counting the Zagat listing separately from the overall “organic” figure just because it’s a Google-owned property. Google asserts those properties are competing with all other pages and only appear if its algorithm believes they are relevant. There’s no programmatic command to always show a Zagat page at the top. Some won’t believe this, of course. But still, that’s far different than the assumption that a Zagat page might always show.

Indeed, here’s what I see in my location for the same search:

In this case, I don’t get any ads at all. I also don’t get any Zagat listings. Instead, I get the Olive Garden, an LA Times article and two listings from Google-competitor Yelp.

Meanwhile, Over At Bing…

On the one hand, I’m much happier with what I get from Bing:

There are ads, but they are over in the middle column, under the map. Clicking on the main listings takes you to the restaurants, unlike how Google’s carousel works. Organic search is far from “dead” here.

Then again, Google’s giving me a more colorful display that actually lists more restaurants than Bing does. If the carousel took me directly to those restaurants, rather than back into the search results (where you can then get to them), I think it would be a much better winner.

A final caveat in all this. Looking at a page doesn’t help you understand some of the interactivity that goes on. With Bing, selecting the “Reviews” link changes the middle column into showing more information from Bing’s own sources. How that gets measured is another complication, if we’re counting pixel space versus listings.

0% On Mobile?

Organic search results fared even worse in mobile searches, claiming 0% of the initial screens. When Harris searched “Italian Restaurants” from his iPhone, he had to scroll through four full screens before seeing any organic listings, which appeared after ad units, Google-owned Zagat listings, and a Google map followed by Google local listings:

Again, it sounds terrible until you get into the caveats. First, there’s the counting of Zagat in the first example as not being an organic search results, when it is. That really makes the results on that page 50/50 paid versus organic, unless you assume based on one search that Zagat will always occupy the top spot and that there will always be an ad. That’s not the case for me, in my location. In my area, Yelp has the entire page first screen.

After that, I get the same type of Google local listings as shown as “2″ in Harris’s example. I suppose that’s bad news for the Yelps of the world who want even more of that page, and it really does illustrate what Harris said, something the Yelps and others have already themselves said many times before:

“If you compete with Google in any way, you’re in its crosshairs. Your chances of ranking high enough to garner traffic are virtually nil and getting smaller.”

Life Harder For Competing Search Engines; Not Necessarily For Web Sites

Indeed. While the future may not be as bad as Harris paints it for other local search providers, in getting traffic from Google, the trend is pretty clear. Where Google can provide answers, it’s going to do that more and more directly, rather than feeding out to competing search engines.

That, however, isn’t necessarily bad for the user. If I’m on my phone, and I want to learn about a restaurant, the Google local results in the second screenshot are extremely useful, offering to let me call the restaurant or get directions to it. If I drill in, I’d even get an Urbanspoon menu. I’d also likely get Yelp reviews along with Zagat reviews, if that’s what Yelp wanted. But that’s not what Yelp wants, because Yelp blocks those reviews from appearing in Google.

But Google Owning Content Is Troubling

For me, the concern isn’t that Google doesn’t show enough listings of other search engines, any more than I’m not concerned that the New York Times doesn’t run enough Wall Street Journal articles. To understand more about this, see my past articles:

To me, the real concern has been the transformation of Google from being a search engine that pointed out to destination sites (like those restaurants) to wanting to be a destination of its own.

SEO and organic search is far from dead, and anyone who runs a site can look at their traffic logs to know how much traffic Google sends them every day, for free. But selling movies, offering restaurant reviews, hosting video, hosting book content and more does further pollute the clarity we used to have about what Google’s role was as a search engine, and whether it pushes its own content above others.

For more about that, see my other past article:

While I have some issues without how Harris has measured some of his examples, and how a few examples don’t represent hard-and-fast figures for all queries, I have no issue with the bigger takeaway that the screenshots are further food for thought and discussion that the “Google Giveaway” space has gotten tighter over the years, a trend that’s likely to continue.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Features: Analysis | Google | Google: Knowledge Graph | Google: Maps & Local | Google: SEO | Google: Web Search | SEO - Search Engine Optimization | 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.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • Vermont Design Works

    Probably even worse for average users, no? Think about how many “non-industry” folks you know who’ve been suckered into downloading useless toolbars. You know, those terrible toolbars that are supposed to make searching easier but only bog down web browsing and can carry malware. Each one of these toolbars is going to eat up more and more of the available first-fold real estate.

  • Ronnie’s Mustache

    Consider the intent and context when searching for “auto mechanic” or “italian restaurant.”

    Try searching for:
    milky way galaxy
    search engine news
    how to tie a tie
    healthy recipes

  • Zach Griffith

    Good article Danny! I am currently managing search for a large ecom account (both paid and organic) and am seeing dramatic YoY declines in traffic from top ranked organic terms.

    In some instances, only the first organic result is visible and located at the bottom of the initial SERP view!

    At the end of the day, people like pictures and the PLA pictures are making Google $$. That said, I wouldn’t be shocked if Google begins using standard product listings for all product related queries in the near future…

  • Jeremy Aviram

    Along with getting heavy , Google results are also becoming irelevant. Now you have to type some strange combinations to get some relevant sites. The normal keywords or phrases do not give the desired results any more.

    They are not ranking sites with great amount of backlinks, as they are de-motivating the link building as a whole…but they are loosing relevancy on the other side?…. is this a good approach?….does a simple user care about links or relevancy?..

  • http://www.phplinkdirectory.com David DuVal

    Could there be a relationship with the rise of browser plugins like Ad Blocker Plus? I don’t have ANY ads on my Google SERPs because I choose not to allow Google to show me ads. If Google continues to provide good organic results, I’ll keep using Google. If they don’t, there are other fish in the SE sea like DuckDuckGo and Bing.

  • http://mikliseo.com/ Miklin SEO

    Very interesting article, Danny. It’s also pretty concerning that a user can search something like “best Chinese restaurant” and the results are that of the horizontal image slide bar, which many users don’t know is advert and not organic.

  • http://www.seopros.org Terry Van Horne

    relevancy is not an issue! really it is more about how useful the listings are… for payday loans for instance I doubt many people are taking the wikipedia or gov’t link… relevant but likely not the results most people want…yet they are 1 and 2 don’t know what that guff was after Penguin 2 but it didn’t fix the payday loan query it just removed some spam…it did not improve the result. In fact Every query space I see it…. it just extended the knowledge graph to stupid lengths.

  • Ismail Ozsaydi
  • Durant Imboden

    I think the real problem is that Google’s SERPs are too cluttered, period. They’re getting busier and busier, to the point of causing sensory overload.

  • Ronnie’s Mustache

    And iOS

  • http://www.zimbio.com/TV+Shows/articles/szV9C4Vq3ge/Watch+Hannibal+Tale+Crime+Drama Puneet Sharma

    According to me…Google Wants to promote yourself!!! That’s it!!!

  • munaazanjum

    @Danny,

    You are spot on!

    I still don’t understand as why many of us including a stalwart like you, Dr.Pete, Rand cease to believe the shrinking scope of SEO at time when you share all the facts, and do have concerns as well.

    It’s not a startling fact if you look at the trends.The future search depends on device market share. As the search is increasingly up on handset devices, Google displays their own content/products results. Also, Chrome has advantage here in understanding users’ behavior, and type of search, which I believe, is a signal that Google receives while displaying personalized search results.

    The reason that I can possibly guess behind a showcase of many results
    of their own products/content is primarily due to the fact that the search engine wants to capitalize as much as they can which they invest in developing apps, androids, and devices. As said, the future search is moving on to the devices, Google is milking the benefit as long as they can, for they know the future of their holy grail –search engine.

  • peter

    ANSWER = PROMOTE ADBLOCKER LOL DESTROY GOOGLE.

    19 vs 10 in most my product searches, its becoming to a point where ppc you need a strategy to rank for that soon. oh wait highest bidder wins… BUT only google really wins.

    Big companys only ones who can survive with ppc really if your a small seller selling products……

  • Ronnie’s Mustache

    Product searches should have mostly paid listings.

    Paid listings often convert BETTER than organic. So if you know how to budget and figure out GP, it’s really no big deal. Either it works or it doesn’t.

    You think small companies should be given equal shelf space as large, established ones in organic SERPS. That would be a giant mess!!!!

  • munaazanjum

    @Ronnie,

    Of course, paid listing converts BETTER than organic because commercial intent is high, and thus “intended users” click on relevant advt. and make a purchase decision. However, search engine users are NOT ONLY buyers who click on sponsored links. You need to understand the whole demographic composition of users. Should Google listen more to advertisers by ignoring other types of users just because of bigger bang for the buck or just because paid listings convert more than organic listings?

    BTW, if you believe paid listings convert more than organic, you are simply looking at things from a micro-level but not from ROI perspective. I would rather suggest you to calculate ROI from PPC channel versus organic channel. You’d get more clarity if ‘conversion’ is a good matrix to focus or ROI.

  • Ronnie’s Mustache

    I’m not getting roped into this argument.
    (PPC vs. Organic…ROI vs. CR…etc…)

    ;)

    My only point is that I can understand why Google would choose to display more paid/non-organic listings for certain types of searches.

    Some people say the results pages look cluttered. Well, Google knows where peoples’ eyes scan while on a page and obviously white space is wasted space. :(

    We don’t look at SERPS the same way non-SE pros do. If Google stops serving up relevant results, they’re search market share will take a hit. There are other SE’s out there…and everyone knows it.

  • http://www.thesafestcandles.com/ Wendy Robinson

    I thought that something was wrong with my browser the other day when I saw 8 ads before the organic search results

  • http://www.barryadams.co.uk/ Barry Adams

    You guys really can’t say anything critical of Google without immediate;y caveating that with “it’s not that bad” and “Bing is even worse!”. Come on, grow a set and tell it like it is. Right now you look like Google’s voluntary propaganda channel.

  • Zach Griffith

    Good points and definitely taken into account. The bottom line is: if the majority of the real estate is paid, organic CTRs will absolutely suffer.

  • Pat Grady

    But, in these examples, doesn’t Bing look worse?

  • http://www.barryadams.co.uk/ Barry Adams

    I’m sure it does, but that’s not relevant to how bad Google’s SERPs are looking, is it? Compare it to Yandex if you will, or DuckDuckGo if you’re feeling brave. But none of those comparisons matter, because someone else doing it worse (or better) does not absolve Google in any way from their epic hypocrisy when it comes to on-page advertising.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    We can. I did. To quote from the article:

    “I’m much happier with what I get from Bing”

    “If someone clicks on the name of the restaurant, there’s a good assumption they just want to go to that restaurant’s page, not get stuck in an endless loop of Google search results.”

    “The real concern has been the transformation of Google from being a search engine that pointed out to destination sites.”

    If you want to have an intelligent discussion about what Google may or may not be doing that’s of a concern, it’s helpful to:

    1) Understand exactly how its being criticized
    2) Understand how far it may be out of line with common practices

    That’s what this piece was about. The numbers, and especially the illustrations that Harris pointed out are striking. Search marketers have seen this trend for ages, but this was a fresh take that made me even reflect, “Wow.”

    That’s the point of exploring it more here. Here’s a set of results that are being discussed. But measuring pixels might not be the right way, especially when you’re measuring white space next to the right-hand ads that doubles that pixel count.

    And understanding how out-of-line (or not) that its with the competition is also important. You can disagree and reframe it however you want, but I think it’s important, and that’s why I included it.

    FYI, it’s somewhat laughable to focus on the pixel counts and concerns that organic SEO is dying in web search when last year, Google turned ALL of Google Shopping into one big fat ad. Which I covered here:

    http://searchengineland.com/google-product-search-to-become-google-shopping-use-pay-to-play-model-122959

    Which concluded with this:

    “For publishers, there’s a whole lot of worry here. If Google can turn one search product to an all-paid basis, nothing really prevents it from doing the same for others. Could Google News only carry listings from publishers that want to pay? Will Google Places, already just transformed into a part of the Google+ social network, be changed to a pay-or-don’t play yellow pages-style model?”

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    Since I’ve been hearing about drastic changes that were going to kill SEO for the past 17 years now, I tend to view that nothing actually does that drastic of a trend.

    As I wrote, there’s definitely a trend that the “giveaway” of free traffic from search engines has gotten tighter over the years. I don’t see that as the death of SEO, however. I think you’re always going to have some “free” traffic out there.

  • http://seoeta.com/ jemois

    Perhaps google is hoping people will buy larger monitors for all their ads to fit. Yeah, Google is a business, they are a little bit to agresive on their users and forget that they are mainly supposed to be a search engine and not an ad provider. Google does exactly the oposite from what they teach webmasters in their guidelines. In really don’t find it normal and fair. And the funny thing is that nobody can penalize them. A penguin penalty wouldn’t be fair to google since they have a beautiful links profike. What about Panda triggering on pages with thin content ? Or the page layout penalty, for to many ads and thin content above the fold ?

  • http://www.barryadams.co.uk/ Barry Adams

    You sound a bit like Fox News defending their ‘fair & balanced’ slogan. “We have liberal commentators too!” “We’re critical of the GOP as well and we praise the DNC on occasion!”

    I fear you might not even be aware of your own pro-Google bias, Danny. You probably genuinely believe you’re being fair and balanced, but your subconscious mind is making all kinds of editorial decisions when you write a piece like this, always ensuring your cosy relationship with Google is not threatened by anything you write here.

    Your criticism of Google, such as it is, is toothless and almost always caveated by ‘the other search engines are just as bad’ (which, incidentally, is an entirely invalid excuse for Google’s bad behaviour).

  • Durant Imboden

    There may be a certain logic in loading up transactional SERPs with ads.

    If a user wants to buy a Widgetco Router and there are 1,000 vendors selling the same thing, does it really matter if the first 10 listings he sees are AdWords?

    From Google’s point of view, it’s a win-win: Google makes more money, and if spammers succeed in pushing their way to the head of the organic queue, their success won’t be as obvious to searchers or as profitable to the spammers. And from the searchers’ point of view, it’s no different from seeing the ads they used to know and love in the heyday of Yellow Pages directories and COMPUTER SHOPPER.

  • Billy McAllister

    Perhaps they attacked it the same way as they did EMDs! Such a headache when one of your client is a relocation/moving company.

  • http://www.itchimes.com/ vibhu satpaul

    Nice one Danny. I was feeling the same and wrote a more detailed version than mine. Fail of plans there :) but good read and i hope it gives users an option to reduce them some how.

  • Graham Ginsberg

    Where the name GOOGLE came from:

    “10^100 (a gigantic number) is a googol, but we liked the spelling “Google” better. We picked the name “Google” because our goal is to make huge quantities of information available to everyone. And it sounds cool and has only six letters.”

    Ref: http://web.archive.org/web/19990221202430/http://www.google.com/company.html#contact

  • Durant Imboden

    If you have an AdSense account and set up Google Search on your site, you get a share of the ad revenue.

  • Happeh

    “anyone who runs a site can look at their traffic logs to know how much traffic Google sends them every day, for free.”

    You did not really just say that did you?

    Here it comes folks………

    “Google is doing you a service by providing you search results so you need to pay them $30 a month for that service”.

  • Zazbot

    Hilarious reading as the author turns himself into a pretzel trying to defend Google, when Google’s search results are getting worse every year. Our family is using DDG more every month.

  • Manoj

    It is not only the ads —– there is a lot of “experimentation” going on. Many results have fewer than 10 organic results (7-8 in many cases) and then there are YouTube results, which must also be considered self-promotional.

  • lisa741

    as Billy responded I’m dazzled that a student able to make $9219 in 1 month on the internet. have you read this site w­w­w.K­E­P­2.c­o­m

  • xtopher66

    The free lunch is over! A lot of these discussions are flawed by your mental block of expecting organic listings of a past era. Those Serps were the loss leader for Google to get the market share prised from the competition. How easy was it with some real basic SEO knowledge to get your start up website ranking well with blog spam, directories and over optimised anchors? Real easy. Now some you skinflints dont like the fact that Googles` corperate mode has kicked in. Couple that with Google not affectively being able to stop that until they decided on the content model of the big corperates and content media outlets. The big switch to branding is so obvious…duh! So its killed most of the organisations or individuals who havent the $$ to back that…..whats new about that. You just dont like losing your free lunch. Youre going to have pay for advertising and content generation just like the big boys have always done.

    Google is a search engine, not a SERPS engine and whether it keeps the content for the search query within internal pathways is neither here or there. Its not losing market share, although that may well be down to Bing and Yahoo being pretty poor competitors, and is keeping the corperate advertisers happy.

    My big problem is Google is still a dumb bot and you can see that in the serps results…but thats another issue entirely from this post.

  • creature77

    Really? About 2 whole cents for each of my “shares:? Thanks for the great tip.

  • Durant Imboden

    I assume that you mean 2 cents per click, which admittedly is terrible. But that isn’t Google’s fault: AdWords/AdSense is a bid-based system, and some topics (not to mention some audiences) attract lower bids than others do.

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