The Great Fade Out? How The Search Engines Stack Up On Ad Backgrounds In SERPs

google-bing-yahoo-logosA few weeks ago, Barry Schwartz reported that Yahoo was testing ad background colors – a pale green instead of pale blue. The search engines frequently test ad background colors in the SERPs. Google has tested blue, green, purple, and yellow variations. What struck me in looking at the Yahoo test, though, was how faint the background colors on both the test and control are. So, I decided to take a look at how Yahoo, Bing and Google are using background colors in the search results.

The screen you’re using can make a big difference in what you see. For example, looking at Yahoo results on my secondary monitor, the background color is faintly visible, but on my laptop screen, I see no background color at all.

Below is a screenshot of Yahoo search results. You may have to squint, but you’ll see that there is a pale blue background behind the all of the ads — and behind the Yahoo logo and navigation menu.  (I have yet to see the green test in the wild.) In other words, it’s the organic listings and shopping results that are set apart from the branding and navigation, not the ads.

Yahoo Ad Background Color

This color treatment does not follow, by the way, when you click through to the Yahoo shopping results. There, the top ads are shaded in blue, and the listings and navigation are on white.

On the iPhone, Yahoo’s mobile search results look identical to the desktop results shown above, with no mobile optimization.

Turning to Bing, the ads shown above the organic listings are shaded in a pale green. Again, you may have to squint because the shading is light, barely visible on my laptop. The ads on the right column have a white background, matching the branding, navigation, shopping results, related searches and organic listings.

Bing Ad Background Color

Bing’s mobile results also feature the pale green background on ads, shown above the organic listings.

Bing Mobile Ad Background

Google is using the darkest shading of the three engines — the pale yellow behind the top set of ads is clearly visible on both my laptop and secondary screen. Bing followed Google in shading only the top set of ads. Google’s Product Listing Ads are treated with a gray outline and “Sponsored” tag. The text ads in the right column have no shading or outline, just the “Ads” tag.

Google Ad Background Color

Also like Bing, Google’s top mobile ads are shaded in the same color used in desktop results. The color is clearly visible on my iPhone.

Google Mobile Ad Background

When product listing ads display on the smartphones, they appear below the yellow shaded text ads with a “Shop on Google” headline and the small “Sponsored” tag.

google ad background mobile pla

Google is using yellow background on the new native-style ads in Gmail that appear at the top of the Promotions tab.

In June, the FTC issued an update in its guidelines to search engines as a result of what it says is a “decline in compliance” by the search engines to differentiate ads from unpaid listings. In all of these results, the ads are slugged with “Ad” or “Sponsored” tags of some sort.  In the new guidelines, the FTC also calls for clearer design treatment for ads suggesting: (1) More prominent shading that works across monitor and device types, or (2) A prominent border, or (3) Both.

It looks like we’re not quite there yet.

Postscript: Bing responded with a note about how they are addressing the issue of ad differentiation, in part, with the addition of the line seen to the right of the mainline ads.

Related Topics: Channel: Consumer | Google: AdWords | Google: User Interface | Microsoft: Bing Ads | Microsoft: Bing User Interface | Top News | Yahoo: Search Ads


About The Author: writes about paid online marketing topics including paid search, paid social, display and retargeting. Beyond Search Engine Land, Ginny provides search marketing and demand generation advice for ecommerce companies. She can be found on Twitter as @ginnymarvin.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter


Get all the top search stories emailed daily!  


Other ways to share:

Read before commenting! We welcome constructive comments and allow any that meet our common sense criteria. This means being respectful and polite to others. It means providing helpful information that contributes to a story or discussion. It means leaving links only that substantially add further to a discussion. Comments using foul language, being disrespectful to others or otherwise violating what we believe are common sense standards of discussion will be deleted. Comments may also be removed if they are posted from anonymous accounts. You can read more about our comments policy here.
  • George Michie

    Hi Ginny, what’s also interesting to me is that Google refers to the text ads as “Ads” but the PLAs (white background, not yellow) are called “Sponsored”. A distinction without a difference, but why the distinction?

  • Ginny Marvin

    Hi George, Good question. I believe it’s Google’s way of differentiating text ads and PLAs. I asked a similar question of Google when looking at the ads in Gmail. The AdSense ads in Gmail are marked with the Ads tag, but the “Sponsored Promotions” ads (that open up to email-like messages) have the little dollar sign tag next to them. Google said it was to clearly differentiate the two types of ads. In both cases, I find it confusing as a consumer. The different tags seem more a signal to advertisers — that there are multiple ad programs on the page.

  • George Michie

    Oh interesting. A cynic would say consumers know what “ad” means but “sponsored” doesn’t register with them so G gets some extra clicks on the ads. I don’t happen to be a cynic, though; people click on the ads (by any name) because they’re useful. Your notion that it lets advertisers know that there are other ad vehicles they may not be aware of makes a great deal of sense.

  • Joe

    Yahoo’s ads have such a faint background color that they look almost completely like organic results. This is shady of Yahoo.

  • Durant Imboden

    Or it could be that Google uses the traditional definition of “advertising” to mean commercial messages that are under the control of the advertiser (as opposed to paid product listings, which are sponsored–or, as Danny Sullivan might say, “paid inclusion”–search results).

    BTW, although Google’s background color for AdWords may be darker than Yahoo’s and Bing’s ad backgrounds, it remains invisible on my laptop screen.

  • Ginny Marvin

    There is actually difference for users between the two tags that I didn’t mention above. When you click on the “i” next the “Ads” tag, users can access their Ad Settings page. Whereas the Sponsored Promotions/PLAs aren’t served based on the ad settings since their pulled from merchants’ product feeds.

    Interesting that even Google’s shading is invisible on your laptop. Though I guess I shouldn’t be surprised since there is so much variation in color saturation from screen to screen.

  • Dave

    Google ads background color on laptop is invisible. I have to adjust the screen to differentiate between the ads and the organic listing. It even surpass Yahoo ads background in visibility.

  • Illogicalthinker

    Bing’s also are such a mild hue from the rest that depending on my head’s position in relation to the screen, can make it difficult to tell the difference.

  • Illogicalthinker

    Seems to me Google has the best UX. They have a lot of ads but they don’t obstruct the organics like Bing and Yahoo. However I do like the images, since likely enough I am not going to be looking for a text description of the next pair of pants I am going to buy.

  • alisha652

    as Ray said I am stunned that any one can get paid $5719 in a few weeks on the computer. did you see this web page w­w­w.K­E­P­2.c­o­m

Get Our News, Everywhere!

Daily Email:

Follow Search Engine Land on Twitter @sengineland Like Search Engine Land on Facebook Follow Search Engine Land on Google+ Get the Search Engine Land Feed Connect with Search Engine Land on LinkedIn Check out our Tumblr! See us on Pinterest


Click to watch SMX conference video

Join us at one of our SMX or MarTech events:

United States


Australia & China

Learn more about: SMX | MarTech

Free Daily Search News Recap!

SearchCap is a once-per-day newsletter update - sign up below and get the news delivered to you!



Search Engine Land Periodic Table of SEO Success Factors

Get Your Copy
Read The Full SEO Guide