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