Can searchers tell the difference between ads and free listings? Google engineer says ‘yes’

Should Google take concerns over their search ads blending into their organic listings seriously?

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Google has made numerous design and layout changes to their search ads over the years, prompting a grumbling from the search community that the changes were done to confuse searchers into thinking search ads are the same as the organic search results. But Paul Haahr, a senior Google engineer, said on Twitter Sunday that, based on his information, searchers can differentiate between the search ads and organic free listings just fine.

Where is this coming from? Haahre was asked about an article on Medium that said, “More than 50 percent of people between the ages of 18–34 can’t differentiate between an ad and an organic result on Google. To maximize this percentage, Google is always testing to find ad visuals that blend in best with organic results.” He responded that it was not true “from everything I’ve seen, at least from the Search side.

Studies show otherwise? The Medium article references this January 2018 study that says 60 percent of searchers can’t recognize search ads in Google. The study found that “of the 803 respondents from our independent survey, 57.5 percent don’t recognize Google ads. 34.8 percent recognize them but don’t click on them, and 7.7 percent recognize paid ads but do click them.”

Why it matters. If searchers cannot understand the difference between ads and free listings it can be a concern for searchers, marketers and Google itself. Google wants its search results to be as unbiased and relevant as possible. If they make their ads blend into the free listings, it can make Google come across as being unethical and biased in their search results. Some of this may be about educating searchers about the difference between ads and free listings, while others might argue it is more about Google better labeling search ads as paid by advertisers.

About the author

Barry Schwartz
Barry Schwartz is a Contributing Editor to Search Engine Land and a member of the programming team for SMX events. He owns RustyBrick, a NY based web consulting firm. He also runs Search Engine Roundtable, a popular search blog on very advanced SEM topics. Barry can be followed on Twitter here.

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