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Can Users Really Tell AdWords Ads from Organic Results?

7 August 2013 BY

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Whenever you do a search on Google, you know there’s a very high probability that there will be some AdWords ads on the search results page. After all, Google is an advertising company, and in 2012 a whopping 95% of their £46 Billion in revenue came from advertising.

Most digital marketers are intimately familiar with the growing pervasiveness of advertising on Google’s SERPs, with ads claiming an increasingly larger share of the on-screen real estate. Conventional wisdom tells us most users can distinguish the ads from the organic results, and tend to click on the latter significantly more often.

But is that truly the case? In a recent survey conducted by 123-Reg, half of the respondents said that they hadn’t seen any ads in their Google search results. In the 18-24 year old demographic that percentage rose to a whopping 66%.

So either Google doesn’t show ads on many SERPs, or the ads it does show are not recognised as such by a lot of people. The former seems highly unlikely – almost every single search result these days has a selection of AdWords ads – so it appears that Google is getting better and better at blurring people’s perceptions of what is an ad and what is an organic result.

This is not the first time evidence of this confusion has emerged. In 2012 Glenn Gabe showed a classroom of seventh graders (age 13) a screenshot of a Google query for ‘iphone accessories’ and asked if they knew the difference between paid ads and organic results on Google:

“Not one student knew there were ads listed at the top or down the side.”

It’s a well-known fact that Google experiments with the background colour of its AdWords ads to find that optimal balance between convincing the regulators that they’re clearly marking their ads differently, and breeding confusion among users about what is an ad and what is an organic result. On some laptop and smartphone screens the AdWords background colour is so vague it’s nearly impossible to tell any difference at all.

On top of that, it’s likely that Google’s ‘enhancing’ of AdWords with various different formats and display options can be credited to some degree for this growing confusion. The latest Shopping ads are a great example of this; shopping results used to be part of the organic results as a universal search element, but now they’re paid ads. Yet they still look mostly the same, so people who click on them might not know it’s a paid ad.

pink striped umbrella - Google Search

Then there’s a whole range of Google services that are available to users directly in the SERPs. Everything from flight tickets to credit card comparisons happen directly in Google’s search results, and it’s not a stretch to image a lot of users are unaware that by using these services they’re padding Google’s pockets.

compare credit cards - Google Search

Research conducted by Pete Myers in February showed that Google is pushing organic search results further down the page. When you take Google’s brand power in to account, with a lot of users implicitly trusting Google to provide them with the best answers, it’s easy to see how many users are inadvertently clicking on ads that they believe are trustworthy organic results served up by Google’s unbiased algorithms.

How Low Can #1 Go?Produced by Moz – ©2013

This is of course precisely what Google wants. After all, they don’t make any money off the organic results. AdWords is where the money’s at.

But isn’t this a form of deception? Isn’t Google betraying its users by muddying people’s perceptions of the difference between paid ads and organic results? Or should Google be absolved of the responsibility to educate users of the difference between ads and organic results, and this is simply something we’ll have to accept as the inevitable result of a profit-seeking business’s drive for more revenue?

A recent study from Forrester shows that users overwhelmingly prefer organic search results to find stuff online:

forrester-search2012-600x505

But what if they can’t tell the difference between organic results and paid ads? That study found a disconnect between what users said about paid search, and what the paid search market is actually doing:

“In what’s likely a surprise to many search marketers, just 18% of those surveyed said that they used paid search ads for website discovery. This despite the fact that paid search spending is still increasing, according to other studies that track marketing budgets.”

That too is a signal that users genuinely can’t tell the difference between paid ads and organic results. So we have to ask ourselves; is it OK for a company like Google to encourage and profit from that sort of confusion, where its users think they’re getting unbiased algorithmic results but where in fact it’s a matter of paying for placements?

Or should more be done to ensure users can distinguish ads from organic results? Google is always eager to call for more transparency – it might be time they put their money where their mouth is.

[Update 13:30 - added Glenn Gabe's classroom anecdote]

AUTHORED BY:
h

Barry Adams is one of the editors of State of Digital and is an award-winning SEO consultant based in Belfast, delivering specialised SEO services to clients across Europe.
  • Arianne Donoghue

    It’s funny – I often do this test with people when they find out what I do.

    Me: *says what I do*
    Them: You mean enough people click on those ads for you have a job doing it? Wow! I NEVER click on those.
    Me: *pulls up computer, random Google query* What do you click on if you do a search?

    Invariably they point to the text ads, or the shopping listings. 9 times out of 10 I think people genuinely don’t know the ads are paid and they always seemed shocked when it’s pointed out!

    I don’t think we’ll see any change from Google themselves unless it’s pushed on them by regulators or another third party.

  • Arianne Donoghue

    It’s funny – I often do this test with people when they find out what I do.

    Me: *says what I do*
    Them: You mean enough people click on those ads for you have a job doing it? Wow! I NEVER click on those.
    Me: *pulls up computer, random Google query* What do you click on if you do a search?

    Invariably they point to the text ads, or the shopping listings. 9 times out of 10 I think people genuinely don’t know the ads are paid and they always seemed shocked when it’s pointed out!

    I don’t think we’ll see any change from Google themselves unless it’s pushed on them by regulators or another third party.

  • http://www.redstarcreative.co.uk/ Andy Kinsey

    What amuses me is that they continually tweak the colour in the background of ad’s and on screens where you’ve not corrected the colours you would struggle to see that box … imagine if you had bad eyes – the problem gets compounded and so i can understand why lots of users don’t “see” adverts.

    Further to that because google shopping was originally not ad supported more confusion comes forward and had i not been a digital marketer i wouldn’t have known and would have said it was just a part of the search (especially as it says advanced search next to it).

    I personally think google is becoming the yahoo of 15 years ago, selling placements is their new game.

  • http://www.redstarcreative.co.uk/ Andy Kinsey

    What amuses me is that they continually tweak the colour in the background of ad’s and on screens where you’ve not corrected the colours you would struggle to see that box … imagine if you had bad eyes – the problem gets compounded and so i can understand why lots of users don’t “see” adverts.

    Further to that because google shopping was originally not ad supported more confusion comes forward and had i not been a digital marketer i wouldn’t have known and would have said it was just a part of the search (especially as it says advanced search next to it).

    I personally think google is becoming the yahoo of 15 years ago, selling placements is their new game.

  • AnthonyPensabene.com

    Good observations, Barry. Google has facilitated mass consumer (commercially-related) behavior. I would like to see some stats reflecting how often G is now used to find commercial vs. educational results.

    My intuition says a large number of people (searching with a buyer’s intent) are immune to the hypocrisy, wanting fast results, bewitched by the pursuit of consumerism. At the point of search, I believe people want variety and the ability to compare/locate cheapest price. Google does that very well, maybe better than any entity to date.

    I myself had no idea (meh..8 years ago?) regarding the difference between ‘those colored results and the ones within the white background.’ Moreover, I didn’t care. Now, I do. Could it be we are more personally invested being in search; therefore, we take notice and subsequently emotionally invested? Being emotionally invested compels us to engage in a more analytic fashion. We observe, taking greater interest, and ‘feel’ the hypocrisy.

    There are a lot of stories and injustices out there. It’s difficult for a human to entertain all of them at once. We choose battles, many times due to our personal convictions and immediate surroundings. I have an autistic friend, making me very acute to autism awareness and aid. I’ve lived in many places with high numbers of homeless. Others may pass by (not in a careless way, but in an ambivalent way; they see the man/woman sitting down, probably wishing it wasn’t so, but they move on), yet I ‘feel,’ and keep the person’s plight with me; I’ve talked to them, trying to understand, racking brains for a solution, and yet there are thousands of other stories I’m ignorant of, walking by unaware or unaffected.

    I think a more interesting question is, ‘do users really care to tell adwords ads from organic ads?’ Maybe, if somehow users were being charged to click on particular results… I am not a fan of many of G’s implementation and behaviors, yet, am I any better for exacting my writing talents simply so a client may enjoy the spoils of another hyperlink? I’d love to say every client I’ve helped champions a better world and society, but methinks they’re just trying to make money off the Web, just like Google.

    Google, with its PR face on, wants the world to think its the place to go for good, quality information of any variety. Is that any different from Rolex convincing the world its a superior watch, or Lexus convincing its a superior ride, or HBO convincing it hosts superior programming? Google is a business; businesses gonna be businesses.

    That all said, I’m ‘with’ you. There’s a disparity about what is said, more importantly assumed by the masses, and what actually is. Is that any different than the American history books I read in school, or the police officer making decisions based on subjectivity, or a woman who wants to date me due to my personality, though really due to having been a top user of inbound (comic relief)?

    G is blurring the lines of business ethics. But, ethics is subjective. I can urge a client not to fuel the flames of the unethical, but would I be smiting them in the process? Depending on the behavior of their market, most of the time to date, that’s likely a ‘yes,’ until the masses are with us too. Always enjoy reading you, man. cheers.

  • AnthonyPensabene.com

    Good observations, Barry. Google has facilitated mass consumer (commercially-related) behavior. I would like to see some stats reflected how often G is now used to find commercial vs. educational results.

    My intuition says a large number of people (searching with a buyer’s intent) are immune to the hypocrisy, wanting fast results, bewitched by the pursuit of consumerism. At the point of search, I believe people want variety and the ability to compare/locate cheapest price. Google does that very well, maybe better than any entity to date.

    I myself had no idea (meh..8 years ago?) regarding the difference between ‘those colored results and the ones within the white background.’ Moreover, I didn’t care. Now, I do. Could it be we are more personally invested being in search; therefore, we take notice and subsequently emotionally invested? Being emotionally invested compels us to engage in a more analytic fashion. We observe, taking greater interest, and ‘feel’ the hypocrisy.

    There are a lot of stories and injustices out there. It’s difficult for a human to entertain all of them at once. We choose battles, many times due to our personal convictions and immediate surroundings. I have an autistic friend, making me very acute to autism awareness and aid. I’ve lived in many places with high numbers of homeless. Others may pass by (not in a careless way, but in an ambivalent way; they see the man/woman sitting down, probably wishing it wasn’t so, but they move on), yet I ‘feel,’ and keep the person’s plight with me; I’ve talked to them, trying to understand, racking brains for a solution, and yet there are thousands of other stories I’m ignorant of, walking by unaware or unaffected.

    I think a more interesting question is, ‘do users really care to tell adwords ads from organic ads?’ Maybe, if somehow users were being charged to click on particular results… I am not a fan of many of G’s implementation and behaviors, yet, am I any better for exacting my writing talents simply so a client may enjoy the spoils of another hyperlink? I’d love to say every client I’ve helped champions a better world and society, but methinks they’re just trying to make money off the Web, just like Google.

    Google, with its PR face on, wants the world to think its the place to go for good, quality information of any variety. Is that any different from Rolex convincing the world its a superior watch, or Lexus convincing its a superior ride, or HBO convincing it hosts superior programming? Google is a business; businesses gonna be businesses.

    That all said, I’m ‘with’ you. There’s a disparity about what is said, more importantly assumed by the masses, and what actually is. Is that any different than the American history books I read in school, or the police officer making decisions based on subjectivity, or a woman who wants to date me due to my personality, though really due to having been a top user of inbound (comic relief)?

    G is blurring the lines of business ethics. But, ethics is subjective. I can urge a client not to fuel the flames of the unethical, but would I be smiting them in the process? Depending on the behavior of their market, most of the time to date, that’s likely a ‘yes,’ until the masses are with us too. Always enjoy reading you, man. cheers.

  • christy kunjumon

    Google Ultimate Policy:
    1. Rank Ads higher.
    2. Make more people to click on Ads.
    3. Make more people use Adwords.

    Still people can’t differentiate between organic results & Ads. They just want fastest results and which ever result they see first they click on it & most cases that will be an Ad.

  • christy kunjumon

    Google Ultimate Policy:
    1. Rank Ads higher.
    2. Make more people to click on Ads.
    3. Make more people use Adwords.

    Still people can’t differentiate between organic results & Ads. They just want fastest results and which ever result they see first they click on it & most cases that will be an Ad.

  • http://righteousmarketing.com robertbrady

    This doesn’t surprise me one bit. SERPs change at a rate that is hard to keep up with when you work in the industry. How can we expect consumers to keep up?

    The closing point is spot on, Google makes money on ads and not on organic so it is the duty of the company officers to emphasize paid listings, increasing revenue and the company stock price.

  • http://righteousmarketing.com robertbrady

    This doesn’t surprise me one bit. SERPs change at a rate that is hard to keep up with when you work in the industry. How can we expect consumers to keep up?

    The closing point is spot on, Google makes money on ads and not on organic so it is the duty of the company officers to emphasize paid listings, increasing revenue and the company stock price.

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  • MoniqueSchraegger

    Something isn’t right.

    Google hasn’t been showing me certain ads in the longest time.

    Yes, ads for weight loss show up, yet a search for:

    truthaboutabs

    … Shows nothing. And that’s a VERY profitable search query.

  • MoniqueSchraegger

    Something isn’t right.

    Google hasn’t been showing me certain ads in the longest time.

    Yes, ads for weight loss show up, yet a search for:

    truthaboutabs

    … Shows nothing. And that’s a VERY profitable search query.

  • http://www.skiusainc.com/ SKI USA

    Not surprised by this. We ask many of our clients and employees from the non marketing field and they fail to distinguish between paid and organic results. If you are a search marketer, then you can but most people aren’t.

    Google after all is a business and while transparency may be an issue, it is after all trying to make a profit and you can’t say it is doing in that regard. But from a user experience perspective, yes it is an issue. Its a grey area really!

  • http://www.skiusainc.com/ SKI USA

    Not surprised by this. We ask many of our clients and employees from the non marketing field and they fail to distinguish between paid and organic results. If you are a search marketer, then you can but most people aren’t.

    Google after all is a business and while transparency may be an issue, it is after all trying to make a profit and you can’t say it is doing in that regard. But from a user experience perspective, yes it is an issue. Its a grey area really!

  • tdthirsk

    It’s very easy to be confused if you’ve never had a business involvement with adwords, even indirectly. Let’s face it, anyone who is not in internet marketing, or website owner or similar, there’s a good chance they don’t care

    At my computer I cannot see the adwords background colour until I move my head. Until regulators force this issue, I think others will be able to cash in on the profits that Google is making. Good writeup Barry

  • tdthirsk

    It’s very easy to be confused if you’ve never had a business involvement with adwords, even indirectly. Let’s face it, anyone who is not in internet marketing, or website owner or similar, there’s a good chance they don’t care

    At my computer I cannot see the adwords background colour until I move my head. Until regulators force this issue, I think others will be able to cash in on the profits that Google is making. Good writeup Barry

  • Leading Edge Web Development

    Everything is about marketing , paly with words, colours, the pint is read slowly and carefully.
    Leading Edge Web Development

  • Spook SEO

    Hey Adam. What a very intriguing post! Considering how even kids are using the internet, they’re most likely unaware of the paid ads (just like the experiment that Glenn Gabe did). Its no surprise that Google had 95% of their revenue on advertising.

  • Spook SEO

    Hey Adam. What a very intriguing post! Considering how even kids are using the internet, they’re most likely unaware of the paid ads (just like the experiment that Glenn Gabe did). Its no surprise that Google had 95% of their revenue on advertising.

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  • David kartuzinski

    Ps. Please fix your ui. Its a nightmare to login and nearly impossible to comment from my mobile phone. The galaxy note 2.

  • David kartuzinski

    I think you are ignoring a fundamental point in search. People go to google to find answers. If the get an answer, whether paid or not. What difference does it make to the user? Paying for information has been turned on its head thanks to google. Before the internet people would pay for a book or mag and get the info. Now the publisher has to pay to get someone to read their information. So what?

    Inferring that google has a moral right to differentiate between organic and ads is silly . If people are not happy with the answers from google they will simply go elsewhere. Like a book store or yahoo etc… There should be a debate as the marketplace ultimately will decide based on the quality of the answers.

  • David kartuzinski

    I think you are ignoring a fundamental point in search. People go to google to find answers. If the get an answer, whether paid or not. What difference does it make to the user? Paying for information has been turned on its head thanks to google. Before the internet people would pay for a book or mag and get the info. Now the publisher has to pay to get someone to read their information. So what?

    Inferring that google has a moral right to differentiate between organic and ads is silly . If people are not happy with the answers from google they will simply go elsewhere. Like a book store or yahoo etc… There should be a debate as the marketplace ultimately will decide based on the quality of the answers.

  • David kartuzinski

    Ps. Please fix your ui. Its a nightmare to login and nearly impossible to comment from my mobile phone. The galaxy note 2.

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  • Spook SEO

    Seldom of the users as i may know know that google get its income through advertisement “Adwords” as marketers call it. Im pretty sure that only a few knows that all those products flashed are already Adwords. I guess google needs to educate the users to decipher between adwords and organic.

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  • George

    I used Google search for “met office weather forecast uk” and could not distinguis between the ads and the search results. I could not tell where the ads ended and the search results began, as the ads coloured background is too faint.
    Who is the regulator and what is their email address?

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