Can Users Really Tell AdWords Ads from Organic Results?

Can Users Really Tell AdWords Ads from Organic Results?

7th August 2013

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:


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]


Written By
Barry Adams is the chief editor of State of Digital and is an award-winning SEO consultant delivering specialised SEO services to clients worldwide.
Digital Marketing in a VUCA World [REPORT]
Latest Post from Barry
Advertising Digital Marketing in a VUCA World [REPORT]
29th October 2020
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.