I took last week off to volunteer for a friend’s charity drive, which generally meant trying to be funny on a live webcast at 4 in the morning. So needless to say, getting back into the swing of things at work was a process. Yesterday, as I was catching up on what I’d missed during my vacation and doing a little bit of research, I noticed something very interesting: the Google paid advertisements in Chrome’s SERPs had bright yellow labels on them which blared the word “Ad.” This is a test being run by Google on their AdWords search results. As Jennifer Slegg reports on Search Engine Watch, the labels are one option being considered to clarify the difference between paid and organic results, in wake of an FTC guideline update which requires search engines to clearly mark what is an advertisement and what is not.
If you think you’ve never clicked on a Google ad, you may be fooling yourself; research in 2012 and 2011 showed that nearly half of web users couldn’t tell the difference between a PPC ad and an organic search result, and the PPC results for high commercial intent phrases can take up as much as 85% of the above-the-fold pixels on a SERP. Google Ads account for 74% of clicks for high commercial intent searches, and a search of any of the major SEO news sites will reveal dozens of articles talking about PPC’s increasingly prominent role in our work. Google’s ads are typically either in a right-side column or in a light yellow banner at the top of a SERP. A few test searches showed me a listing with three paid ads at the top; on one of my monitors, I could barely tell where the pale yellow/tan background ended and the regular results began. It makes sense how some people could inadvertently click PPC listings without realizing it.
The FTC is absolutely correct in its concerns; when customers can’t tell the difference between an advertisement and an organic result, it blurs the lines of consumer psychology and leans dangerously into the field of manipulation and obstruction; people don’t like being lied to, and it’s vital to keep the distinctions clear. The new alert labels replace the light yellow backdrop, which is interesting; while they are brighter and thus draw the eye, the listings now resemble the organic results in every other way.
The concern for PPC advertisers is: will the labels increase or decrease click-through-rates? It’s an interesting question, and one that will only be answered when Google rolls out the test in full and releases its decision as to whether it’ll stick. Some are sure that the eye-catching color of the tag will increase CTR, while others are worried that seeing the word “ad” beside their advertisement will result in customers fleeing from paid results in order to avoid playing into the marketing game. We’ve been hardwired since the early days of the internet to avoid banner ads at all costs, and an increasingly tech-savvy user base responds to advertising far differently than they did twenty or even ten years ago.
So what will become of Google’s AdWords? I’m not sure yet. I repeated my test search for washing machines in the Chrome browser that shows the new ad labels (so far it seems to be the only place where Google is testing it out), and I personally am pleased at the new look. I won’t be clicking on the advertisements, but I know they’re there and I feel that clearly marking each listing makes it far more clear to the user where the advertising stops and the organic results begin. But then, I’m wise to the ways of SEOs and online marketers, so I’m probably not the best person to report on this phenomenon; time will tell if this will mark a change to Google’s AdWords for good, and if so, how it will affect PPC rates.