Google is constantly testing and tweaking its search results pages and presentation of ads, with the aim of better UX and of course, monetising its pages more effectively. 

The two are not mutually exclusive, as the better the user experience, the more people are likely to use it and therefore attract advertisers and clicks. 

Dr Peter J Meyers, Marketing Scientist at Moz, has been keeping tabs on tests carried out by Google, and he has some very interesting predictions of what the SERPs will look like next year. 

His article on looks at a number of changes, including the knowledge graph and greater use of boxed results, but I'll be focusing on changes to the appearance and placement of PPC ads.  

The method

Dr Meyers launched “Project Algo Alert” last year, which would later become MozCast. The original intention was to measure fluctuations in keyword rankings, but this has evolved into various 'weather' stations. 

One of those systems is Feature Alert, which detects when Google launches new search features. The Moz article explains this better than I could. 

As Dr Meyers explains:

A side effect of the system is that, at large scale, it frequently catches Google in the act of testing new features and UI changes. Keep in mind that Google ran 7,018 “live traffic experiments” in 2012 – while we probably capture only a small number of them, these tests allow us to get a glimpse into what’s coming next.

While any given change may be rejected (Google launched just over 9% of the changes they tested last year), some changes appear repeatedly in testing and in different formats over time, strongly suggesting that Google is intent on launch.

Another area to look at is mobile. Google is anxious to repeat its desktop ad success on mobile, so it's the focus for many UI experiments. 

For example, the yellow text denoting paid ads was recently introduced on mobile, but Google looks to be bringing this to desktop search (see below). 


How will Google change its ad formats? 

Dr Meyers has provided us with a number of screenshots showing future ad formats. 

Yellow ad labels

Here, the ads are marked more prominently with the yellow 'ad' text, something Dr Meyers believes is due to the EU settlement, rather than by choice. 

However, while the ads are more clearly labelled, aside from that the ads look more like organic results, as if Google is trying to offset the effect of the label. 

As on mobile, Google is also testing ads at the foot of the search results page:

Ads in slide deck

This is an interesting test, and could be a very big change. With Google's Knowledge graph, we're accustomed to seeing useful information related to searches here, such as this one for Newcastle Utd. 

It seems that Google is now testing large paid placements in this area: 

Google paid placement

This is potentially a very big change, as these ads don't really look like ads. In fact, Dr Meyers calls them 'ads in sheep's clothing'. 

The product specifications make it look more informational than advertorial, and it could be that Google has been 'training' us to look for info on the right hand side to make it more likely that we'll click there. 

Insurance ads

Here's another one, for insurance. While the ads have the familiar shading, the presentation is more informational than ad-like. This seems to have been tested and then rolled back:

Is Google attempting to make ads seem less like ads? 

I have suspected that Google has tweaked the background of its paid ads now and then, seemingly to make the ad shading less visible, and therefore more like an organic result. 

It has also been experimenting with banner ads for some brand searches, something which contradicted previous statements from Google. 

Also, the ads for its insurance comparison have done away with the shading, making them a kind of hybrid paid/organic result. 

Dr Meyers also predicts that Google may start to place ads within organic results, rather than sticking to the top and bottom of pages, as it aims to improve their effectiveness. 

I asked him if Google is seeking to make ads less 'ad-like': 

Conspiracies aside, the economic reality is that Google is a roughly $60bn company with over 80% of its revenue wrapped up in advertising, and the vast majority of that is click-based.

With consumer behavior on mobile evolving rapidly, there is tremendous pressure on Google to drive more ad clicks. At the same time, it's under increasing scrutiny from US and EU regulators, so is fighting a difficult war right now. If Google has to give into the EU and label ads, then it's going to be working hard to offset that with new tactics.

What do you think? Are these changes likely to happen? How will they affect paid search marketing

Graham Charlton

Published 14 November, 2013 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is editor in chief at SaleCycle, and former editor at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin.

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Comments (7)

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jason hachkowski

This is a great article. Thank you...too bad MozCast cant fire off alerts indicating what the changes are in relation too.

As someone who is heavily engaged in online advertising, I love the idea of having my ads in place of the cards in Googles' knowledge graph.

It looks as though they plan on reinventing paid search and the much-coveted "top" position could end up being #2 for e-commerce queries.

almost 5 years ago

Peter Leatherland

Peter Leatherland, Online Sales Manager at Ethical Superstore

I think Google will be reaching a tipping point with ads, they are becoming too much. The attraction to Google when it took off were spam free results on a clear page with no flashing gif banners or other distractions (weather reports, latest news, clock etc like many other sites tried with the homepage/portal approach). Advertisers/retailers may think this is good, more chance to push products through Google ads but I think they will quickly see how the organic results are being pushed out meaning they are effectively paying for traffic they used to get for free. This not long after Google has given SEO a bit of a kick in the teeth with ‘not provided’ keywords it seems as though Google really really wants you to spend more on PPC.

It may take a bit of time for the average punter who uses Google (unlike us they don’t find extra ad extensions interesting) to notice that the ads are taking over but when they do they may start looking elsewhere.

Earlier in the year people really started to take notice of privacy with the NSA/GCHQ snooping and realised Google know practically everything about you and don’t appear to value privacy. I can see privacy and advertising beginning to push people away from Google, perhaps to a new start up coming into the market, one that just provides simple clean results free of spam and advertising… Rather like Google used to be.

almost 5 years ago

Darren Smith

Darren Smith, Business Development Manager at Fresh Egg Ltd

Nice article. I find the back and forth between EU & Google on making the fact that they're ads more prominent interesting, when there's been plenty of research that shows most people don't realise they're ads anyway (I think sometimes we're blinded to that when working in digital and it seems painfully obvious to us). It's an interesting debate to be had - how "obvious" should the ads be, and how much will this affect users' likelihood of clicking on them?.

This stuff's especially relevant for SEO also - for many searches, with an image carousel at the top, PPC ads with site-links & extensions, Google shopping feed, etc,. the first organic result is almost, if not actually, below the fold. Combined with Hummingbird's focus on intent based SERPs rather than keyword specific, personalised results based on location, device, user, and increase of "not provided" in GA means the old mantra of "I need to rank in the top 3 for these keywords" is no longer relevant.

almost 5 years ago

Peter Leatherland

Peter Leatherland, Online Sales Manager at Ethical Superstore

@@Darren – I agree you’d be surprised how many people don’t realise which are ads, I think Google is running a dangerous game in the long term if they don’t make it clear (perhaps why they would put the yellow Ad tag on them) as if people use Google for some time, and use the fancy new images, price comparisons etc then come to the realization that it’s all just advertising it leave a bitter taste.Darren

almost 5 years ago

Stuart McMillan

Stuart McMillan, Deputy Head of Ecommerce at Schuh

One thing I think we might see is the inclusion of the certified stores logos, and I also wonder if we might also see some surfacing of the consumer surveys functionality.

I think Google will try to do more to increase trust in their results, give consumers some real value-ads with the results to give them reasons to click on ads instead of natural, but also to try and maintain Google's position as the search engine of choice.

over 4 years ago

Heledd Jones

Heledd Jones, Marketing Manager at Admiral Loans

Very interesting article and comments - I was well aware of most of teh examples and discussion points, but hadn't thought about the final thought that we might start seeing PPC ads within organic results...

Bring on 2014!

over 4 years ago

Brian Roizen

Brian Roizen, Founder at Feedonomics

Amazing how prescient this article was - over the last few years, Google has definitely been trying to make ads look less like ads.
In large part they have succeeded both on Text Ads and Google Shopping Ads.

Will be interesting to see where they take it going forward, because organic is getting less and less real estate with every subsequent new release of Google Search results.

17 days ago

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