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Google makes the vast majority of its money from selling advertising, which is typically paid for on a per-click basis. As such it wants people to click on the ads it serves up on its search pages.

Advertisers also want people to click. They are in the business of generating a response to their messages. But the response needs to be meaningful if ad buyers are to make a return on investment. And the problem for advertisers is that sometimes people click on ads in error.

Sometimes people don't know that 'search results' are in fact ads. For example, let's look at the central 'top ad' unit that appears at the top of the search results...

Recent changes to the AdWords top ad ("longer headlines", "distinct sentences") have made this powerful ad unit appear to look like an organic result.

The top ad can be even more camouflaged if you're using the 'wrong' type of hardware. Take a look at my monitor set-up: one is large Mac screen and one is an older monitor, which I have used as a second screen for the past four or five years...

Monitor set up

Excuse the crappy camera, but here's what Google's top ad unit looks like on my monitors.

Firstly, here's my iMac monitor, with its shiny screen and crisp definition. You can see a pastelly shaded background, which needs to be there to distinguish the paid-for ad from the organic search results. Yes, it's lighter than it once was, and a different colour too, but it is certainly visible and helps the user identify the AdWords ad unit...

Adwords with some background visible

And now, here's what AdWords looks like on my older Samsung SyncMaster monitor (which has "razor-sharpness", if you believe the spiel). Spot the difference...  

See thru Adwords

Not so visible! It looks fairly 'organic' doesn't it?

The lack of a visible shaded background on my Samsung screen sometimes leads me to click in error, especially when I'm working fast and loose. I have been using Google for 13 years, am an internet professional and a heavy user of search, so if I'm doing this then I reckon it is a much wider issue. I wonder how many other people mistake these top ads for organic search results?

This kind of monitor issue gives a new meaning to the phrase: 'ad blindness'. It's not that the shaded background isn't there, it's just that on older monitors the colour isn't remotely visible. The issue is exacerbated by the new, organic-looking top ad layout.

Furthermore, ads don't always show up at the top of the search results, which probably doesn't help (as I'm not conditioned to knowing that the top result is an ad unit).

Should Google be doing more to making these top ads visible to all users, no matter what kind of monitors / devices they're using? Can you see the shaded background on your monitor?

Chris Lake

Published 19 April, 2011 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

582 more posts from this author

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Dave Stott

Good post and certainly something that has caught me out a couple of times. I use two screens and I can see the shaded area on one but not the other (both the same monitor interestingly so maybe something to do with graphics setup)

I do think that Google should be doing something more with the ads to make them more obvious, especially considering they've been made to look a lot like the organic results these days

over 5 years ago

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David Lockie

And that's even if you mean to click it. I must click a good few hundred times a day on websites that feature Google Ads (especially GMail). I'm pretty accurate with my clicking generally, but even so I still 'miss' a few times. Those 'missed' clicks, multiplied up by the number of users who do the same must pay for a whole bunch of Googley fun...

over 5 years ago

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Kate

Thanks for "highlighting" this problem! It's so important for small businesses with limited adword budgets to minimise what they are paying for spurious clicks, and this isn't helping.

over 5 years ago

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Ben Somerset-How

I wonder how many 'false clicks' are generated from touch screen devices. Often when using my tablet, I scroll down the SERP and accidentally click on a sponsored link (usually on the right hand column, not the top unit), but if I am doing this (again, as an internet professional), I wonder how many others are, and therefore how the stats are being skewed. Has ad spend increased proportionally with the proliferation of tablets, or has ad spend been rising above the curve due to 'false clicks'?

over 5 years ago

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Paul Gailey

Excuse my paranoia but I'd say it's even more insidious. The last such procolharumisation of adwords was done on Dec 23rd when we're all busy with other matters, but before the year end to boost flagging CTRs. The words "Sponsored links" was replaced with the just 'ads' and the background mutated to the almost imperctible to white of #FBF0FA

Deftly played by Google for sure, can we just forever bury the 'don't be evil' now?

over 5 years ago

Peter Gould

Peter Gould, Senior PPC Analyst at Epiphany

I may obviously be biased, but I don't really see what the issue is for advertisers or users?

If a PPC campaign is well organised and structured (and those in the top positions as shown in the screenshots more often than not tend to be due to factors such as Google's Quality score), then if a user clicks on an advert by mistake, they should still be sent to a landing page which is highly relevant to their interests, just as they would with a natural result. They wouldn't really lose out.

In terms of advertisers, this can only be a good thing. It means higher click through rates, which lead to higher quality scores, lowers CPCs and as such, you gain greater click numbers for your budget. If you're bidding on relevant terms related to your business or services, that lead to relevant pages, then you should see returns. If however you start to see a number of clicks with low or zero conversions, after testing multiple factors such as different landing pages and adverts then as a natural optimisation practice, you should be removing these from the campaign anyway.

Ultimately yes, Google may well make money from this, but if people are still gaining a good user experience when searching on Google (in terms of seeing relevant results related to their searches), I don't really see the problem?

over 5 years ago

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Eugene

I agree with Peter Gould :)

over 5 years ago

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Kim

I totally agree with this article, the other i found myself literally leaning back in my seat and fidgeting with my monitors lighting to ensure whether the above search results on Google which I was about to click on were organic or PPC. There might be many other people battling with the same problem, but then again Google users know the colour of the ad section and if any changes are made to the colours visitors might be baffled when there search results are shown to them. Google should be displayed the same on all monitors regardless the age of the monitor... this might save time and money at the end of the day.

over 5 years ago

Ashley Burgess

Ashley Burgess, Head of Web Analytics at Periscopix

Well said Peter.

over 5 years ago

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Dave Jenkins

My monitor isn't that great to be honest. Unless you look at the monitor at exactly the right angle, then it's very difficult to differentiate between Google ads and organic.

over 5 years ago

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Andrew Nicholson

The issue, Peter, is that by disguising paid ads as organic results, Google are manipulating SERPS to provide a financially driven result, rather than a relevancy driven one.

Google are pulling the wool over the eyes of users searching for key terms who have faith in Google's algorithms, whilst simultaneously exploiting advertisers who are being duped into paying for advertising they might not need (i.e. where they appear in first place organically anyway) or want.

over 5 years ago

Peter Gould

Peter Gould, Senior PPC Analyst at Epiphany

@Andrew - I really don't see how the SERPs or even users are being manipulated.

If anything, paid ads are even more relevant to users than organic results half the time. Keep in mind, that PPC advertisers have specifically chosen the keywords that they want to bid on in their campaigns, so when a user runs a search and one of their adverts show, it's because the advertiser wants the user to see them. With that being the case, paid advertisers should only be bidding on terms relevant to their business or service and linking them through to relevant pages related to those on their website. If a user searches for televisions, clicks on the top paid result mentioning televisions (whether they realise it was paid or not), and is presented with a website selling televisions, surely that's the ideal outcome? Keep in mind that Google's algorithm could well allow a site such as Wikipedia to feature in high organic results for 'televisions' - is their page more relevant to a user looking to buy a television than the paid idea example I just mentioned?

So I really don't understand your point of advertisers being duped into paying for advertising they might not need. If they don't want clicks for those keyword searches, why be bidding on them in the first place? If an advertiser already has keywords featuring in first place organically, then they can simply choose to not bid on it for a paid ad too if they see fit - they have full control over these aspects, not Google.

over 5 years ago

Ashley Burgess

Ashley Burgess, Head of Web Analytics at Periscopix

I think the argument is flawed by the assumption that organic results are automatically more relevant than paid listings. Which isn't the case.

Of course they can be more relevant, but as well all know, there isn't much 'organic' about the organic listings in commercial markets.

As for exploiting advertisers, if the cost of the clicks on position 1 listings is higher than the reward generated, advertisers will stop that advertising. The entire basis of the AdWords/AdSense model (which still provides over 95% of Google's revenue) is that long-term efficiency must be preserved in order that advertisers can continue to spend and Google have an ongoing revenue stream.

Like Peter I carry a bias of course but who here can honestly say that they don't!?

over 5 years ago

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LKenneth

This happens to me alot. my monitor is rubbish and I cant see the differance between ads and organic search results.

over 5 years ago

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Nick Armstead, SEO + PPC Consultant at Orantec

I think you really need to take into account just how much you use the internet and the type of user you are. I know for one my mum in her 50's doesnt know a google ad from an organic listing, coloured or not. I've seen her click on site advertising thinking it was a link in a site despite the obvious "ads by google" sign.
As Paul mentioned it should be relevant to this sort of user anyway.

over 5 years ago

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Chris Rowett

My girlfriend refuses to click on paid ads, much to my annoyance being a paid search specialist. She cannot provide me with a reasonable explanation for this, so I have to assume she just feels like they are evil in some way.

I would argue (and have) that the reason Google is so useful for finding information (such as cupcake recipes and endless weekend breaks) is that Google invest a lot of time and money into providing relevant (and virus free, fast loading and socially trusted) results.

So how come Google can afford to spend all this time and invest so much money into providing delicious lemon drizzle cupcake recipes for my girlfriend to burn?

Paid adverts.

over 5 years ago

Ashley Burgess

Ashley Burgess, Head of Web Analytics at Periscopix

Chris - Lets hope your girlfriend is not a regular Econsultancy reader!

We've heard this story from people when we're at exhibitions time and time again. 'I don't click on ads because they aren't relevant.......' They are often a bit red-faced when you point out that the banner links (which they click on frequently) at the top are also ads and therefore 'manipulated by evil advertisers'.

over 5 years ago

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James Luty

I must say that I strongly agree with Mr Gould on this.

Google’s primary focus is to deliver the most relevant SERP to all customers regardless of the search term. OK they do make a lot of money from paid advertising, but there is another reason why these ads are changing (or looking more organic as some of you have said), which is because they are highly relevant and deliver some of the best click through rates.
As Peter said earlier, one of the key components to a successful PPC campaign is down to good structure and optimisation at all levels to ensure the best (most relevant) ads are only being shown for each search term. This gives advertisers so much control over their campaigns, especially when you compare it to some natural listing SERPS, but lets not get into the whole PPC Vs SEO debate! Ultimately, it means that the results you are being shown will be quality, relevant and targeted to your search query on Google. So why would it bother any user if they click on a natural or paid ad?

David, don’t worry about clicking on 100’s of ads each day! As much as this will keep you very busy, Google Adwords is examined to analyse duplicate, fraudulent and any other potentially invalid click patterns to filter these results before they reach an advertisers campaign reports. In most cases this would include clicking on a paid ad and then immediately clicking “back” to return to the search page, so don’t worry too much about clicking on an ad by mistake.

I would challenge anyone to purely use paid adverts on Google whenever they make a search query for a couple of days, and then revisit this debate. I would be very surprised if anyone has a bad experience, but let us know if you do! :-)

over 5 years ago

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Chris Rowett's girlfriend

As someone who works for a firm which tailors content to include keywords and boost companies' organic search results, I think it's completely understandable why I would favour choosing organic search results over paid-for links.

I don't see why I should have to click on a PPC link just because someone paid to get their keywords on Google, rather than opt for one of the companies which manage to fill their website with the keywords relevant to my searches in the first place!

over 5 years ago

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Steven Holmes

As an SEO specialist I guess I should be in the 'this is rubbish' camp but i'm not.

Google is a business like any other in that their sole focus is to make money. I would love them to work in my favour but seeing as they don't make any money directly from organic listings, why should they?

Every digital marketing professional, regardless of their specialism, knows what Google is about so why moan when they try to increase their revenue through paid search. We shouldn't expect anything else.

I don't think they are misleading anyone or pulling the wool over anyone's eyes. The majority of searchers do not have the in-depth knowledge of search engines that we possess and probably don't care whether an ad is paid or not, as long as they are directed to a relevant page.

Granted it is annoying but there's always Bing.

over 5 years ago

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