Did Google make £3.768bn from users who had no idea they were being advertised to?

Here’s a study of 2,000 people where we try to find the answer to that question & more.

You may remember two studies which found that 40% of people did not understand that Google ads were ads in 2013, and that 36% still don’t understand this in 2014.

These were researcher-led user tests, of around 100 people each, led by Bunnyfoot.

During the tests, at the end of a scenario based around a Google search, users were asked the question “Recall any ads?”.

Google made $10.469bn in revenue from ads on its own sites alone in the first three months of 2014.

This means that – assuming all is equal and that 36% of that cash was the result of people clicking without recognising ads – the vague implication here is that Google generated $3.768bn from users who had no idea they were being advertised to in the first place. Quite a scary thought.

Based on this, Graham Charlton and I decided to run a pair of tests, across a total of just over 2,000 people, to answer these questions:

  1. Are people aware of the existence of ads on Google Search?
  2. Do they believe they click Google ads? And, if so, how frequently?

We ran one test using Google Consumer Surveys, one using Toluna. Both of these are survey panels, gathering answers for us from UK internet users.

Headline stats

We ran two parallel studies, with completely separate audiences, to validate our results.

Both survey pools were UK internet users, the first pool was 1,004 users; the second pool was 1,000 users.

Study A results:

  • 14.14% of people say they’ve never seen an Ad on Google.
  • 22.41% of people say they’ve seen Google Ads but never clicked.
  • 37.85% answered that they click Google ads “Not very often at all”.
  • 17.93% say they click “When I see something interesting”.
  • Just 7.67% say they “often click ads on Google Search”.

Study B results:

  • 5.9% say they’ve never seen an Ad on Google.
  • 29.2% say they’ve seen ads on Google, but never clicked.
  • 32.4% say they click Google ads “Not very often at all”.
  • 23.6% say they click when they see something interesting.
  • Just 8.9% say they “often click ads on Google Search”.

Combined results

Both sets of results follow an identical pattern in terms of the popularity of each answer. The most popular answer in each case was that users click Google Ads “Not very often at all”.

The least popular answer in each case was “I often click ads on Google Search”. Combining the results of our two surveys, here are the overall answers to the question “How often do you click ads on Google Search?” from just over 2,000 UK internet users:

Combined Survey Results

Breakdown by age

Breaking out ‘Study A’ by age, we see the following:

 

18-24

25-34

35-44

45-54

55-64

65+

Anonymous

I’ve never seen an Ad on Google

12.80%

5.73%

11.11%

17.58%

11.43%

10.78%

22.14%

I’ve seen them, but never clicked

24.00%

15.92%

20.83%

21.98%

29.52%

27.45%

21.79%

Not very often at all

36.80%

38.85%

41.67%

27.47%

37.14%

36.27%

40.00%

When I see something interesting

23.20%

31.85%

15.97%

16.48%

17.14%

16.67%

10.00%

I often click ads on Google Search

3.20%

7.64%

10.42%

16.48%

4.76%

8.82%

6.07%

  • The most popular answer to the question “How often do you click ads on Google Search?” among every age group was “Not very often at all”.
  • The least likely group to choose “I often click ads on Google Search” were the 18-24 year olds.
  • 18-24 year olds were also the second highest group to answer “I’ve never seen an Ad on Google”. Albeit only a single data point, that nicely contradicts the “digital natives” meme that implies somehow younger age groups are magically more likely to understand anything & everything technology.
  • 25-34 year olds were most ‘engaged’ in general with Google ads, while 35-54 year olds were most likely to answer “I often click ads on Google Search” (even then, well under 1/6th gave that answer).

Breakdown by age

 

Women

Men

Anonymous

I’ve never seen an Ad on Google

13.87%

9.48%

21.79%

I’ve seen them, but never clicked

22.83%

22.19%

22.18%

Not very often at all

37.86%

36.66%

39.69%

When I see something interesting

17.34%

23.19%

10.51%

I often click ads on Google Search

8.09%

8.48%

5.84%

Summary

Again breaking the popular myth that men & women behave very differently online, we see here that the pattern among men and women is very similar.

In fact, the difference between the ‘Male’ answers is far closer to ‘Female’ than the difference between either gender & the ‘Anonymous’ group.

The differences that do exist between genders are fairly tiny: 68.33% of men acknowledge that they click (ie. answer ‘Not often’, ‘When I see something’, or ‘Often’) vs 63.29% of women. 

Women are less likely to acknowledge they’ve ever seen an ad, at 13.87% vs 9.48% of men. (if you’d like to make that figure sound bigger, you can also phrase it as “women are 31.69% less likely to say ‘I’ve never seen an Ad on Google’ than men”, but really that vastly overplays the difference)

Flaws, caveats, etc.

It’s always worth pointing out the flaws and caveats in studies like this.

Here are a few:

  • The question asked “How often do you click ads on Google Search?”. Four of the answers implied that Google does have ads. It’s always possible some respondents therefore avoided answering “I have never seen a Google ad”, as that feels like the wrong answer.
  • The answers were posed in the same order each time. We’d actually wanted to randomise them, but Google Consumer Surveys insisted we ran them in scale order. (I was pleasantly surprised Google allowed the survey to go live; occasionally they can be quite strict about what they do/do not allow)
  • Here, as with all surveys of this type, we are asking users what they believe their behaviour is, rather than observing their actual behaviour. In this case, I think that’s fine, as really we’re trying to answer the question “do you consciously understand that Google Search uses ads?”
  • The sample sizes overall were ok: two surveys of 1,000 people carried out separately. Once you drill down to individual segments (eg. “18-24 year olds”), the sample size of course drops to the hundreds/tens, and is therefore less conclusive.

Overall summary

Google recently switched its ads to a format where, aside from a yellow ‘Ads’ icon, and slightly darker text, the format of paid search ads is identical to the format of organic results.

Perhaps this was in result to some of the somewhat negative sentiment we’ve picked up on here, or perhaps it was simply the result of straight testing without hypotheses.

Overall, the picture here is brighter than previous studies. 90% of users say they have seen ads on Google. That still leaves a disturbing 1 in 10 who apparently do not understand that those links with the word ‘Ads’ beside them are actually ads.

Further toward the negative side of things, just 8.28% overall say they click Google ads ‘often’, more than a quarter of users who acknowledge seeing Google Ads say they never click them, and a further 35% say they don’t click them very often at all.

Does this mean you should use your ad budget any differently? Is there further analysis we should run on this? What do you think?