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?