In the two decades since Google introduced text ads above search results, the company has steadily made ads less conspicuous. But its latest look may have pushed things too far.
Users complained that Google was trying to trick people into clicking on more paid results, while marketing executives said it was yet another step in blurring the line between ads and unpaid search results, forcing them to spend more money with the internet company.
The dust-up comes at a bad time for Google, which is facing accusations around the world that it unfairly takes advantage of its search engine dominance. And it is an indication of just how careful the internet giant now must be when it makes subtle — and sometimes unsubtle — tweaks to wring more money out of its giant ad business.
Regulators and politicians are investigating Google’s influence over the digital advertising industry. And some advertisers are openly challenging search ads as a “shakedown” and “ransom” by the tech giant, which controls about 90 per cent of web search.
Ginny Marvin, editor-in-chief of Search Engine Land, a website that covers the search industry, said there is more awareness among users of Google’s behaviour because of recent privacy complaints and government antitrust probes.
“There is much more scrutiny by your regular user who may not have thought anything about this a year or two ago,” Marvin said. “To see them make this change in the face of antitrust regulation” was not going to go unnoticed.
The reaction to the recent search page changes was so negative that Google took the rare step of reversing some of the design changes last week. In a statement, Google said it was “experimenting with a change” to the new logos next to the unpaid links, although it did not alter the new ad logo.
Lara Levin, a Google spokeswoman, said in a statement that the recent design changes mirrored a new look the company introduced for search results on mobile phones in May 2019. The company tested the new look on desktop search, and the results were positive, she said, but it decided to make some changes to respond to “feedback from users.”
Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is expected to report this week that annual revenue topped $US150 billion ($224 billion) in 2019. But Google’s ad business is under growing pressure from rivals like Amazon and Facebook.
Money from Google advertising accounts for about 80 per cent of Alphabet’s total revenue. Search advertising is essential to the future of Google, though the company does not say how much it makes on it alone. Magna, a media intelligence firm, estimates that overall search advertising increased 14 per cent in 2019 to about $US144 billion.
For marketers, who rely on Google to bring them web traffic, the blurred lines between ads and regular results make it hard to decipher whether the customers being redirected to their sites are people who were going to come to them anyway or those who stumbled upon them because of the ad.
“You can’t figure out where the highest value customers are coming from if everyone comes in through that paid ad. Right now it’s just a bidding war, and brands now have to buy against their own name as a defence mechanism,” said Amanda Goetz, vice president of marketing at The Knot Worldwide, a wedding planning group. She called the redesign a “transition to this almost deceptive dark pattern.”
Josh Zeitz, another Google spokesman for the ads team, said the design changes were in line with guidelines from the US Federal Trade Commission. In 2013, the FTC made recommendations for how search engines should label ads but stopped short of specific requirements other than that paid results should be “noticeable and understandable to consumers.”
Google’s recent changes adhered to some of the guidelines but ignored others. Google did not follow what the FTC prescribed for “visual cues” with paid results marked by either “prominent shading that has a clear outline” or a “border that distinctly sets off advertising” from unpaid search results or both. But the new ad icon met the FTC’s recommendation for ad labels to appear before the paid result on the upper left hand side.
Google declined to comment on the record about how it interprets the FTC guidelines, citing a quiet period before earnings.
Google is not alone in trying to squeeze more revenue from prominent internet properties. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Amazon are increasing the numbers of ads that appear on their sites and apps and labelling advertisements in different ways.
The New York Times