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Building a multi-million dollar advertising empire without the world knowing about it takes some doing, but it appears Google has managed it.

In 2012, the search giant generated $43 billion in advertising revenue – 95% of its overall income for the year.

But in a survey carried out by 123-reg, half of respondents said they hadn’t spotted ads in Google’s search results, with the figure rising to 66% for 18-24 year olds – a group commonly thought of as being more web-savvy than their older counterparts.

This is somewhat surprising, given the ubiquity of ads in Google’s search results – more than four-fifths of queries return at least one advert.

Since ads can account for up to 65% of search clicks, it’s fair to assume Google is actually benefitting from people’s ignorance.

In fact, the Federal Trade Commission has expressed concern about the way search ads are presented stating that “failing to clearly and prominently distinguish advertising from natural search results could be a deceptive practice”.

Stern words, and over at Moz, Dr Pete Meyers has conducted research which showed just how far down the page Google’s adverts, stock tickers, news results and other search features can push the first organic results.

With all this in mind, we took our stats, added a few more and created this video which shows just how confused people are about how Google displays search results.

How worried should we be?

Is this a topic that’s really a concern outside of the world of search engine optimisation?

After all, if a person doesn’t know the difference between organic results and paid results does it really matter where they click?

Ultimately, the answer has to be yes – Google built its search advertising empire on the quality of its organic results and by pushing them to one side does this something of a disservice.┬áIt does however mean that the focus on quality organic results means sites that top the organic rankings are more likely than ever to be relevant, high-quality sites that offer people what they’re looking for.

There are quality controls in place for paid search, but willingness to stump up cash is a major factor when it comes to who tops the results.

That means users who think they are clicking the most relevant result for their query can end up clicking the result of the highest bidder – hardly ideal from a user’s point of view.

Proof of this is provided ForeSee’s 2013 customer satisfaction survey which gives Google its worst score in a decade – 77 out of a possible 100, down from 82 in 2012.

The company explained the drop by saying “advertising is diminishing the customer experience, especially among search engines” and to be fair it is still one of the strongest brands on the planet.

Paid search has a huge part to play in the world of online marketing – after all, not everyone can rank first for a term. However, organic results built the internet we enjoy today and it’s important that users are more aware of exactly what Google and other internet search engines are doing.

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4 Responses

  • BobC

    I’ve long noticed this to be an issue, with the shading and presentational distinctions between organic and paid resulting getting increasingly more subtle – depending on what angle your screen is placed at relative to viewing, the colour differences can be even smaller.

    The other issue that I think has a real effect is the move from 4:3 to widescreen monitors, which means the “fold” is proportionally much higher up the screen than on the old-style format.

    I think this has real implications, as I’m not surprised at all that the majority of users cannot distinguish – search behaviours in general are often rather less logical than you might expect, and there’s the potential for multiple visits to the same website to all come through paid clicks for returning visitors (though I’m aware that Google has algorithms in place that will not charge for an unsually high number of click throughs from the same location).

    August 29, 2013 at 12:18 pm
  • Neale

    I constantly meet Clients who do know that the Ads atop of the organic results are adverts but do not grasp that the ones down the right hand side are Ads, so I do agree with these results.

    When Google serves up a PPC (pay per click) advert in response to a search term, they cleverly put the actual words searched for in bold which is quite a powerful motivator as it reflects the searchers need exactly.

    Yes I am a client of Google so contribute to that $43 billion of revenue.

    August 29, 2013 at 3:56 pm