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How Google is benefitting from search confusion

By Will Stevens - July 30, 2013

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. It 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.