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Is it a bad thing that 57% of people still don’t recognise Google ads in search results?

Our original research series on how many people recognise Google Ads has not changed much over the years – our latest survey shows that incredibly over 57% of us still don’t recognise Google AdWords ads.

Graph comparing results over time for all the surveys

Graph showing the data from our last five independent surveys of 1,000 UK based respondents asking 'Do you know which links on Google search results pages are paid adverts?'

But is this really a bad thing? As someone who uses search engines a lot (and also works in organic search optimisation!) my first reaction is YES. I feel like this paid advertising is a manipulation of the results page, so I may not be getting the best and most natural results for my search. Therefore people not recognising what they are must be intrinsically bad.

But Google argues against this view:

“The AdWords system works best for everyone – advertisers, customers, publishers, and Google – when the ads we show are relevant, closely matching what customers are looking for.”

Is this true – are paid ads in fact benefitting ‘search’ as a whole? So that it doesn’t really matter that over half of us aren’t even aware they are there. Let’s take a look at each section of the industry and consider.

Advertisers? Yes they obviously benefit

Search engine advertising is perhaps the most efficient, transparent and profitable way to reach a relevant large-scale audience. With over 3.5 billion searches a day on Google alone, search is a massive market place that can be easily segmented and targeted so advertisers can choose who they want their ad to be shown to, and for which search query.

Pay per click charging means that advertisers only pay when someone actually visits their website, not just when they view their advert. So there is much less investment wastage then for other types of advertising.

It also gives companies the chance to even the playing field a bit. Large established brands can often afford to dominate the top organic listings for competitive terms. Paid ads give everyone the ability to get an immediate top listing, for a given period of time, regardless of how established the product or service is and how much time and money there has been invested in organic search.

Customers? More difficult, but yes on balance they do benefit – as long as the ads are relevant to the search query, and they are clearly marked.

Do Google ensure that the ads are relevant?

AdWords personThe AdWords platform is built to make sure the ads are relevant. Google has to bear in mind that its primary customer is the searcher, and that it would be counter-productive to show irrelevant ads – paid or organic. They use Ad Rank to promote quality within advertising:

“Better ads mean better Ad Rank”

Google measure ‘better ads’ by relevance to the search query they target, the expected CTR and the quality of the landing page. So an advertiser can’t simply pay to get an ad ranked at the top of the page – they have to earn it by producing relevant and high quality adverts for a query. In fact Google may decide not to show a low quality ad at all. Higher quality ads also lead to lower costs per click for the advertiser.

Also, paid ads are often clearer and more useful to the searcher than the comparative organic listing. Take a look at this set of results for the search ‘hotel in bath’ from www.booking.com:

Paid ad position 1:

Organic listing position 2:

Both the paid and organic listings take you to the same landing page, but the paid ad includes more information about the site that someone looking to book a hotel would find useful. On the other hand the organic listing description that google has chosen to show is a waste of space.

Ad managers have more control over what will be shown in an ad for a particular query. They are written by humans who can be trained to produce ad content that is highly targeted, well-written and more useful for the searcher than organic listings that are automatically ranked and produced by computer algorithms.

Do Google ensure the ads are clearly marked?
It’s been suggested that Google has made paid ads less obvious in recent years – to benefit advertisers, click here to read our past research on this. In the snapshot below the ad with shading from 2013 certainly appears to stand out more:

Google Ads examples

But in reality it is extremely unlikely to progress to the point where ads are not marked, or are indistinguishable from organic results. Most countries have strict advertising and impartiality laws in place that protect consumers from all types of advertising that might mislead – online or offline – including leaving out important information.

For example, Google recently decided to pull all paid search ads in the UK from 3rd party brokers, working on undeclared commission from rehab clinics, profiting from ‘addictive treatment’ searches. Though not against UK law – unlike the US – Google accepted that the practise is unethical and should not be aided by search engine advertising. Read more in the Sunday Times article.

Google? Yes they obviously benefit

Google AdWords peopleSearch ads are the most important revenue stream for Google – making up about 70%. We should consider what it would mean for us if search engines had to look elsewhere. If they didn’t make money from people who wanted to sell to us – their users – they may have to charge us directly for their services.  Would you want to pay for each search you make?

Or they may charge organic listings for a click, which would completely turn search on its head. With listings no longer being ‘free’ only commercial companies would be able to participate widely.

Or remarketing ads might become more commonplace, which could adversely affect your total online experience.

None of these options seems more attractive than ads placed in search results. Search engines are mostly commercial businesses providing us with an essential service – having some advertising that is relevant, and even helpful, is perhaps not such a bad thing.

If you want to talk to a Varn team member about how to achieve high ad quality and lower your CPC please give us a ring on 01225 439960.