We ran an independent survey way back in February 2016, which revealed that 50% of the 1,010 respondents could not distinguish which results were adverts and which were naturally selected best-match organic results when using Google. These surprising stats meant the story was widely shared in SEO press.
Since that survey was carried out, Google have made changes to the way that adverts are presented in search results. We decided to run the survey again to find out what impact these changes have had on users’ awareness of the presence of adverts in Google search results.
Our latest survey in January 2017 asked the same question, but we found that the results were different compared to the test we ran at the same time in 2016. We asked a range of 1,003 men and women from across the UK the question: Do you know which links on a Google search results page are paid adverts?
The results revealed that well over half of web users are unable to tell which results are adverts, as 57.6 % people answered ‘no’. This is a 7% increase from the previous survey which suggests that recent changes to the Google Ads format have left people even more confused than before, as it has become less clear when looking at search results pages which links have been paid for by businesses to be there.
The numbers were higher still for particular age groups; of those aged between 55 and 64 almost 62% answered ‘no’, and interestingly the 18-24 age group were also less likely to recognise Ads, as 59% of them said ‘no’. The respondents aged 25-34 were the savviest at spotting paid results compared to other age groups, but still the majority of them (53.7%) admitted they couldn’t.
Changes to Google AdWords in 2016
2016 saw a number of significant changes to the format and appearance of Ads on the Google search engine results pages (SERPs). Previously adverts were easily distinguished from the organic results, as they were clearly segregated with a division marked between Ads at the top of the page and the organic results below. Ads also appeared at the side of the SERPs in a list format.
In February 2016 it was all change as the sidebar Ads were removed from all search results pages, leaving the search results as one combined list. For the search queries that Google deemed ‘highly commercial’, a fourth advert space was added to results, which means that users now have to scroll down further before they reach the organic results.
The evolution of the Google Ad format over time has made adverts a lot more integrated into the main body of results at the top of the page. The only indicator that the link is an advert now is a small coloured square icon next to the link, labelled Ad. In June 2016 the colour of the Ad icon was changed from an eye-catching yellow to the same shade of green as the link text, making it much less noticeable.
Another dramatic change to Google AdWords was the expanded text ads introduced in 2016. AdWords users can now fit almost twice as much copy in each ad, with two 30-character headlines and an 80-character description to fill. Not only do advertisers now have the chance to be more creative thanks to the increased character limit, the Ads are also more prominent and invite more attention (and therefore clicks) by physically taking up more space on the results page.
Business Opportunities With Google AdWords
The combination of the additional fourth Ad for some queries, and the extended text ads means that Ads now take up more real estate on SERPs. In some cases organic results are pushed almost completely below the fold and so will likely receive less clicks than they did previously.
We must realise that the Google search engine is considered the biggest and best search engine in the world, so the idea that adverts are becoming ever more integrated into organic results means that those signing up to Google Ads will have more value for the money – as people will not so easily be put off by the prospect they are clicking on adverts, simply because the majority of them have not noticed they are adverts.