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Google search changes blur the lines between ads and regular results

Last week, Google began rolling out a new look for search results on desktops, which added brand icons in front of organic search results and a bolded “Ad” label in front of paid ads.

Google said in a tweet that “the format puts a site’s brand front & center, helping searchers better understand where information is coming from, more easily scan results & decide what to explore.”

But critics are saying the changes have had the opposite effect by making it nearly impossible to tell ads apart from organic search results.

“I would argue there is now no visual distinction between ads and results. There is still, technically, *labelling*, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that it is supposed to be difficult to spot at a glance where the adverts end,” Alex Hearn, an editor for The Guardian, tweeted.

Critics of Google's new search results design are saying it's nearly impossible to tell ads apart from organic search results.

Critics of Google’s new search results design are saying it’s nearly impossible to tell ads apart from organic search results.


Some observers have even wondered whether Google is blurring the lines intentionally in an effort to get more users to click on ads, which is how Google makes the vast majority of its money.

“There’s something strange about the recent design change to google search results, favicons and extra header text: they all look like ads, which is perhaps the point?” Writer Craig Mod said in a tweet.

Brooke Osmundson, associate director of paid search for digital ad agency NordicClick, told Digiday that for four of her clients, desktop users were 4% to 10.5% more likely to click on paid ads in the week after Google made the change than they were in the week prior.

This is not the first time Google has been accused of using manipulative design practices, known as “dark patterns,” to trick users into clicking on ads.

Wall Street Journal reporter Rolph Winkle noted that the Federal Trade Commission sent letters to Google and other search engines saying in 2013 that the distinction between ads and organic search results had become “less noticeable to consumers.” In the letters, the FTC urged the companies to “make any necessary adjustments to ensure you clearly and prominently disclose any advertising.”

Since then, Google’s ads have only become more subtle. Ginny Marvin, editor-in-chief at Search Engine Land, tweeted an infographic that showed how the designs have evolved over time:  

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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