Google’s New Ad Format is Basically a Search Result

The difference between an ad and search result is literally two letters

What: Google redesigned its search results to feature ad-supported results with almost no indication that they’re ads and not organic search results.

How: The results design looks like any search result, but with a bold-faced “Ad” at the top.

Why You Care: You might click on an ad thinking it’s a search result. The new format could be considered confusing by some.

Google Search
Google Search.  Getty Images

“Google is trying to trick us!” exclaimed Bob Schulties, my coworker and Lifewire Tech Editor extraordinaire.

Google’s decision to ratchet up the subtlety of its advertiser-supported search results so that the only visual difference between an organic Google Search result and an ad is the tiny, bold, word “Ad” that kicks off the listing had set Schulties off.

This new ad format keeps ad results as the first result in a Google query. I did find many search results that didn’t have a “Ad” result, though they often still have “sponsored” results at the top of the page, which look different than the new ad results.

Schulties insisted the new ad result format is a way of tricking consumers into clicking on ads. I countered that I doubt Google is actively trying to trick us, but I did concede that Google is purposely sowing the seeds of confusion.

Online Ads Only Work for a Little While

The never-ending quest to get consumers to see and act on advertising is as old as media. In my magazine days, advertisers would clamber to get “front of the book” positions and even deliver ad art that looks bizarrely like one of our articles. We ran them, but not before changing the font, design, putting a box around them and the prominent word “Advertisement” at the top.

Google Ad Results
Note the tiny, bold word "Ad" on the first result.  Google

Eventually, as circulations fell and ad dollars became scarce, magazine ads moved to the cover. Sometimes they were false covers, which were lucrative for the publishers and, I think, effective for advertisers. They were, I would say, as confusing as these Google ads.

In the digital realm, where every online interaction can be measured to within an inch of its binary life, advertisers witnessed the hockey stick of user interaction with virtually every form of online advertising. Every new ad format started off strong. Yes, even banner ads were once effective, but the bottom dropped out of their performance quite early in Internet history.

Pop-up ads soon followed, which were digital sneak attacks that would obscure your online vision and force you to at least close them. People often clicked on them by mistake, which only increased the number of pop-ups. Enduring a pop-up assault could feel like a real life one, like being repeatedly punched in the face by ecommerce.

Enduring a pop-up assault could feel like a real life one, like being repeatedly punched in the face by ecommerce.

Eventually, technology helped up block pop-ups and that advertising avenue all but disappeared. Modern online advertising is, thanks to tracking and cookies (also now under attack), far more sophisticated. The banner ads and inline-offers you see are incredibly on-point. These people know you because your put yourself and activities online. It’s like you draw them a map to your wallet.

The basic economic structure of the web, lots of free services supported by side-loaded advertising businesses hasn’t changed much in the last 25 years. Google started off as a free service supported by ads and, despite all the other businesses it’s in, it’s still pretty much the same. You get search results, mail, storage, productivity apps, and more for free because you’re viewing and sometimes clicking on Google ads.

Making Them Work

Google, though, is not different than any other online business. Ad strategies that worked before slowly but surely lose their effectiveness as consumers grow wise and start ignoring them. Google’s search results ad formats are a history of online consumer education as we ignored ads in the right-hand column and then quickly scrolled past the clearly labeled ads at the top of yesterday's Google search results.

At Google, I imagine they measure ad performance on a second-by-second basis (and deliver those results to their advertiser partners). They probably have a dozen or more ad style ideas, some much more aggressive than this one. But they must try them, at least those that they believe step right up to the line, but do not cross it.

Removing the word “Ad” would be over that line, and I don’t expect Google to do that, but it’s clear Google will put its toes on the edge. In this instance, it will measure results and keep an eye on consumer and media reaction. Right now, it’s not good and Google could roll back the change, but not before gathering critical telemetry that tells them just how well or poorly these new ads performed.

So What?

As I often remind people, and, yes, I told Schulties, Google is a business, not a charity. It will work in its own best interests while ensuring it does not, as it sees it, harm consumers

Maybe next week Google will revert to a more obvious ad style, which will mollify some critics. Then, weeks or months later, it will try something else. It must, but not so much to trick us, but because the business demands it and, yes, our confusion helps support it.