Pay Per Click Advertising: Fool the Eye, Fill the Wallet

Some of you Internet voyagers may have noticed recently that the large yellow “sponsored links” sections at the top of Google and other search engines’ pages do not seem to be there anymore. These sections (where businesses can pay to be placed at the top of an engine’s search rankings) have been a common eyesore on search pages for years, but all of that is changing.

Search engines have made it  more and more difficult lately  to tell where their paid sections begin and end, and consequently, there has been a slight uptick in the amount of traffic these paid ads are generating in recent months.

Google and other search engines have been experimenting with the best color schemes to use behind their pay per click (PPC) advertising sections for years, and it turns out the best scheme is to not have any background at all.

There has been a backlash against PPC search results in recent times, and most Internet users tend to bypass these sections altogether (when they can spot them). Research has shown that most searchers will click on one of the first three organic listings (the links that appear just below the advertisement section) when conducting a search query.

Search engines have combated this by making their paid-ad backgrounds more and more invisible, even though the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) has penalized this practice numerous times over the years.

This past June, the FTC issued another warning expressing the need to further differentiate organic listings from paid advertisements on search sites. This warning was in response to a recent survey on “Consumer Ad Awareness in Search Results” that discovered a majority of modern users have a difficult time deciphering between organic and paid search results.

The FTC’s warning requires search engines to use text that clearly denotes when a paid advertisement section begins and ends, as well as utilizing adequate shading and borders to help separate the results from organic listings. And if we take a look at Google’s search results through the years, it becomes clear why the FTC felt it necessary to issue such a warning.

First, let’s take a look at a Google results page from 2007:

google color

On this search engine results page (SERP), the paid advertisements are clearly set off from the rest of the page with yellow shading and a clearly visible “Sponsored Links” text. Visitors to this page could easily tell what was organic and what was paid for.

Now, let’s look at a similar results page from August 2013:

google color 2

It is very clear what Google is trying to attempt here.

Though they are still using a yellowish shading (they have also experimented with blue and purple hues over  the years), it is much less pronounced, and the bigger the screen you look at it on, the more invisible it becomes.

Google also swapped out the “Sponsored Links” for the smaller, less-noticeable “Ads,” and they moved the text to the left side to further camouflage it.

Google isn’t even the guiltiest party when it comes to this paid ad deception.

Here are some recent screenshots from Bing and Yahoo; see if you can spot the paid advertisement sections:

g yahoo

g bing

On these SERPs, the paid advertisement sections are almost completely indecipherable from the organic results. In today’s world of “Banner Blindness,” and “Ad Immunity” it is clear that search engines have discovered that making their ad sections indistinguishable from organic results is in their company’s and their clients’ best interest.

The grand majority of people that conduct Internet searches will gravitate to the first two organic search listings, and most people will discount the paid advertisements all together (I know I tend to).

Google is trying to battle this with their new Knowledge Carousel feature which pushes all organic listings below the fold (the search results screen you can see without scrolling down the page), and leaves only Google-controlled searches in plain view (sites with a Google+ page are top listings), but this feature has not been around long enough to know what kind of effect it will have in the search world.

Google and the other search engines will continue to push the limits of background opacity as far as they can for their clients, but it is obvious that the FTC is not happy with this practice, and if it is not remedied soon, action will be taken.

If the FTC is successful in fixing this issue,  businesses engaging in advertising campaigns could see a slight loss in traffic, but I do not think it will be significant enough to drop their campaigns altogether. These background shifts have taken place before without much damage to search engines or their clients, and I expect it to be the same this time around.

However, companies that are currently taking part in advertising campaigns should get the most out of them that they can right now because it essentially looks like paid results are the top organic listings and customers will continue to click them as such. I have found myself visiting these paid-advertisement sites numerous times as of late, thinking that they were part of the organic search field, and companies should enjoy this while it lasts.