Google is constantly making adjustments to the way its market-dominating search engine looks and works, but the latest update has ruffled some feathers. Last week, Google began deploying an updated ad style in search results, moving from the highlighted “AD” badge to a less obvious label. Google says this is aimed at improving user experience, but it really does seem like a way to trick people into clicking on more ads.
In the early days of Google, the search results page was just a list of ten blue links with a separate block of ads at the top. Over time, Google has added additional account-based elements to the results page, often based on browsing history or email contents. Through it all, Google has progressively made the ads less and less distinctive, and the latest update makes them look almost exactly like organic search results.
The update, which began rolling out on mobile last year, is now live on desktop browsers as well. The only thing differentiating the ads at the top of the list from the results is a small, black, “Ad” label. It’s in the same place as the favicon for organic results, making them visually very similar.
Prior to this update, ads included a green highlighted “Ad” badge that didn’t line up with any visual elements in the real search results. Before that, the badge was yellow, and before that, it was larger. In 2013 and earlier, all the ads on result pages were inside a shaded box marked as sponsored. You can see an example of old Google Ad styles in the tweet below.
Google says that adding favicons to search results allows a website’s branding to be more visible. It spent a lot of time justifying that design change when the UI came to mobile last year, but Google barely mentioned the ad changes in passing. The change is noticeable on mobile but even more so on desktop browsers where ads blend into the results list even better.
— Ginny Marvin (@GinnyMarvin) July 25, 2016
The ads are still labeled clearly, as long as you’re paying attention to where you click. As such, Google’s probably not in violation of any FTC regulations. However, Google makes most of its money from ads. It would not be surprising in the least if Google “coincidentally” also enjoyed a higher click-through rate on ads after this change.
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