Google Ads

a visual history
Google Ads Timeline Image 1
Google Ads Timeline Image 2
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Google Ads Timeline Image 4

As SEO practitioners, we have witnessed the many shapes and forms Google Ads has taken over the years.

Its interface and nature has changed massively, from colourful and clearly labelled ads to those barely distinguishable from organic results we see in 2019.

Searchers are becoming evermore savvy to ads, and many actively avoid them. Rather, they seek out organic results as they are widely regarded as being the more trustworthy source, and rightfully so. However, Google has billions of dollars worth of revenue resting on ad clicks and therefore has gotten rather creative in order to maintain their click-through rate.

Depending on your stance, this timeline either represents 19 years of creative innovation, or 19 years of Google pulling the wool over searcher’s eyes. Either way, we think it’s important for searchers to be able to distinguish between high quality, authoritative content and paid ads. Enjoy.

Gallery Ads Implemented on Mobile

Google have released an ad feature for beta testing which displays a swipeable gallery in the SERPs, however only for the #1 search result. This format includes:

  • 4 to 8 images (1.91 x 1 aspect ratio)
  • A unique 70-character tag line for each image
  • Between 1 and 3, 30-character headlines.

Businesses currently testing the format have seen increases in user interaction upward of 25%. Due to position only being available to the #1 search result, we’re expecting competition to become even more fierce.

Ad Icon Colour Change and Favicons

Google has taken measures to further meld organic and paid results in the SERPs since the February 2017 update. The left image depicts previous search results, where Ads are clearly labelled in green and distinct from organic results which have no icon whatsoever. The right image illustrates current SERPs,  where organic result’s sporting favicons ( 16x16p icons) and Ad icons being changed to black, make the two result types almost indistinguishable for the average user. Check Google’s announcement here.

AdWords becomes Google Ads

Rebranding AdWords to Google Ads is part of Google’s general trend toward things being slicker and easier. The rebrand is accompanied by changes to the Google Ads backend to “help [users] get results without any heavy lifting—so they can stay focused on running their businesses”. Here’s their announcement.

Star Ratings Implemented Globally

Product ratings were added in July 2014, but December 2017 saw them implemented on all searches with Google Shopping results

The stars represent “aggregated review data for the product, compiled from multiple sources including merchants, third-party aggregators, editorial sites and users”

Google’s announcement is here.

Google Tweaks Shopping Ads

Google has updated its EU shopping ads to comply with the European Commission’s recent decision. According to Google comparison shopping services are now able to bid to place ads on equal terms with Google Shopping ads. The “By Google” text will change depending on the shopping service that has won the auction to show the ad, however, curiously we are yet to see this in action!

Removal of Solid Green Background

Google has introduced a new style to their ads. By removing the solid green background, they have reduced the overall visibility of ads, making it harder to tell apart organic results and paid results in the SERPs. This follows the trend of making it more difficult to distinguish between the organic results and the paid results – Increasing the likelihood that people will click listings that generate revenue for google.

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Standard Text Ads Deadline – Extended Text Ads Only For All

Google has set 31st January, 2017 as a deadline for standard text ads. After this date, ads can be created only in expanded text ad format. Some of the advertisers, who haven’t upgraded to new ad format yet, will eventually have to start using expanded ads. The full impact of the expanded ads will then be more visible.

Extended Text Ads

Google announces at it’s Performance Summit on May 24th 2016 that Extended Text Ads would soon be available to all advertisers on Google AdWords. The change from standard text ads resulted in a 50% increase in available text to use within ads. Key changes made were:

  1. Two headline fields instead of one
  2. Longer Single Description Line Rather Than Two Shorter Description Lines
  3. Two Optional “Path” Fields in the Display URL
  4. Domain of Display URL Now Based on Final URL domain
  5. Mobile Optimised Text Ads

What This Change Meant for SEO

This particular change to AdWords was met with further negativity by those who practice and invest in SEO as any increase in AdWords ad clicks is a click lost elsewhere, namely an Organic result.

With longer headlines and descriptions, the distinction between text ads and organic search results further diminished.

An Ofcom Adults’ media use and attitudes study published in April 2016 showed that a large percentage of audience couldn’t tell ads and organic search results apart and that was even before the Google AdWord ad icons changed from a solid yellow fill to a solid green fill and then simply a feint green line. With this format of text ads, this percentage of audience can only go up.

One can expect to see a notable dip in Organic traffic with some predicting a decline as high as 20% over the months following the Extended Text Ads introduction.

Read the full breakdown of the changes Extended Text Ads bring here.

Green ad icon

Google changed the colour from the already-inconspicuous ‘ad’ indicator from yellow, to a shade of green imperceptibly different to the links in search results.

This has the effect of making ads and organic results look almost exactly the same – a far cry from the flamboyant multicoloured ads of years gone by.

Wider ads

This is a tiny tweak which saw ads become slightly wider, as the comparison above shows. This harks back to Google’s early days of testing multiple formats with small differences.

There’s not much speculation surrounding this change! Image source here.

No side ads, just top and bottom

Google began to change the layout of its ads, removing sidebar ads on most queries and increasing the amount of ads at the top. This again drew calls of hypocrisy; only ads were visible above the fold on certain queries.

Their justification for this is that it brings desktop and tablet SERPs in line, and leaves more space in the side of SERPs for info-boxes.

Announced in multiple places, image source
here
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Ad customisers

In another step designed to make things easier for advertisers, Google introduced ad customiser functionality. Advertisers could now provide a spreadsheet of products, discount amounts and deadlines for specific sales, along with an ad template. Google would then auto-populate the ad with relevant products and deals for each search.

Originally announced here.

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Dynamic sitelinks

Google introduced sitelinks that were automatically populated based on users’ location and search queries, meaning that advertisers had to spend less time manually creating these.

These looked the same as previous sitelinks, hence no image!

Originally reported here.

Change of design

Google redesigned their ads at some point in 2014 (it’s hard to find an exact date thanks to Google’s preference for gradual roll-out). They decided to exchange the yellow box that used to contain ads for a small yellow ‘ad’ icon.

Speculation about their reasons for this was rife, with people settling on the consensus that it was to design away behaviour where users could easily scroll pass the ‘ads section’. I.E., the more ads looked like organic results, the more likely users were to accidentally click them, and send more money Google’s way.

Visual banner ads

Google added eye-catching banners to certain search results, although the results themselves were organic. The handy image from Search Engine Land’s report on this new feature shows this in more detail.

It also calls up Google on a pledge they made back in 2005, that there would never be “banner ads on the Google homepage or web search results pages. There will not be crazy, flashy, graphical doodahs flying and popping up all over the Google site. Ever.”

Up to 16 ads!

Google added an expansion arrow to the product listing ads, mentioned previously, which had proven to be popular. When you clicked this arrow up to 16 products were shown depending on the query, further increasing the amount of paid results per page.

Originally reported at Rimm Kaufman.

Criticism of amount of ads

Some people asked whether Google were hypocritical as some search queries returned results where no organic listings were visible above the fold. This contradicts Google’s own webmaster guidelines.

Image and story source: Bruce Clay.

Shopping results pulled through with ads

Google Shopping results were integrated into SERPs for particular, transaction oriented terms.

Reported on Search Engine Land.

Automatic local customisation

This feature didn’t change the way ads looked, but it did save advertisers a bunch of time. Thanks to a nifty piece of code, Google would automatically generate ads targeted to locations specified in search queries.

Originally announced here.

Teleport functionality

One of the main complaints Google received about their ads was that users had to spend time travelling to the advertisers’ business before being able to purchase. Google rectified this by rolling out teleport functionality on certain searches, allowing users to move instantly through time and space.

Hang on a second…

What was the date of this announcement again?

Originally announced here.

Enhanced sitelinks

Another tweak for sitelinks allowed advertisers to add information about each link, rather than just the main ad description.

Originally announced here.

Also note that for the last several points on our timeline the background of the ads has remained yellow! A nice departure from the random colours of the early years.

Ads at the bottom of SERPs

Google announced that it would begin moving ads from the sidebar to the bottom of the page. The justification was that it was more conducive to smooth browsing of the results page, as users didn’t need to move their glance around the page so much.

Originally announced here.

Embedded sitelinks

In an attempt to make sitelinks more useful and intuitive, Google added the functionality for text within your ad description to automatically link through to relevant pages on your site. This makes the ad more useful for the user, and increases the granularity for the advertiser.

Originally announced here.

+1 ads

It’s a bit sad looking back on how enthusiastic Google were about Google+ and the +1 feature. The logic was that people would be able to vote for content they found particularly useful (ads included!) and their friends and wider networks would see these endorsements.

Original announcement here.

Ads on Google Image SERPs

An image-based ad was added to the top of Google Image search results. The only thing that differentiated the image from the organic results was a small grey tag on the top right, and its size.

Yelp integration

Google were experimenting with beefing up their local ads, and one method they tested was pulling through Yelp reviews (see the stars and link to Yelp in the yellow ad box). There was speculation as to whether Google would buy Yelp, but in the end they just improved Google local business listings over the coming years.

We found this update here.

Clickable phone numbers

In the first mobile-specific update we found, phone numbers in sponsored links were clickable when accessed via a mobile device. This improved click-through rates and allowed advertisers to track how many calls they received through this channel.

Announced on the AdWords blog here.

Product listing ads

This feature marked another effort to increase the value of an ad, and increase the likelihood that a user would interact with the ad rather than organic results.

Original announcement here.

Sitelinks launched

This feature displayed up to 4 additional URLs to give users access to landing pages that were more relevant to their queries. At this stage in their life, sitelinks only showed for ads who met certain (ambiguous) quality thresholds.

Original announcement here.

Comparison ads

In October 2009 Google announced comparison ads. These allowed users to compare offers more easily. This increased granularity for advertisers, and gave users more relevant information.

If users interacted with the ad they were taken through to a page where they could compare lots of options and pursue these with the advertisers.

This shows Google’s attempts to keep users within Google rather than heading to external sites.

URLs above ad description

In late 2008 Google begin experimenting with something that had been consistent since the very first ads: moving the ad URL to the top of the description, directly below the link.

This wasn’t fully rolled out until 2012, which gives interesting insights into how long Google feels the need to test some things before being convinced.

The local 10-Pack

In 2008 the ten pack became a regular part of sponsored links for local terms. This feature was tested sporadically on certain terms before being rolled out fully.

Yellow

The top ads returned to being yellow at some point in 2007 – who knows why?

One thing to note here is how distinct paid listings are from organic: over the coming years this began to change quite a lot.

Early experimentation with info boxes

Amount and format of ads is still changing, although they seem to have settled on light blue for top ads. On a more commercial query like this you can see there are more ads: a trend that continues today.

An interesting feature to note here is the option to further tailor a specific search: this suggests Google have been exploring ways to refine search for many years. Today we see infoboxes on a lot of queries which are designed to make them more useful and customised.

Top ad returns for certain queries

Here you can see the top ad make a return, although it is confined to the left column rather than taking up the whole page.

The topic changes between the ad sections, too: ads on the right are about buying a house; the top ad is about the TV show.

More stability

The ads begin to look more like the ones we see today: no difference in colours between organic and sponsored links and no interest bar.

Ads are shown at the side of the SERP only.

No ads in the top section

On a majority of searches the top ads were removed.

Purple heading for eBay?

There was speculation as to whether the purple colour seen here was used exclusively on eBay results.

Testing continues, interface evolves

Yet more tinkering with colours, and the ability to bold ad text has been removed – this makes the ad formatting more consistent with the organic results.

In non-AdWords news, note the introduction of the Google Images tab. This launched in July 2001 although nowadays it’s impossible to imagine Google without it!

More experimentation!

Only one ad at the top this time, and blue boxes at the side rather than green.

Experimentation with different colours for ads

Pink and green ads seem alien nowadays but in the early stages Google did split testing with all sorts of ad colours and positions to see what worked best.

The sponsored links were clearly labelled and are clearly separated from the organic results.

Also note the spammy nature of most of the links. Even though ‘casinos’ is a traditionally spammy niche, nowadays the ads are of much higher calibre.

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AdWords officially launched

Google officially announced the launch of AdWords with a lengthy press release, which you can read in full here.

One of the sentences is especially interesting given what ads look like today: “Google’s quick-loading AdWords text ads appear to the right of the Google search results and are highlighted as sponsored links, clearly separate from the search results