Google is tricking you into clicking ads
Google Ads is hugely important for marketers. It’s hugely important for Google, too, generating them billions of dollars per quarter.
So it makes sense that over the years, as people have become less trusting of ads and more savvy of advertisers’ methods, that Google would resort to sneakier means.
A timeline of tricks
First let’s take a look through the rosy lens of nostalgia, at what Google SERPs looked like without ads:
While anyone using AdBlock or similar software won’t see ads, it’s weird to imagine a time when no one would. There was brief window, long ago, when Google didn’t advertise.
Then, once ads launched back in October 2000, there was no turning back.
The original press release (which you can read here) said a couple of interesting things:
Text ads appear to the right of the Google search results and are highlighted as sponsored links, clearly separate from the search results”.
As we know, the first point no longer holds up. Ads are now shown above organic listings, as well as beside them.
The second point doesn’t hold up either, really. Although some ads are marked ‘sponsored’, the difference between top ads and organic listings nowadays is barely distinguishable.
Using deliberate design to make users click ads
In very early SERPs, ads were shown in distinctive coloured boxes, and it was obvious you were looking at an ad. Each had “Sponsored link” written beside it to drill the point home:
But people got used to that.
People learned to ignore ads, and to scan the page for organic results instead.
People learned to behave in a way that slowed the flow of ad revenue to Google’s coffers. So they did the obvious thing: tried as hard as possible to blend ads into organic listings.
Coloured ads stayed around for a long time, with frantic experimentation on different colours taking place between 2000 and the mid 2000s. The different colours are most likely the result of A/B testing, seeing which shades and combinations were best at attracting clicks.
Some time around 2005 they settled on a shade of yellow for ad backgrounds, and this stayed fairly consistent for the best part of a decade:
It wasn’t until 2012 that the yellow ads began to fade from the SERPs, being replaced by something even more subtle. Ad backgrounds changed to white, making them suspiciously similar to organic ads.
True there is a bold yellow box saying “ad”, but it’s much less obviously an ad when you’re skim-reading the page. There is no obvious box of adverts, and no clear delineation between paid and organic content.
It’s hard to pinpoint an exact date for this change thanks to Google’s penchant for gradually rolling things out, but the screenshot below is from 2014:
(At this point we’ll say thanks to the various sites who published screenshots of Google SERPs over the years. All of these attributions can be found on our AdWords timeline).
The yellow box didn’t last long. It soon became the target for changes, gradually being made even more subtle:
Now only three colours were used in ads: blue for the title, green for the link, dark grey for the description.
The exact same three colours, incidentally, as organic listings.
Then, if you can believe it, the green background was removed in favour of a white box with a green outline:
The only thing marking text ads in the results is a small box the same a colour as the URL it sits beside. At a casual glance it really isn’t obvious at all that you’re looking at an advert.
And this is exactly how Google wants it.
The more people click ads, the more money Google makes.
It’s that simple.
It could be called sneaky or disingenuous, but in reality it’s completely in line with their stated business model.
It’s also been one of the driving factors behind innovation at Google, and not just in terms of figuring out which colours and shapes are most likely to get people to click…
Making SERPs more intuitive
Alongside tweaks that made ads less obvious, Google also made changes to make their search engine easier to use and engage with. This is beneficial for human users – because they can fulfil their expectations more quickly – and for Google, because users are even more likely to visit the site, and to navigate to more of its pages (where there are more ads!).
Here are some of those changes.
In 2005 Google included a box where search results could be refined, below the ads and above the first organic result:
(This functionality still exists, although now it’s found in the ‘tools’ section of search.)
It’s a great indication of Google’s desire to make their results as useful as possible, for the reasons mentioned above. The more likely a user is to have their query answered, the less likely they are to jump ship to another search engine (and take their advertising engagement with them).
We still see Google making efforts to improve the quality of search results, and to keep people within their content ecosystem.
In 2008 the local 10-pack made its first appearance:
This is something so familiar to us nowadays that it’s strange to imagine a SERP without it, but until this point there had only really been text ads. The inclusion of a map – complete with a pin to show the real location of each results – was groundbreaking.
It was also the first time that there were competing ranking opportunities within one search result.
Notice how the top map result (cudmorebuilders.com) is different from the first organic result (gokenco.com). This was Google showing us that it used different factors when generating the local and organic results, meaning that webmasters (and SEOs) could aspire for two top spots.
This sparked a trend we still see in SEO where businesses are advised to optimise their web presence for local listings, to increase the likelihood of them jumping up the search positions for local searches.
In 2009 Google released comparison ads:
The goal was to help people find the right product (or in this case, deal) for them. Once you selected your purpose and clicked ‘Compare’ you were taken to another page where multiple providers were listed, letting you choose the best one.
The important distinction was that all of this was done within Google, rather than taking you to the website of an advertisers. This plays into the trend of Google attempting to keep people on their pages.
Product listing ads were next, again in 2009. During this period there was a lot of innovation from Google, with frequent changes to SERPs and new features being added:
The product listing ad showed pictures of products, along with prices at various named merchants. A visual component drew the eye in the same way maps in the SERPs did, and made ads stand out even more from the plain, text-based organic results.
In 2010 the first mobile-specific update (that we could find) was rolled out, showing Google’s desire to be accessible on all devices, even the mobile phone which, at the time, represented a tiny proportion of search share.
If you tapped a phone number it opened the phone app and let you make a call: much easier than copying and pasting, or trying to remember the number.
Google also moved ads to the bottom of SERPs, from the sidebar where they had sat for over a decade. This was to reflect mobile browsing, which required content to be arranged vertically.
In 2011 you could endorse ads with your Google+ account, which is a bit sad in retrospect. The logic was that ads with more endorsements would be considered higher quality, and this may impact their position (with better ads being served as priority). You were also told if any of your friends had +1’d the page:
What’s it all for?
By giving advertisers an increasingly large and sophisticated range of advert types, Google ensures three things:
- Advertisers will continue paying Google to run their ads
- Users will be more likely to click ads that they see
- Google will keep earning money from ads
It’s cynical, but the reality is: that last point is the most important.
Google Ads exists primarily to make them money, and any money you get is a nice by-product of that.
That’s no reason not to use the platform though. You can benefit from almost two decades of development, refinement, and intuition.
If you want help doing that, give us a bell. We run demonstrably effective PPC campaigns.
(Note: these are just a few examples of changes made to SERPs. Check out the timeline for all of them!)