Last week, Google released some, frankly, minor changes to how it displays advertisements on Search Engine Results Pages (“SERPs”). The Internet predictably lost its collective mind. The changes were called a “war on organic search” and “the war on free clicks”. It was as though Google started charging users a $10 monthly subscription fee. The reaction was so swift and angry, you’d think a Bernie supporter threw shade at AOC on Instagram.
Today, it isn’t surprising when #CancelCulture dictates Twitter warriors should unite in outrage to demand the #cancelation of offending people, shows, businesses, products or ideas. That said, in this case it’s misguided to the point of being uninformed or deliberately misrepresenting facts. Or both.
Read up on the subject and you’ll find statements like this from The Verge: “the only thing differentiating ads and search results is a small black-and-white ‘Ad’ icon next to the former. It’s been formatted to resemble the new favicons that now appear next to the search results you care about.”
So, ignoring the fact that even this author admits the advertisements have a graphical icon saying “Ad” next to them – the premise is Google’s paid ads are irrelevant and unhelpful. And searchers only “care about” or want organic links. It’s as though paid search links were the equivalent of the ubiquitous F-150 commercials shown at every NFL game break. Even viewers in large cities who wouldn’t find utility in a full-size truck see them.
This line of thought is absurd, and ignores the evolution of Google search results pages.
The History of SERPs
Let’s start with the history. If you’re old enough to remember the primordial ooze of the Internet, say around the turn of the century, you recall Yahoo! was the dominant search engine. They used a “highest bidder” auction format for search ads. This placed the company with the highest bid at the top of search results, regardless of relevance. This led to countless examples of people searching for a car, for instance, getting auto insurance links instead, because those companies paid more. The experience was sub-optimal.
Then along came Google.
Google quickly destroyed Yahoo! Search’s dominance, and drove it into well-deserved obsolescence. This was primarily due to Google’s superior “relevance ranking”. This formed the basis of modern SEO, and ensured that the most relevant search results always come to the top.
The genius of Google Ads (the bidding platform behind Google search ads) is that it applies the same basic concepts of relevance ranking, including the idea of “quality scores”, to every ad on the platform. This ensures ads at the top of the SERP are as relevant as the “organic” ads below them. Punitive financial penalties (vastly higher CPCs) are enforced for even modest reductions in relevance, as determined by SEO principles.
Google Did Its Homework
It was easy for Google to crush Yahoo on relevance. And Google generates $32.4 billion in ad revenue annually (as of 2018 – it will be higher for 2019, when we get this quarter’s numbers), driving the 97 percent of total revenue that comes from advertising. Would Google risk killing that golden goose by doing something to annoy its users? It’s not like Bing or Ask, or even DuckDuckGo (which gives you privacy as an extra bonus), are more than a keystroke away. How would Google fund all those self-driving cars and annoying goggles?
In fact, Google has studied the question for years, testing to measure the perceived relevance, utility and satisfaction of paid vs. organic links. And you know what they consistently found? Users do not perceive any difference at all. In the most recent study, 46 percent of people can’t distinguish between organic and paid ads on the SERP, either before or after the click. So, which are the results they “care about” again, The Verge?
Google has measured this since at least 2007. And with each gradual change to ads display, the ad links’ relevance has not changed.
The More Things Change…
This gets to the other underlying fallacy in the “the war on free clicks” argument. That suggests Google made this nefarious change suddenly, under cover of darkness, with no warning and Manhattan Project level secrecy – like Robert Irsay driving the Colts from Baltimore to Indianapolis in the middle of the night. In fact, Google has been making subtle changes since at least 2005 (that’s 15 years ago, boys and girls). And further changes have been made, gradually, at least nine times since then.
You can see a nice visual depiction on Search Engine Land. Google used various background colors (eliminating them entirely in 2013), fonts, font sizes, labels and positioning, over time. They changed nearly every aspect of both how, and where, ads are displayed on the page. And the results were measured each time. Over the past 15 years, this is just the 10th (at least) relatively “major” (if one can call it that) change to how Google Ads are displayed. This suggests Google changes it close to every single year, people. We’ll manage to survive this latest change too!
If you follow the “war on organic search” argument from The Verge, they quickly go from hysteria about, to perceived motive for, the seemingly apocalyptic changes Google introduced. “Early data collected by Digiday suggests the changes may already be causing people to click on more ads.” (Gasp!).
What’s the Harm?
- 46 percent of users can’t tell the difference between paid and organic ads
- Google’s research shows users don’t perceive a difference even when told
- Google Search usage continues to rise, despite numerous viable alternatives
- Google’s Search revenue continues to grow year/year
- 72 percent of paid search advertisers plan to increase their PPC budgets in the coming year (Clearly this thing works!)
So in reality, how many proverbial animals were really harmed in the creation of this video?
It’s easy to assume the reason Google would make changes to a cash cow like Search Ads would be to squeeze more blood out of every user – like a vampire squid attached to the face of humanity, that some suggest every corporation has become. However, 59 percent of Google searches in 2019 were on a mobile device (more than 5x the number made in 2010). 95 percent of all searchers click on one of the links in the first SERP (nobody scrolls!). And 55 percent of clicks go to the first three links on the SERP. This is in large part because a typical mobile phone can only display about five results on a single SERP. And Google is under constant assault from Amazon, Facebook and countless others. Not to mention Bing, Ask, DuckDuckGo and many more seeking to take share from them.
Is it really hard to see why Google must constantly evolve its display of ads (and search results in general) to make the best use of available space? Are we truly unwilling to accept that Google might constantly test and iterate its products to make them better (which helps us, too, as users!)? Are we, as journalists, “influencers” and tweeters-in-residence, really that cynical and omniscient?
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury
To file suit against a person or company in a court of law, one has to demonstrate that actual harm was inflicted to someone, somewhere, in order to establish “standing”. (To have standing, a party must show an “injury in fact” to their own legal interests). In short, you can’t sue me without proving I caused actual harm to someone.
In the court of public opinion, does Google, a modern utility of societal value approaching that of the lightbulb, not deserve the same standard? Or should Google be hung by the internet lynch mob for a crime that, to the best available evidence, has a grand total of zero victims and no basis in fact?