Over the years, Google made numerous design and layout changes to their search ads. These changes have caused a grumbling from the search community that changes were done to confuse searchers were thinking search ads are the same as organic search results. But, according to senior Google engineer Paul Haahr, who said on Twitter, based on the information in his possession, searchers are able to differentiate between the search ads and organic free listings just fine.
Haahr was asked about an article on Medium that said, “More than 50 percent of people between the ages of 18–34 can’t differentiate between an ad and an organic result on Google. To maximize this percentage, Google is always testing to find ad visuals that blend in best with organic results.” He responded that it was not true “from everything I’ve seen, at least from the Search side.
Key point, but not true from everything I’ve seen, at least from the Search side.
— Paul Haahr (@haahr) December 23, 2018
The study that was referenced in the Medium article was from January 2018, and says that 60 percent of searchers can’t recognize search ads in Google. The study found that “of the 803 respondents from our independent survey, 57.5 percent don’t recognize Google ads. 34.8 percent recognize them but don’t click on them, and 7.7 percent recognize paid ads but do click them.”
If it’s true that searchers aren’t able to know the difference between ads and free listings, it can be concerning for not just searchers, but marketers as well as Google itself. Google wants their search results to be unbiased and relevant. If ads blend into the free listings, this could cause Google to look like they’re being unethical and biased in their search results.