Blurring of Search Results and Ads

One of the things Google brags about with its Adsense and Adwords programs is the high relevancy of the ads placed alongside its search results. Their logic is that the more relevant the ads are to the search, the less intrusive they are. Similarly, they’ve banned the use of banner ads, and try to make the advertising match the aesthetics of entire search engine results page.

These claimed benefits can also do harm. The difference between search engine results and paid advertising is blurring. The more relevant and similar in appearance the ads are, the harder it will become for a user to distinguish them from their “real” search results. This Pew Report, for example, reveals that only 18% of users searchers say they can tell which results are paid for and which are not. Even worse, 62% were unaware that someone has paid for some of the results they see when they carry out a search.

And the situation might grow more dire. First, this blogger discovered a way to eliminate the borders around Google’s Adsense ads – the main feature distinguishing the ads from the content. After removing the borders from the paid advertising, and making them look identical to the rest of the content, he bragged about a 70% increase in clickthrough rates. He is unmoved at the fact that people were misled into believing the Adsense advertisements were regular non-biased links from his site.

And now, Google will soon officially facilitate this kind of deceptive action. Google is testing new ad formats that allow site owners to have greater control over how many ads are show and what the overall size and format of the ad block is. This is a bigger problem than click-fraud; this relates to the tenuous role search engines play in delivering knowledge. The blurring of search results and ads challenges the common view of search engines as non-biased and egalitarian gatekeepers of information.

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