For well over a decade, Google has been the defined authority that most of us refer to for information, websites and data in general. Lately, however, it feels like the data Google is returning has been slipping. I mean, nobody can win Jeopardy forever. Google, it's not like you're the only search engine in town. I mean, there's always Bing or Dogpile. Come on Google, you need to get your act together.
The Google SERP Page
The Search Engine Results Page (SERP) is looking more like an advertising agency’s fantasy than an actual results page. For example, I searched for "top CMS" and get logo images of all the CMS that are commonly used. Next are four ads, that aside from the tiny bolded word "Ad" (which is exactly where Google placed the favicons in their recent failed redesign), are impossible to tell from actual organic search results. Then there are six actual results, followed by their "People also ask" section where they display related questions. Then two more organic search results, then images from Google Image search, another organic search result, then two more ads, finally there are the searches related to top CMS. So on the whole page, we only get to see eight organic (i.e. actual) search results. The rest is advertising or filler.
Organic Search Results
So-called "organic search results" are the web page listings that Google believes are most closely related to the user's search query based on their relevance. Until recently, Google had largely defined user expectations online. Users typed in a search query — either using several keywords, a phrase or a question. Google responded by providing search results that were relevant to the search, and the user was able to find the website, service or product they were looking for. Unfortunately, many times, that is no longer the case.
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Ubiquitous Google Ads
Google Ads are everywhere. Google has recently been taking a lot of grief for its Ads, and how they are too hard to tell from organic search results. There have been many recent articles on the topic.
The confusion between ads and organic search largely comes from a recent change Google made to the results pages to make them more like those returned on mobile devices. On Jan. 13, Google began returning results pages that featured favicons, the little icons that appear in the location bar on browsers next to the URL of the website. They had already been displayed on mobile results pages, and with this change, they appeared next to the site description in the search results. The problem came from the fact that Google ads also have a little ad label that appears in the same spot, except it features the letters "Ad" in bold text, and it looks very similar to a standard website favicon, as shown in the image below, which was created using a convenient mobile search emulator tool called the SERPerator.
Many people would respond that since Google displays plainly visible icons that tell a user, in bold, what is an ad and what isn’t, that any discrepancy falls squarely on the user’s shoulders. Largely, that is true, except for a phenomenon called “banner blindness.” Banner blindness is defined as what happens when users are seemingly unaware of banner ads on websites, even when they are prominently displayed. It happens consciously or unconsciously, but they are able to mentally block out the banner ads and continue viewing the web page as if the banner is not there. The concern is that, much like banner blindness, users will see the favicons and begin to ignore them, also ignoring the Ad label in the process and clicking on ads, thinking them to be organic search results.
Google quickly responded to the negative feedback about its recent changes by at least temporarily reverting to the way it displayed results before the change. Danny Sullivan, public search liaison for Google, stated via his official Twitter account, “We’ve heard your feedback about the update. We always want to make Search better, so we’re going to experiment with new placements for favicons [and] our experimenting will begin today. Our early tests of the design for desktop were positive. But we appreciate the feedback, the trust people place in Google, and we’re dedicated to improving the experience.” Clearly, Google did not anticipate the negative reaction to their changes and acted quickly to quell the backlash.
What Do Search Users Say About the Changes?
Based on Twitter comments, users are grateful that Google reverted to its old search results display. The vast majority were happy that the changes were rolled back, and many followed up with additional changes they thought would make Google SERPs an effective user search tool, the way it used to be. Complaints tweeted about Google SERPS include:
- The favicon changes are just another mechanism to drive ad revenue.
- The location change or absence of complete URLs.
- Discrepancies with website rankings.
- The color of URLs not being what users expect.
- The user interface being difficult for users in general.
Google is obviously aware of the concerns users have about its SERPs. Google rolls out changes, responds quickly to them and tries to make the user experience the best it can be while also serving its paid advertiser’s interests. As business owners, we are forced to respond to the changes that Google implements so we are able to maintain our SERP positions. Being aware of any changes Google makes to its SERPS is vital to the success of our businesses — and user experience will remain a key to that success.