Blurring The Line – Google Adwords & Natural Listings Converge

Matt Hopson

Posted 2 February, 2011 by in PPC

Blurring The Line – Google Adwords & Natural Listings Converge

Let me start by throwing this out there:

I’m not so sure the various ‘enhancements’ Google has added to AdWords ads have been entirely for the searchers’ (and advertisers’) benefit. I wouldn’t be surprised if they have been put in place to ensure that Google’s biggest cash cow remains in good health for the foreseeable future.

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OK, now that you’ve all recovered from that startling revelation let me detail some of the changes Google has implemented for AdWords. These include:

  • Ad headlines now including description line 1
  • Display URLs now only appearing in lower case

And before these more recent changes Google also:

  • Renamed Sponsored links ‘Ads’
  • Changed the background colour of AdWords ads to light purple
  • Added Ad Extensions

Now, I can almost hear you all sighing and saying that these changes have helped us create better ads and drive more targeted traffic to our sites, and I agree with you (especially ad extensions), however, if we look at these changes in relation to the whole look and feel of the SERPs I think you might start to see where I’m coming from.
To make my point more clearly, let’s look at each of these changes separately:
Ad Headlines: This change has only come in recently with a number of people spotting it a couple of weeks ago. The first real screenshot that I managed to see came from the guys at SEER Interactive and showed that those ads that were in the top positions (1-3) were now showing the ad headline & description line 1 on one line; effectively giving them an ad headline of up to 60 characters in length.

With this change the top 3 ads now look increasingly similar to the rest of the ‘natural’ listings. Before with the 25 character limits Ad titles were obviously a lot shorter and ‘punchier’ but now that headlines can include description line 1 all the listings can now have titles of a similar length.
Display URLs: Previously, advertisers were able to capitalise letters within their domain URLs. This was particularly important if the advertiser in question had branding policies in place which meant that the company name needed to be shown in the same format across all platforms. PPCers everywhere also ran tests to analyse the differences between capitalised URLs and those that were all in lower case and found that the former gave better results (higher CTRs etc.) This knowledge was commonplace and advertisers knew that it was something that they could use. Google even said in their optimisation guides that people should:

Use capitalization to your advantage. Capitalize the first letter of every word in your display URL to bring more attention to your company name and brand … Ads that use intercapitalization can also look more professional.”

(FYI: This section has now been removed for the best practice guide but if you want to see a screenshot there is one in Melissa Mackey’s piece on the change for Search Engine Watch)

When this change came into force, many advertisers were surprised and confused as to the reasons behind the change of stance and with Google coming out with the ‘we’ve run tests and this is better’ line many people began questioning whether the reasons for the change were as simple as that. You only need to read some of the articles out there written on the subject and the AdWords forum thread on the subject to see the scepticism in advertisers.

One thing that this change has definitely done is again make the PPC ads look similar to the listings below them.
Rename Sponsored links to ‘Ads’: Back in November Google decided that ‘Sponsored links’ was not the right title for the AdWords sections on their results pages and that ‘Ads’ as far better. For as long as anyone can remember the PPC ads on Google have always been called sponsored links and so as you can imagine, even this small change made the news in our industry. Now I am not disagreeing that ‘Ads’ is a bad title as that is exactly what they are; pay per click advertisements and in this age of disclosure, people should see what they are clicking. What I am saying is, ‘Ads’ is a lot shorter than the more meaty ‘Sponsored links’ title which when viewed quickly can be easier to miss…
Background colour change: Now this is something Google has been playing around with for ages. Sometimes they decide yellow is the best colour to use, sometimes it’s blue; however, the last change meant that the background colour became a light shade of purple. When this change took place quite a few people questioned the change [you’ll notice people do that a lot- question change ;)] with many, myself included, noting that when viewed the colour was very pale and didn’t really help differentiate the ads against the other results.
Ad Extensions. OK, this is something that you’re all going to question why I have included it in my list but if you look at these extensions in comparison with what you can have showing under your natural listing you should hopefully see my logic behind their inclusion.

I was lucky enough to be involved in the beta trial of Sitelinks, and during the initial trial I found that they were a great addition to the AdWords tool box, and since being rolled out to all advertisers loads of articles around the use of extensions have popped up all saying the same thing, they are great & they really help improve ad performance. What none of these posts mention is that if you look at the extensions available they are also all potentially visible under the natural listings and they all look very similar.

After reading all these points, you may think that I’m crazy, and you wouldn’t be the first, but if you look at all these changes together as a whole, you must admit that the PPC ads don’t stand out as much as they used to. Is this a conscious decision by Google to merge the two together? I don’t know but next time you Google something take a closer look at the results, I think you’ll be surprised at how similar everything on the page looks.

After years of running PPC campaigns in pretty much every vertical, he has learnt that although people always claim to ‘never click on those ads’, they invariably do, which is great for his clients.


  • Bill 13 years ago

    I find your analysis quite compelling.

    I think you missed two small points. More and more users are switching to wide format LED monitors and laptops. Consequently first, when the search engine result page is full size, there is substantial white space between the first sponsored result text and the now very short “ads”. If one notices “ads” at all, it looks like a label for the ads in the right column. Second, unless the lighting and viewing angle are just right, the background color is hard to see at all.

    I wonder what the effect will be of Google blurring the distincion between organic and sponsored results. In the short run, click through revenue will increase (unless users are so annoyed they automatically skip the first three results on every SERP) but I suspect conversion rates will fall and, in turn, depress AdWord rates. A hidden cost may be the loss of end user market share as frustrated users look for alternative search engines.

    I am ready to switch to another tool. Anyone have a good recommendation for one where the organic results are comprehensive, well ordered, and displayed clearly?

  • Roberto Carlo 13 years ago

    I chanced upon this blog when I suspected that Google have recently made the ads even paler to look virtually indistinguishable from the proper search results. Looks like I am not alone.

    On my LCD screen the ad background (for posterity, it’s HTML #fff8e7, so we can check if it gets even lighter over time) is easy to miss.

    As someone trying to promote the ‘organic’ position of my own website it is frustrating when people can just pay google to jump to the top of the list. And don’t get me started on how they allow advertisers to use registered trademarks as ad keywords…

  • Ellie Lindsay 12 years ago

    I am really annoyed with the change in colour at the top of the page for sponsored links. I was annoyed when they changed them and am even more annoyed now that it has caused me to enter an unsecured site AND LOSS MONEY………grrrrrr……..

  • christian gibson 11 years ago

    I agree wholeheartedly. Changing the background color of ads so that they are almost indistinguishable from genuine content listings is the most EVIL thing Google has done! If a good search engine is available which genuinely and clearly separates ads from content listings than I will dump Google. Perhaps Microsoft is listening? Was I naive to really believe that Google would remain true to their founding principles? Probably :(


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