Business Insider Edition

Google made a big change to search results that makes it harder to distinguish ads from regular results, and people are calling Google out for it

Tyler Sonnemaker , Business Insider US
 Jan 24, 2020, 12:00 PM
Google CEO Sundar Pichai.
Stephen Lam/Reuters
  • Google last week rolled out a new look for search results on desktops, but the changes have sparked backlash.
  • Critics are saying the update makes it nearly impossible to tell ads apart from organic search results.
  • Some observers questioned whether Google was trying to intentionally steer users to click on ads through a practice known as "dark-pattern" design.
  • This isn't the first time Google has faced criticism over the design of its ads.
  • For more stories go to the Business Insider South Africa homepage

Last week, Google began rolling out a new look for search results on desktops, which added brand icons in front of organic search results and an "Ad" label in front of paid ads.

Google said in a tweet that "the format puts a site's brand front & center, helping searchers better understand where information is coming from, more easily scan results & decide what to explore."

But critics are saying the changes have had the opposite effect and make it nearly impossible to tell ads apart from organic search results.

"I would argue there is now no visual distinction between ads and results. There is still, technically, *labelling*, but it's hard to escape the conclusion that it is supposed to be difficult to spot at a glance where the adverts end," Alex Hearn, an editor for The Guardian, tweeted.

Critics of Google's new search-results design are saying it's nearly impossible to tell ads apart from organic search results.
Screenshot/Google

Some observers have even questioned whether Google is blurring the line intentionally in an effort to get more users to click on ads, which is how Google makes the vast majority of its money.

"There's something strange about the recent design change to google search results, favicons and extra header text: they all look like ads, which is perhaps the point?" writer Craig Mod said in a tweet.

Brooke Osmundson, the associate director of paid search for the digital-ad agency NordicClick, told Digiday that for four of her clients, desktop users were 4 to 10.5% more likely to click on paid ads in the week after Google made the change than they were in the prior week.

This is not the first time Google has been accused of using manipulative design practices, known as "dark patterns," to trick users into clicking on ads.

The Wall Street Journal reporter Rolfe Winkler said the Federal Trade Commission sent letters in 2013 to Google and other search engines saying the distinction between ads and organic search results had become "less noticeable to consumers." In the letters, the FTC told the companies to "make any necessary adjustments to ensure you clearly and prominently disclose any advertising."

Since then, Google's ads have become only more subtle. Ginny Marvin, the editor in chief at Search Engine Land, tweeted an infographic that showed how the designs have evolved over time:

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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