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Google: blurring the line between ‘natural’ and paid search results

12th September 2019 by Richard Falconer | News & Events

Various studies over the last 16 years have shown that users are often unaware of or unable to distinguish Google’s paid ads from natural search results. Google recently made significant changes to the search result formats on mobile so we carried out a study to see what effect this was having on users.

Google Advert Format History

Over time Google has changed the way it identifies paid results. Here’s a quick overview of some of those changes – a more comprehensive version can be found here.

It would be hard to argue against the fact that the difference between paid and unpaid has decreased over time. On desktop, the results are now distinguished only by a small box containing the word “ad” in the same colour as the adjacent URL.

A Quick Round Up of Google Advert Studies

2003 Leslie Marable – Researcher/Writer, Consumer WebWatch 41% clicked ads without knowing

2005 Deborah Fallows, PhD, Senior Research Fellow, Pew Internet 62% unaware of a distinction between paid and unpaid results

2012 Aaron Wall, SEOBook 45.5% unable to identify PPC ads

2012 Bunnyfoot 40% did not know that listings in yellow boxes were ads

2015 Ofcom 57% of 12-15 year olds unable to identify ads

2015 Ofcom 40% of adults were unable to identify ads

2017 Lewandowski, Sünkler, Kerkmann – Hamburg University of Applied Sciences 62% Unaware of or unable to distinguish ads from organic

2016-2018 Varn Digital Marketing 59% don’t know which are paid ads

The methodology varies in each study and therefore the figures are not directly comparable, however even with this knowledge it is clear that users have problems identifying adverts on Google.

Depending on the methodology we can assume that somewhere between 20 and 60 percent of ad clicks are by people who are unaware that they are clicking on an advert. Even if we conservatively take the lowest figure, this represents tens of billions of revenues lost from marketing budgets globally, not to mention the possibility of massive scale of user deception.

Recently, Google changed the way it displayed mobile results, introducing favicons for the first time.

Yard’s Research

Yard carried out some research to get a better idea of how the change might affect advert recognition. The results and conclusions can be found below.


An online study of 428 UK internet users, we took images of various search results and asked users a simple yes/no question:

Does this image contain any adverts?

Our subjects were a broad cross section of people in the UK, slightly skewed towards a younger demographic but broadly representative of the UK population.

Age Number %
18 – 29 137 32%
30 – 44 131 31%
45 – 59 100 23%
60+ 60 14%

More females took part in the study than males at 58% to 42% respectively.

Sex Number %
Male 178 42%
Female 250 58%



Desktop searches:

Google’s desktop results still use the green box “Ad” marker.

Typically, we found around 40% of users were unable to identify paid adverts on these results. This compares to only 27% who were unable to identify adverts on a results page from around 2011.

This figure changed little whether a brand term or non-brand term was used.

It also worked the other way around. On busy results containing knowledge graphs, images etc. but no adverts, we found 40% of users incorrectly identifying them as having ads.

Featured snippets
In the search result image containing a featured snippet, 30% of users thought the page showed an advert. Interestingly it was older people who had more trouble identifying that no ad was being shown (55% thought there was advertising).

Google’s new Mobile results
The examples provided by Google were tested and the new (favicon) results showed improved differentiation. The old version was correctly identified as having adverts 62% of the time and the new version 73% of the time.

We did further tests on other mobile results and found that when both ads and non-ads were shown, users were unable to distinguish them between 77% and 83% of the time.

However, where no ads were present, people were unable to tell. In other words, users are becoming less able to identify that natural search results are not adverts.

Additionally, where the “Ad” text marker format changes, users are less able to identify what is an advert.


Google Desktop Search
Our study shows that typically around 40% of users are unable to identify PPC adverts in natural search results on desktop. This changes little, whether the query is transactional in nature or a brand query. This rate is significantly higher than the same test for older search result formats.

Additionally, users appear to have a problem in identifying when no adverts are present at between 27% to 39% depending on which features are shown e.g. featured snippet, maps etc.

Google Mobile Search
Google’s new favicon result appear to show an improvement in user advert recognition, however there is also a large increase in the percentage of users who think that natural search results are adverts.

Where the advert marker changes from the normal version e.g. in Maps adverts, recognition decreases significantly.

The outcome of Google’s new mobile format seems negative for the user. In an ideal world, every user should know which results are adverts and which are natural search results, with little or no ambiguity. Advert recognition appears to improve with the new format but this seems to be because users think adverts are more widespread than they actually are i.e. they think natural search results are adverts and still don’t identify the actual adverts.

Decreasing differentiation between paid results is a trend which has been ongoing in Google’s results since the early to mid 2000s. The trend appears to have increased in pace since 2015. Previous format changes have focussed on making adverts appear more like natural search results, this change takes the opposite and potentially more damaging approach of making natural results look more like adverts.

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