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BizReport : Search Marketing : May 05, 2016

51% of Brits can not spot ads in search results

They have the word "Ad" alongside them, highlighted in bright orange, yet according to a recent study in the UK by Ofcom, half of adults in the UK are unable to identify which Google search results are paid ads.

by Helen Leggatt

More than half of adults in the UK appear to have a lack of understanding about how the most popular search engine operates. For the Ofcom study, search engine users were shown an image of the search results for a search on "walking boots". The first three results contained the familiar orange box with the word "Ad" written in it.

Despite this, 51% of respondents did not realize that these results were ads, or sponsored links. This was more common among over-65s and DE households. Newer users (people who first went online less than five years ago) were least inclined to recognize the paid ads: 66% of them didn't see the "Ad" label. According to Ofcom's director of research, James Thickett, there is "a need for people to be more savvy online".

However, Google has been criticized in the past for changing the way in which it distinguishes paid and sponsored ads from organic results. Benjamin Edelman, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School in the Negotiation, Organizations and Markets unit, observed in 2014 that, "While FTC guidelines call for "clear" and "prominent" visual cues to separate advertisements from algorithmic results, Google has moved in the opposite direction -- eliminating distinctive colors that previously helped distinguish advertisements from other search results. Intuition and available data indicate that users find this change confusing -- contrary to longstanding practice, and less clear than the alternative. This change increases advertisement clicks and hence increases Google's revenue, but Google offers no countervailing public benefits for this approach."

Ofcom's research into Brits' understanding of search, contained in their recent 'Adults' media use and attitudes' report, also found a lack of understanding around how search engines operate. While 62% correctly said that, on a results page, some of the listings will be accurate and unbiased but not all, 18% think that if a website has been listed by a search engine it "must" be accurate and unbiased.

Tags: advertising, research, search marketing, UK

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