Paid or Organic Google Search Results?

By Robb Beck | Senior Analyst, Digital Marketing

Can you spot the difference between paid and organic search results? Most seasoned marketing professionals will answer yes, yet a surprisingly high number of younger internet users are having trouble, according to a recent report highlighted by Search Engine Watch.

The report, Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes Report, is notable for several reasons, one being that it surfaces from the UK communications regulator, the Office of Communications (Ofcom). Further, the study covers a broad range of media consumption habits (mobile, radio, games, etc.). Despite the proliferation of mobile devices, most of us – young and old – still consume media through a variety of channels; even some seemingly obsolete channels once thought to be dead (the upsurge in vinyl sales comes to mind). Digital advertisers, sadly, tend to forget this. There’s a whole world of media out there, far beyond what appears on that little screen in your pocket.

In an age of digital music, vinyl is making an impressive comeback.

So let’s jump into Ofcom’s study and research methodology. Ofcom asked over 1K respondents how they would classify search engine results for “walking boots,” as either paid or organic.  Respondents were also allowed to have more than one answer (a nice control element).

Ofcom then split the results between newer and more established internet users, with “newer” users being those who first went online less than five years ago. In short, only one in three “newer” users were able to correctly identify paid vs. organic results, despite the glaring yellow “Ad” label next to the paid result. By contrast, 60% of “older” users correctly identified the paid ads. Here’s how Ofcom classified the respondents’ answers:

Note the last bar indicating that only 34% “stated the correct response.” This seems alarmingly high, yet related tests have yielded similar results. One recent study, for example, found that only 50% of internet users could properly identify paid results.

And here’s the kicker: Notice how 18-24 year olds contrast with 25-34 year olds:

What’s happening? Why are “newer” internet users – presumably more tech savvy than older tech users – having trouble identifying paid search results? Are younger people being misled, shortsighted, or just haven’t been around the block long enough to know the difference? Perhaps the testing methodology is flawed?

All valid responses, for sure. But the most obvious answer has to do with Google itself. As was recently discussed at SearchFest 2016, Google is stealthily blending organic and paid results on its SERPs. Not that we should be surprised by this, as native ads have been around for some time. So we shouldn’t be too taken aback when Google directs our seemingly neutral search results toward paid ads – the Cupertino company’s bread and butter.

Moreover, with Google’s recent decision to remove the right-hand rail ads, all ads can use a variety of extensions; including call-outs, sitelinks and location information. In other words, paid ads can actually be helpful and display a degree of credibility (gasp!). And as Google grows smarter with each search query and collects more data, advertisers are better equipped to develop copy that matches search intent. Presumably, paid results for “walking boots” are shifting away from boring ol’ copy like, “20% off boots,” to “Have you done your feet a favor lately?”

So, aside from pointing out that younger people are having trouble differentiating paid from organic results, what does Ofcom tell us? If nothing else, it provides a foretaste of where Google’s SERPs are headed. We’ve known for some time that the internet’s ‘free’ ride is coming to an end and pay to play will soon become the norm. As competition continues to mount and as Google captures more and more data, there’s perhaps good news ahead. Digital advertisers will be pushed to develop better content to match search intent, thus creating a better user experience overall.

Oh, and speaking of boots and vinyl records….