Look Closer… Seeing the Difference Between Ads & Organic Search

Closeup of the word SEARCH on binary code on a computer screen.

“Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?” – Morpheus, The Matrix (1999)

I had to get up from the computer and take a walk after realizing that, at the time of writing this, The Matrix is almost 20 years old. It was a game-changer which has stood the test of time, much like another entity which is around 20 years old: search engine advertising (abrupt segue, I know).

When The Matrix was released, Google looked like this:

old google search screen from 1999

Considering how awful many sites from yesteryear looked, this one actually wasn’t too bad by modern standards, and hasn’t deviated much since. Sure, the logo is noticeably 90’s—but Google’s home page remains minimalist, to-the-point, and even uses the same colours. Shortly after that time, Google introduced its advertising delivery platform and —much like how the first bullet-time scene in The Matrix revolutionized action movies— online advertising was never the same.

Google search ads were also painfully obvious; they were often wildly unrelated to the user’s search query, shaded in a distinct colour, and collected on a different section of the page than the organic search listings. They had limited functionality, and users naturally paid less attention to them. But in recent years, Google transitioned to making search ads less obvious (in terms of looking like ads). They covertly made subtle changes, little by little, until ads were positioned among (and in front of) organic listings. The only identifier is now a little green box on the left of an ad, which says “Ad”.

google search results for antivirus software

As for encountering irrelevant ads, even that experience is decreasing. Even the most jaded internet users (like myself), who used to avoid clicking on search ads on principle alone —because of poor past experiences and a desire to find things based on their organic content—  are finding that the ads for a given query are not just relevant, but offer real functionality. If ad features such as Location Extensions, Sitelink Extensions, and Call Extensions are right in front of me offering what I need in order to get information faster, I might as well use the ad rather than scroll and hunt for the organic listing; organic listings that redirect me to the homepage of a website, that redirect me to another area of the website, leaving me frustrated and forced to hunt further (I’m not a hunter, I work in online advertising). In other words, if the ad connects me with the what I need in a pinch, I don’t notice or care if it’s an ad.

In one scene of The Matrix, a character explains how, if the tangible world which they can sense and interact with makes them happy, they would rather not live in the cold, dark, post-apocalyptic non-Matrix world simply on the basis that it was arguably more legitimate; both were real, therefore they preferred the world which gave them what they want.

“Ignorance is bliss.” – Cypher, The Matrix (1999)

I’m not going to draw too many parallels to a fictional AI system which enslaved humanity, but Google’s overarching goal is indeed to give users what they want; both in their experience with organic search results, and the ad experience as well. If users tend to be disappointed with their ad experience, such as encountering irrelevant or ineffective ads, the likelihood that the user will interact with ads in the future will decrease. And, with paid search being a pay-per-click model, if users click on ads less frequently, Google gets less money. But, if users tend to get what they need from ads, the likelihood that they interact with ads in the future will increase. And this is the win-win-win Google wants:

  •       Users have positive experiences with ads and continue using them to get what they want (rather than dismissing the ads out of habit and looking through the organic listings instead)
  •       Advertisers see the return on investment by being able to get prime real estate in the search results page, gain more qualified users, and continue advertising on the platform
  •       Google gets more money

To accomplish this, the product had to improve. There was natural evolution, as advertisers became more experienced, learned how to utilize the tools, honed their targeting, and improved on their own. There was also an element of guided evolution, as Google implemented a system to reward advertisers who made users happy; if users repeatedly have a positive experience, the advertiser is acknowledged for it, and are awarded a lower bid requirement for certain keywords. This means that advertisers who shoehorn a less-relevant ad in front of users searching for something other than what the ad is promoting, will be required to pay more than advertisers whose ads closely match the nature of the search (when competing for the same keywords and ad real estate). Higher costs and poor performance deter this practice, and so the quality of the search results polices itself.

Improvements to search advertising has resulted in users relying on ads, rather than instinctively avoiding them. When an ad is seamlessly matched to a search term, users are less likely to scrutinize for clues of it being an ad, and are more likely to think “this showed up at the top of the page and seems to have what I’m looking for, let’s click on it”. Good news, because search advertising allows you to get in front of qualified users quickly, rather than hoping that they spend time sifting through organic listings to arrive at your site, which they may not even do because they could end up on a competitor’s site instead.

If we had to grasp for a drawback of seamless ads, it would be that clients often don’t notice the difference between organic and paid search results when they Google themselves, and request content updates to the wrong thing! Look closer the next time you think you see the woman in the red dress, and check for the little green “ad” box instead because it might actually be Agent Smith.

My takeaway is this: if it’s becoming less obvious what’s an ad and what’s not on a search results page, why not capitalize on user interest and claim the prime real estate? While organic rankings can be a roll of the dice in terms of what content gets shown, paid search advertising allows you to target keywords as exact or as broad as you wish, and provides the ability to control the message (tailored to how you’d like it to appear) rather than relying on Google to crawl your site for updates to the organic listing. It allows you to design your part of the user’s reality, and chances are they won’t notice it’s an ad until they get the clue to follow the white rabb… sorry, the green box. We aren’t suggesting you forego an organic strategy entirely—the cost to rank for everything you want to would be completely prohibitive. But when it comes to those key keywords, those major conversion points where you want complete control over the message and want to get in front of the competitors (and organic listings), a well designed ad giving the user what they want is the real deal.

If your business is in need of a new paid search advertising strategy, put our team to work for you. We can’t plug your brain into a computer and upload years of experience, such that you wake up serenely declaring you know Kung Fu, but it’s the next best thing.

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