Are Google’s Results Getting Too Ad-Heavy & Self-Promotional?

Google Logo - StockAre Google’s search results getting too ad-heavy and leading back to Google’s own content too much? A new blog post suggesting that Google’s non-paid listings make up only a tiny fraction of the entire search results page has sparked some discussion, though the exact percentage actually varies on how you count what’s on the page and from query-to-query.

According to the blog post by Aaron Harris, co-founder and CEO of Tutorspree, organic search results — listings that are not paid ads but ranked highly because Google thinks they are the best answer to a query — made up from 0-to-13% of a Google search results page.

However, if you measure the page not by pixel count but by actual listings, the situation is brighter than some of the “death of organic listings” proponents might think. Also, some things considered to be “Google” listings might not make sense to count that way.

Here’s what Harris found, along with some further analysis.

Auto Mechanic: Only 13% Unpaid?

When performing a Google search for “auto mechanic” using his Macbook Air with a 13-inch screen, Harris discovered that AdWords paid listings took up 29% of the page (12% at the top and another 17% to the side). The Google navigation bar took up 14% of the page. Unpaid “organic” listings got 13%, with the Google map plotted with local results having 7%, as illustrated below:

Tutorspree Blog — How Google is Killing Organic Search

Vignesh Ramachandran at Mashable experienced similar results when he performed his own test on Google. Using the same search term as Harris — “auto mechanic” — Ramachandran found that organic search results only accounted for an estimated 13.5 percent of screen real estate on his 15-inch MacBook Pro in a Firefox browser:

mashable organic search result test

Caveats & Counting Issues

Two sources coming away with a 13% figure for unpaid listings can sound pretty low. But that’s not the same as being able to declare that all searches are this way. Each search may have a different mixture of paid and unpaid results, based on the ads competing to appear, the location of the searcher and whether Google itself determines if a particular query deserves to be ad-heavy or not.

Beyond the variation from search-to-search, how you measure the percentage of a page that’s deemed “unpaid” isn’t as clear cut as it may seem.

One immediate caveat is the assumption that the map is somehow not worth counting in as “organic” listings. Clicking on the map leads to a page that will have both organic listings and paid listings plotted on a map. There’s a usefulness for search engines to show local information on a map. Arguably, some of the map “percentage” should count into the organic listings.

Another issue is the idea that the search box and navigation links should be somehow counted against Google as some type of new attempt to drive more traffic to Google products. Google’s long had navigation links. In fact, at some points, the navigation and search box unit might have been larger than it is now.

Beyond that is the idea that measuring in pixels is somehow the correct way to go. It assumes that the entire page is seen and interacted with in the same way. It also, oddly, counts the ads on the side as having nearly twice as much space as they actually take-up, because the box around them includes a bunch of white space.

Traditionally, what has concerned search marketers worried about Google (or any) search engine encroaching on the organic space has been to count the actual number of listings, especially those in the middle of the page, where people typically focus their attention and clicks.

By those measures, the example above works out to have 10 listings that are fully visible, with percentages like this:

  • Total paid versus unpaid: 70% to 30%
  • Paid versus unpaid, middle column: 50% to 50%

Those percentages are much better than the “13%” you might come away with from the original blog post. But then again, they still feel pretty low.

Meanwhile, Over At Bing…

For comparison sake, I ran the same search on my own MacBook Air with a 13-inch screen at Bing:

I didn’t try to measure the pixel count, because as explained, I’m not sure that’s the right approach for various reasons. But at-a-glance, it’s pretty clear that an ad-heavy page isn’t just a Google problem. In this example, Bing manages to push all but a single organic listing to the bottom of the page — and only the title of that one shows.

Like Google, the map leads you to a mixture of paid and unpaid listings. Unlike Google, selecting the local listings that appear next to the map sends you back into Bing Maps rather than to the actual business. Google used to do the same but changed this practice about a year or two ago, after criticisms.

Italian Restaurant: Only 7% Unpaid?

For another search, organic listings won even less screen real estate. When Harris looked for “italian restaurant,” the newly introduced Google Local Carousel located at the top of the page garnered a full 30% of the screen real estate.

With the navigation bar still taking 14%, AdWords at 9%, the Google map with 15%, a Google-owned Zagat listings (outside of the carousel) at 4%, organic search results for Harris’s search made up for only 7% of the page:

Again, that’s a shockingly low number at first glance. But, it gets better when you understand more about how the search page actually works.

The carousel links aren’t paid listings. Clicking on them leads to a fresh search results pages for the particular restaurants that are listed. The downside is that, as with Bing, this drives people back into Google rather than over to the restaurants themselves.

That’s disappointing. Google’s goal here is that the carousel is part of its Knowledge Graph, where it’s trying to share answers and information about things, including restaurants. But if someone clicks on the name of the restaurant, there’s a good assumption they just want to go to that restaurant’s page, not get stuck in an endless loop of Google search results.

As said, Google changed how its map results did this in the past; hopefully it will reconsider how the carousel works.

Another issue is counting the Zagat listing separately from the overall “organic” figure just because it’s a Google-owned property. Google asserts those properties are competing with all other pages and only appear if its algorithm believes they are relevant. There’s no programmatic command to always show a Zagat page at the top. Some won’t believe this, of course. But still, that’s far different than the assumption that a Zagat page might always show.

Indeed, here’s what I see in my location for the same search:

In this case, I don’t get any ads at all. I also don’t get any Zagat listings. Instead, I get the Olive Garden, an LA Times article and two listings from Google-competitor Yelp.

Meanwhile, Over At Bing…

On the one hand, I’m much happier with what I get from Bing:

There are ads, but they are over in the middle column, under the map. Clicking on the main listings takes you to the restaurants, unlike how Google’s carousel works. Organic search is far from “dead” here.

Then again, Google’s giving me a more colorful display that actually lists more restaurants than Bing does. If the carousel took me directly to those restaurants, rather than back into the search results (where you can then get to them), I think it would be a much better winner.

A final caveat in all this. Looking at a page doesn’t help you understand some of the interactivity that goes on. With Bing, selecting the “Reviews” link changes the middle column into showing more information from Bing’s own sources. How that gets measured is another complication, if we’re counting pixel space versus listings.

0% On Mobile?

Organic search results fared even worse in mobile searches, claiming 0% of the initial screens. When Harris searched “Italian Restaurants” from his iPhone, he had to scroll through four full screens before seeing any organic listings, which appeared after ad units, Google-owned Zagat listings, and a Google map followed by Google local listings:

Again, it sounds terrible until you get into the caveats. First, there’s the counting of Zagat in the first example as not being an organic search results, when it is. That really makes the results on that page 50/50 paid versus organic, unless you assume based on one search that Zagat will always occupy the top spot and that there will always be an ad. That’s not the case for me, in my location. In my area, Yelp has the entire page first screen.

After that, I get the same type of Google local listings as shown as “2″ in Harris’s example. I suppose that’s bad news for the Yelps of the world who want even more of that page, and it really does illustrate what Harris said, something the Yelps and others have already themselves said many times before:

“If you compete with Google in any way, you’re in its crosshairs. Your chances of ranking high enough to garner traffic are virtually nil and getting smaller.”

Life Harder For Competing Search Engines; Not Necessarily For Web Sites

Indeed. While the future may not be as bad as Harris paints it for other local search providers, in getting traffic from Google, the trend is pretty clear. Where Google can provide answers, it’s going to do that more and more directly, rather than feeding out to competing search engines.

That, however, isn’t necessarily bad for the user. If I’m on my phone, and I want to learn about a restaurant, the Google local results in the second screenshot are extremely useful, offering to let me call the restaurant or get directions to it. If I drill in, I’d even get an Urbanspoon menu. I’d also likely get Yelp reviews along with Zagat reviews, if that’s what Yelp wanted. But that’s not what Yelp wants, because Yelp blocks those reviews from appearing in Google.

But Google Owning Content Is Troubling

For me, the concern isn’t that Google doesn’t show enough listings of other search engines, any more than I’m not concerned that the New York Times doesn’t run enough Wall Street Journal articles. To understand more about this, see my past articles:

To me, the real concern has been the transformation of Google from being a search engine that pointed out to destination sites (like those restaurants) to wanting to be a destination of its own.

SEO and organic search is far from dead, and anyone who runs a site can look at their traffic logs to know how much traffic Google sends them every day, for free. But selling movies, offering restaurant reviews, hosting video, hosting book content and more does further pollute the clarity we used to have about what Google’s role was as a search engine, and whether it pushes its own content above others.

For more about that, see my other past article:

While I have some issues without how Harris has measured some of his examples, and how a few examples don’t represent hard-and-fast figures for all queries, I have no issue with the bigger takeaway that the screenshots are further food for thought and discussion that the “Google Giveaway” space has gotten tighter over the years, a trend that’s likely to continue.