Are Google Search Results Becoming Too Ad Cluttered?
Google organic search results appear to be dwindling while Google ads take up increasing screen space. What does this mean for the future of Google SEO?
Are there too many ads on Google? According to a recent study by Forrester Research, 54 percent of consumers discover new websites through organic search results, which are unsponsored links that are the best fit for the search terms. The same study found that only 18 percent of website discovery occurs when people click on paid links such as Google AdWords. Despite users' apparent preference for organic search results over sponsored links, however, Google organic search results appear to be dwindling while Google ads take up increasing screen space. What does this mean for the future of Google SEO?
Google Search Results: Too Many Ads?
Critics say that Google search results are cluttered with too many ads. With Google AdWords and other Google ads taking up valuable screen real estate, they argue, little room is left for organic search results. There is some evidence to back up their claim.
- In one study, Google organic search results take up as little as 13 percent of the screen. Aaron Harris, co-founder and CEO of Tutorspree, tested the content of Google searches with the term "auto mechanic." He found that Google AdWords took up 29 percent of the resulting page while organic results only amounted to 13 percent of the page. A map and the Google navigation bar took up the remaining pixel space.
- Others have replicated these results. Vignesh Ramachandran of Mashable, replicating Harris' experiment, had similar findings. Also using the term "auto mechanic," he found that only 13.5 percent of the page, or 102,000 out of 756,000 pixels, was dedicated to organic search results. Since Ramachandran conducted his test in a different city, it appears that local SEO is not to blame.
- In some searches, organic results account for even less of the page. When Harris used the search term "Italian restaurant," he discovered that only 7 percent of the page was dedicated to organic search results, as the Google Local Carousel took up 30 percent of the page.
- Mobile SEO is no exception. When Harris searched using the term "Italian restaurant" on his mobile device, 0 percent of the initial screen consisted of organic search results. In fact, he has to scroll through four pages before he reached any unpaid links.
Google Search Results: Just Enough Ads
Others, however, argue that Google search results contain a good balance of organic and paid links. Google organic search results, they say, are far from dead. There is evidence to back up this claim as well.
- The percentage of paid results drops when links are counted instead of page space. Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land argues that pixel space is not the best measure of ad space. Instead, he says, one should count the number of visible links. In the "auto mechanic" search, 30 percent, rather than 13 percent, of the screen consists of Google ads when using this technique.
- Navigation links and the Google search box should not count as ad space. Sullivan also notes that Harris counted the map and search box as if they were paid results. They accounted for 20 percent of the page.
- The Google Local Carousel should not count against Google either. The Google Local Carousel, introduced in 2013, does not contain paid links. Rather, it is part of Google's local SEO. Carousel results appear to be triggered based on selected vertical searches (restaurants, hotels, leisure items such as favorite movies from last year or rosters of your favorite sports team). Part of the carousel results stem from Google’s Knowledge Graph which incorporates information from Wikipedia and from Google’s own database of facts. What's interesting about Carousel results are that they (from our experience) almost always include images. Where they pull these images from is a great question. Most likely from a variety of sources including Google’s image results.
- Other search engines have similar results. Sullivan tried the "auto mechanic" search with the Bing search engine as well. He found the resulting paid vs. unpaid space to be similar to that of Google's.
- Mobile SEO is not straightforward. Mobile SEO is tricky, to put it mildly. With varying device screen sizes, it is difficult to accurately assess paid vs. unpaid screen space. In addition, local SEO makes a difference in this case. Sullivan found organic search results on the second page of his device instead of the fifth as Harris did.
Conclusion: Is Google a Search Engine or a Content Destination?
The future of Google SEO and how people view Google largely depends on how people define Google. Is Google still simply a search engine? Or, as Danny Sullivan argues, has it become a content destination? If observers expand the role of Google to include hosting content instead of just pointing to content, Harris' results are not as concerning as one might initially believe. On the other hand, the very term "Google SEO," that is, Google Search Engine Optimization, implies that Google's function has not changed in the eyes of most users.
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