- There’s a lot of angst these days about the declining quality of online search.
- The steady encroachment of poorly labeled ads into search results is a major part of the problem.
- One simple solution: Require all Search ads to be bright pink.
Mary Engle subscribes to Blue Apron and occasionally logs on to update her meal kit order.
Engle does what most of us do: She Googles “Blue Apron” and then clicks on a link to visit the company’s website.
From this point, her experience diverges from the rest of us. That’s because Engle spent almost 20 years as associate director of advertising practices at the Federal Trade Commission.
Instead of clicking on the top Google link, she scrolls down carefully, trying to avoid all the ads, to pick out the “organic” search result. That extra step sends her to Blue Apron’s site without the company having to pay Google for her click.
“Scrolling down, I’m sometimes not sure,” Engle told Insider. “I don’t know where the ads stop.”
There’s a lot of angst lately about the declining quality of online searches. A steady encroachment of poorly labeled ads into search results is a major part of the problem.
One simple solution: Require all Search ads to be bright pink.
Poorly labeled ads make search suckier
When more ads show up on the top of results, organic results get pushed down further. That makes the Search experience suckier: Ads let companies pay to show up first, while the demoted organic results are more relevant because they’re free from this commercial influence.
When Search ads aren’t labeled clearly, consumers don’t spot them as much and click more often on the paid listings. That forces businesses to spend even more on ads, sending billions of extra dollars to Google, Amazon, and others, including Microsoft’s Bing.
Consumers expect “search engine results are relevant to their query,” Engle told Insider. “If results are based on a payment where a company pays to put their site up first, then consumers should understand that because otherwise, it’s deceptive.”
From 2001 to 2020, Engle spent considerable time at the FTC trying to get Google and other search engines to fix this problem. But it only got worse.
In 2002, the FTC told search engines to clearly distinguish ads from organic search results to avoid violating laws against deceptive advertising.
By 2013, Engle wrote a letter to Google and other search engines warning them that their ads had become “significantly less visible or ‘luminous,'” making it hard for consumers to detect the paid listings.
She told the companies to give their search ads “more prominent shading that has a clear outline” and “a prominent border that distinctly sets off advertising from the natural search results.”
The companies mostly ignored this. Engle left the FTC in 2020 and is now EVP Policy at BBB National Programs, which promotes industry best practices such as truth-in-advertising.
No more shading
Today, search ad labels are even less clear than in 2013. The reason is obvious: When consumers can’t spot ads, they are more likely to click on them, which sends more money to the search companies.
A recent Google desktop search for “laptop” showed 4 ads at the top of the results. There’s no shading anymore to separate these paid listings from the organic results below. The ads are labeled “Sponsored” now, rather than just calling them an “ad.”
Researcher Ben Edelman tracked the evolution of Search result pages for years. A look at the archive he collected shows how much the line has blurred between ads and organic results.
A 2002 Google search for “flight” showed 2 ads at the top, one shaded blue and the other with a yellow background.
Edelman tracked how these Google ads got steadily paler over the years until one day the shading was gone entirely. A “laptop” search result page from 2014 shows 3 ads stuffed into the top slots on a uniform white background.
At least those 3 ads were marked with a yellow “Ad” icon. But these days, even those are gone. (Edelman now works for Microsoft and he declined to comment when Insider reached out).
Google said people must know ads are ads because without that the company would lose user trust. It also said it has invested in industry-leading ad labels and conducts research and testing that takes into account factors including user understanding and response, along with advertiser quality and effectiveness.
“We position our ad label in the top-left corner of an ad, so it’s the very first visual element that people see, and utilize a prominent ‘Sponsored’ label in bold text,” a Google spokesperson said.
The company also stressed that it has a good working relationship with the FTC and follows the agency’s guidelines carefully. The agency also gives companies flexibility to decide how best to follow those guidelines.
Adding bright shading to Search ads would make Google pages more confusing for users and wouldn’t work as well for situations such as Dark Mode and with users with certain accessibility issues, the company told Insider.
Amazon entered the advertising business in a big way, and search ads are one of its most successful offerings. Similar to Google, Amazon stuffs many search result pages with ads that could be much more clearly labeled.
The FTC alleged that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos instructed executives to accept more junk ads, internally called “defects,” because the company could earn more money through increased advertising despite their presence being a headache for consumers.
“Ads in Amazon’s store always include a clear and prominent ‘sponsored’ label, in accordance with FTC guidelines,” an Amazon spokesperson wrote in an email to Insider.
In 2017, the FTC released a “Blurred Lines” study that observed, interviewed, and tracked the eye movements of 48 people as they looked at various web pages, including several search results pages.
The pages were changed to make the ads stand out more, and the people were shown before-and-after versions.
For a Google mobile search result, the FTC replaced a “Sponsored” label with an “Ads” icon and changed the text and background color of that icon from white-on-yellow to black-on-orange. The agency also added tan background shading to better separate the ads from the regular search results.
For a Bing mobile search result, the FTC made similar modifications, including darkening the green background color of the ads to increase the contrast with regular results.
Most participants in the study seemed to recognize the ads as ads, and when the labels were less prominent and the shading lighter, that recognition faded. A Microsoft spokesperson declined to comment.
A ‘uniform standard for labeling ads’
Which brings us back to the simple solution: Search ads should be bright pink. That way, more consumers would spot these ads, and wouldn’t be duped into clicking them as often.
That, in turn, would mean businesses wouldn’t pay so much to Google, Amazon, and Bing. This could save businesses billions of dollars a year, and could even help them lower consumer prices.
“For consumer protection, there’s a lot of merit to the idea of a clear, uniform standard for labeling ads,” Engle said. “All the companies would use it, including Google and Amazon. It would be the same one. Bright labeling clearly would be helpful.”
The problem is that the FTC can’t just order companies to do something like this. That would take something like a new law passed in Congress.
Google and the other search companies would likely fight this every step of the way.
“The concern for them would be that it would hurt their bottom line. There’s tension here,” Engle said. “Labeling a Search ad so clearly that consumers see that it’s an ad would likely mean they don’t click on it and the search engines lose that revenue.”
“They do understand that they must label search ads but it’s not a bright line as to whether something is clear as an ad or not,” she added. “They don’t have an interest in something like bright pink search ads.”