It may have been easy to overlook how crowded with ads Google's search results pages have become over the last couple years. But it's hard to miss the latest example:
Google has begun to place large banner-size images atop search listings for certain brands, such as Southwest Airlines. Digital marketing company Synrgy first spotted the gargantuan ads on Wednesday, and Google has confirmed the test.
"We're currently running a very limited, US-only test, in which advertisers can include an image as part of the search ads that show in response to certain branded queries," said a Google spokesperson. He added that the ads are running on desktop only and pointed to other "informative visual elements" Google has added to search ads like thumbnail image carousels, video ads and product listing ads.
More paid real estate
The product listing ads are perhaps the best example of Google dedicating more search real estate to paid listings. Last year Google converted its Google Shopping product search feature to paid listings, or product listing ads, meaning that brands needed to pay to have their products appear on Google Shopping searches.
"If you look at a typical search results page today [compared to] a year ago, it's less devoted to natural [or organic] results," said Wister Walcott, executive VP of products and platform at Marin Software.
For example, a search for "razor scooter" shows 13 listings within a regular desktop screen window, all but three of which are ads. That may not be representative of the average search results page, but education startup Tutorspree published a widely circulated blog post over the summer that documented cases of text-based unpaid listings only accounting for 13% and 7% of results pages.
Then consider Google's plan to add people's names and profile photos attached comments, reviews and +1s through the recently announced Shared Endorsement ads and how that will siphon part of the screen from unpaid listings.
Google's increased crowding of search results pages with visual cues is thought by industry experts to improve click rates and offset the decline in prices per click. Google saw a 26% year-over-year jump in number of clicks on paid ads in the third quarter, though it's difficult to decipher how much of that can be attributed to ad extensions. Larry Kim, founder and CTO of search marketing firm WordStream, estimated that the addition of reviews to listings boosts ad click-through rates by 6% to 8%.
'Jump off the page'
"For marketers and consumers, images are not common within search listings, so they will jump off the page for people," said iCrossing senior VP-media for North America Jonathan Adams of Google's Shared Endorsement ads.
However the oversized images are something of a departure, or aggressive extension, of the visual expansions Google had previously introduced. It's also a drastic shift away from the company's 2005 commitment to never run banner ads on search pages.
"There will be no banner ads on the Google homepage or web search results pages. There will not be crazy, flashy, graphical doodads flying and popping up all over the Google site. Ever," wrote then-Google exec and now Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer in a 2005 company blog post.
These latest banner-style ads are indicative of Google's push to lure more brand advertising dollars. At an Advertising Week in September, Google's VP-display advertising Neal Mohan said brand advertising is "probably one of our biggest bets, not just this year but going into 2014."