Up to 40% of web users are unaware that the Google Ads above their search results are paid-for advertisements, according to new research.
The findings, from usability consultancy Bunnyfoot, came from research while conducting an end-to-end customer experience research project for an insurance sector client.
The Bunnyfoot team discovered that 81% of users clicked on Google Adwords listings as opposed to natural search results.
Further investigation of this surprising bias revealed that 41 out of the 100 individuals tested did not know that Adwords were paid-for adverts, believing them instead to be the most authoritative links.
“We were astounded by the numbers when they first came in but there can be no doubt about it: a significant slice of internet users simply don’t recognise Adwords listings as sponsored links,” said Bunnyfoot co-founder Rob Stevens.
“Given the ubiquity of Google Adwords and the frequently clunky way they are implemented the majority of people in the marketing industry will find it surprising that 41% of users don’t even realise that they are adverts, but this tells us two things. First, that marketers live in an expert bubble that can separate them from a consumer perspective and second, that Google Ads can be a far more effective brand building tool than they are often given credit for.”
Conducted at Bunnyfoot’s specialist labs in London, the research used an eyetracker to capture where participants were looking and depth interviews to monitor the emotional responses and behaviour of 100 experienced internet users, all of whom had previously purchased their car insurance online and conducted various other web transactions.
When quizzed on what they thought the Adwords were and why they were appearing at the top of their search results, those participants unaware of the listings’ sponsored status typically assumed that their top of page slot indicated quality and relevance.
Typical responses included:
“The first 3 that meet my search criteria are presumably the best.”
“They’re the best match for what you have put in the search. They have got the words that you have put in or are the most popular.”
The same confusion did not occur with adverts in the right-hand column of Google results pages, which users recognised as promotional slots.
Bunnyfoot’s consultants believe that this research serves as a reminder for marketing teams of the degree to which a professional interest in advertising, digital marketing and usability can disqualify them from thinking and behaving like a customer.
Assuming that common knowledge is actually shared among the population at large can be dangerously misleading, leading to suboptimal utilisation of some platforms.
“Most people in marketing, will tell you that everyone knows that Google Ads are paid for and that they are therefore of limited value for brand building. Yet when submitted to actual testing, the results show that they have an authority and appeal for which they are rarely credited,” added Stevens.
“If even simple things like the Google Ads being ads are being misinterpreted, then what about more complex propositions, interactions or design patterns? If marketers want to make sure these are received and acted upon successfully, it is imperative that they test these things with their customers, focussing on actual behaviour rather than unreliable opinion.”