Digital Publishing
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After publisher backlash, Google initiates redesign to highlight organic results

Over time, organic results have been getting pushed down in Google search pages, with sponsored results and ads featuring prominently in the prime real estate, along with various other Google elements like featured snippets, images, shopping results and more.

In addition to that, gradually sponsored results and ads have become almost indistinguishable from organic result links, losing distinguishing characteristics like background color shading, right-hand placement, clear labeling, etc.

Publishers and small businesses, not to put too fine a point on it, weren’t exactly thrilled with these developments. Rand Fishkin, Founder of SparkToro, demonstrated how even publishers who rank at the very top in organic search results can get pushed down into obscurity.

Google’s “becoming a walled garden”

As an inevitable consequence, publishers’ Google traffic opportunity has gone south, by up to 70%.

The largest source of traffic on the web — free and paid — is becoming a walled garden,” said Fishkin, “intent on not only keeping people on its own properties, but competing directly with those that helped it become a dominant, monopoly power.”

“It’s a shakedown. It’s ransom.”

Basecamp CEO Jason Fried found that even when people searched directly for “basecamp,” clearly signaling their intent, even then Basecamp, which ranks #1 for that query, was shown way lower at the #5 spot, after ads that were almost indistinguishable from actual search results.

Eventually, Basecamp had to pay Google to get featured as the #1 result for their own brand name. “When Google puts 4 paid ads ahead of the first organic result for your own brand name, you’re forced to pay up if you want to be found,” he said. “It’s a shakedown. It’s ransom.”

The CEO of Shopify, Tobias Lutke, also weighed in on Fried’s tweet, saying, “It’s totally crazy for Google to get away with charging what’s basically protection money on your own brand name,” he wrote. “‘Nice high intend traffic you got there, would be a shame if something were to happen to it.’”

Users are unable to identify paid ads

In various instances Fishkin highlighted, publishers and small businesses have been getting buried under a wall of ads that are almost indistinguishable from organic search results.

According to recent research by Yard, around 40% of users are unable to identify paid adverts on these results.

Google does a refresh

After a sustained backlash, Google began taking small steps to differentiate the sponsored results from organic ones. Last year, they unveiled a visual refresh of the mobile search results page that makes it easier to tell the difference between ads and actual search results.

“Before, the search results were blue and the source — a publisher’s site, for example — would appear below in a smaller, green font,” explained TechCrunch’s Sarah Perez. “Now, it’s the publisher who gets top billing.

The revamp is subtle, but one that will likely please publishers as it gives them a way to stand out. After all, web searchers who are already familiar with the publisher’s site may choose to click through (or rather, tap through) to their link out of a personal preference — even if it’s further down on the results page.

Sarah Perez, TechCrunch

This week, Google announced that the search page redesign is now rolling out to desktop results, presenting site domain names and brand icons prominently, along with a bolded “Ad” label for ads. This is how the search results will look:

The format puts a site’s brand front and center,” says Google, “helping searchers better understand where information is coming from, more easily scan results & decide what to explore.”

Publishers can define their brand icon to show in search results, but they need to follow these guidelines for their sites to be eligible.

You may see changes in traffic because of the favicons at the top and the new interface,” says Barry Schwartz, Search Engine Land’s News Editor. “You should track these clickthrough rate changes but do not make any rash decisions on this change too quickly. 

“Give it some time for searchers to adapt to it and see what changes you need to make.”

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