Increasingly, Google’s search results page is not just the on-ramp to direct you to the most relevant information on the web; it’s also the destination. The unpaid links are buried amid a hodgepodge of fact boxes, news links, ads and snippets of text.
For marketers who rely on Google to bring them web traffic, the blurred lines between ads and regular results make it hard to decipher whether the customers being redirected to their sites are people who were going to come to them anyway or those who stumbled upon them because of the ad.
“You can’t figure out where the highest-value customers are coming from if everyone comes in through that paid ad,” said Amanda Goetz, vice president of marketing at the Knot Worldwide, a wedding planning group. “Right now, it’s just a bidding war, and brands now have to buy against their own name as a defense mechanism.”
Ms. Goetz called the redesign a “transition to this almost deceptive dark pattern.”
Josh Zeitz, another Google spokesman for the ads team, said the design changes were in line with guidelines from the Federal Trade Commission. In 2013, the F.T.C. made recommendations for how search engines should label ads, but stopped short of specific requirements other than that paid results should be “noticeable and understandable to consumers.”
Google’s recent changes adhered to some of the guidelines but ignored others. Google did not follow what the F.T.C. prescribed for “visual cues” with paid results marked by “prominent shading that has a clear outline,” by a “border that distinctly sets off advertising” from unpaid search results or by both. But the new ad icon met the F.T.C.’s recommendation for ad labels to appear before the paid result on the upper left-hand side.
Google declined to comment on the record about how it interprets the F.T.C. guidelines, citing a quiet period before the earnings report. An F.T.C. spokesman, Mitchell Katz, declined to comment on Google’s changes.
Google is not alone in trying to squeeze more revenue from prominent internet properties. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Amazon are increasing the numbers of ads that appear on their sites and apps and labeling advertisements in different ways.