Search marketing is the process of gaining traffic from search engines through both paid and unpaid efforts. Search marketing encompasses both SEO - traffic earned through free listings and SEM - traffic earned through paid listings and optimisation. For business and marketers, search is hugely important in driving large volumes of quality, relevant traffic to a website to aid conversions etc however, it has become increasingly apparent that customers are unaware they are being advertised to when conducting a Google search.

Are web users aware of PPC ads?

In 2013, Bunnyfoot conducted a researcher-led test of 100 web users regarding their awareness of Google advertising. This study began by observing user searches followed by the question: ‘did you recall any ads?’. Results showed 81% of participants clicked on paid listings whilst only 19% clicked on organic listings and at first glance, one of two opinions could be assumed. Firstly - the paid listings were more attractive to the web user or secondly, they are unaware of the difference between paid and organic listings. In this Bunnyfoot study, it was the latter - many users could not differentiate between paid and organic listings whilst 41% were unaware paid listings were adverts - assuming instead that they were the most authoritative links / most relevant to their search. A similar study was conducted by Bunnyfoot again in early 2014, again with 100 participants which concluded that 36% of web users were unaware Google AdWords are ads whilst more than a quarter were unaware Google had any advertising whatsoever.

Cast your mind back to 2013 when the top paid listings were contained within a faded yellow box. To the average Google user, of course this faded yellow box could be mistaken for the most authoritative links or the most relevant to their search unless looking closely to view the reference to ads. As Google is forever evolving, web users may have had difficulty differentiating between paid and organic listings - more than there would be in 2014.

Have Google and businesses profited from users being unaware?

In taking the statistics from the previous Bunnyfoot studies, it poses the question - did Google make £3.76 billion from web users who were unaware they were being advertised to? As both Bunnyfoot studies were conducted on a small scale and are not representative of the average web user, Econsultancy conducted a follow up study in 2014.

Firstly, in order to validate results, Econsultancy ran two further studies - the first of 1,004 users was conducted using Google consumer surveys, the second of 1,000 users was conducted through the Toluna survey panel. Both sets of results were combined uncovering that 10.03% of users had never noticed an ad on Google (13.87% of females and 9.48% of males). In comparison to both studies conducted by Bunnyfoot - uncovering 41% and 36% respectively - this show a significant decline in web users that had never noticed an ad. Surprisingly, it was the 18-24 and 45-54 age brackets (17.58% and 12.80% respectively) who stated they had never seen a Google ad.

However, a slight flaw with this study is the prescriptive nature of the questions’ wording (i.e. “how often do you click ads on Google?”), which instantly informs respondents that Google does in fact have ads. As such, the user may be indirectly inclined to answer differently i.e. “I never click ads on Google” (which 25.80% of users did) instead of “I’ve never seen an ad on Google”. Although this Econsultancy study identified a smaller percentage of web users than that of the Bunnyfoot studies, at least 10% of web users had still never knowingly seen an ad which is quite a significant figure in modern times.

How is Google helping to create more informed Internet users?

In 2014, Google made further changes to the way their ads were displayed - out with the yellow box and in with listings identical to organic search containing ‘Ad’ disclosure text in a yellow box. These listings now clearly state they are ads which could explain why it is only 10% of users unaware of paid listings compared to 41% in the 2013 study by Bunnyfoot.

Although all three studies had their flaws, the study conducted by Econsultancy provided the most conclusive results when it came down to user awareness of Google ads. From each of the studies, it is apparent there is still a proportion of web users out there who are unaware of Google ads (at least 10%). As this figure is significantly lower than that uncovered in 2013 (41% and 36% respectively), it indicated that Google’s recent changes to how ads are displayed could have had a positive impact in making users more aware of ads. However, the aforementioned figure of 10% remains relatively high, therefore web users’ understanding of more complex web issues could still be questioned.

Paid search is an excellent way to reach customers in the research and buying stage of the marketing funnel, however, if web users are initially unaware they are being advertised to, this could result in negative opinions being formed about a business / organisation further down the line. Additionally, if all web users were made aware of paid listings, this would allow for advertising and marketing budgets to be utilised to effectively target those interested in their products / services.