No One Can Correctly Google Any More, Basically

Google has been placing more and more crap around search results, which is very annoying, but it turns out this crapification may work out quite well for the giant internet company. That's reportedly because people can't really tell anymore what's a Google advertisement and what's a Google search result, turning the simple act of internet searching into a confusing profitable mess.

SEOBook, the journal for evil villains who manipulate search results, wanted to find out whether ordinary internet users could distinguish ordinary results from advertising. So the publication canvassed 1,000 people, showing them search screenshots and asking if there was any advertising in them. People generally had no idea what was what, not even on Google, which built its reputation with a clean and once-straightforward interface.

Asked to look at Google results with ads on top, fully 45.5 percent of respondents incorrectly stated that the results had no ads on them, which means people in the survey would have been nearly as accurate flipping a coin as looking at an actual Google search page and trying to make heads or tails of it.

Later, respondents were asked to look at Google search results that had no ads, but did have one of those goddamned Google Plus menu bars on top. Some 56 percent of respondents incorrectly stated that the results did have ads around them:

Google with ads:
"Yes, this has ads on it:" 54.5%
"No, this does not have ads on it:" 45.5%

Google+ without ads
"Yes, this has ads on it:" 56.3%
"No, this does not have ads on it:" 43.7%

But people can pretty much tell a sidebar ad from a search result:

Google with sidebar ads:
"Yes, this has ads on it:" 62.9%
"No, this does not have ads on it: 37.1%

But the junk Google has been adding to its results isn't in the sidebar, it's above the results. There's that infernal Google Plus toolbar, less than a year old. And there seem to be more ads, too. Tech journalist Ed Bott recently blogged about how, without scrolling, he could only see one actual result when he searched Google for "pet meds." The other results had been pushed down by the Google Plus bar, three sponsored results (on top, not in the sidebar), and a nested pointer to Google Plus. "At Google, advertising is crowding out search results," he concluded.

Since people have such trouble separating out search results from ads from Google Plus cruft, that probably won't be a bad thing for Google, at least in the short term. Someone who confuses an ad with an organic search result is more likely to click on it. The person might even come back to the Google results page in frustration and click on a different ad. That's lots of money for Google. It's also an annoying and sometimes unsavory situation for anyone trying to use the world's predominant search engine to actually find useful information. And it's a fantastic long-term opportunity for the startups trying to displace Google with an interface that is, as Google used to be, crystal clear—not just to internet-savvy nerds but to ordinary, easily confused people.

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