Google has recently been the center of some controversy regarding banner ads for search results, and the process has been interesting to watch. What happened, why did it happen and where will the search giant go from here?
In the early times of the Internet, banner ads were the most common form of advertisement. Textual ads were too small and easy to miss. Banner ads were bright, flashy graphics that linked to a sponsored page. Everything from news sites to webcomics had a banner space to sell, with some sites opening up half of their screen real estate to banner ads. Toplist sites were little more than lists of banner ads, with paid placement under the guise of user rankings.
Banner ads had a number of flaws as the modern age approached, however. In some cases, the image was hosted by the sponsor, not the host; this meant a vulnerability that could be exploited by changing the image. In some cases, the banner ads got so distracting that the original site was lost beneath. Multimedia advertisements began to take over pages, and in response, adblockers sprang up to hide every vestige of banners from a site. Banner ads also didn’t help SEO; with no real textual elements to index, search engines would ignore them. Alt text solved this problem temporarily, but keyword spam in alt text quickly took over, ruining the benefit.
Google has made a name for itself in part based on the simple, minimalist approach to search. Users aren’t there to examine the search engine site; they want to use it as a portal to the content they want to find. A flashy logo, a tower of banner ads, embedded multimedia; none of these aid the user experience in finding the target of their queries.
In 2005, the then executive of Google Marissa Mayer made the statement that there would never be flashy, crazy graphical ads, banners and assorted intrusive media on Google. Mayer, now the CEO of Yahoo, mostly referred to banner ads, pop-ups and ridiculous multimedia content that was intrusive upon search.
Of course, to a small extent Google has broken this promise many times over the years. Google Doodles, the famous alterations of the Google homepage to honor people, events and holidays, could be considered graphical “doodads” in violation of the letter of the announcement. In reality, however, those doodles are simple distractions on the home page. On search, they are much more limited and non-intrusive.
The controversy sprang up in the past few months as Google tested out a new program for corporate banners ads in search results. Some companies, such as Southwest Airlines, were given a rather large image — similar in size to a Facebook cover photo — that would dominate search results related to that company. This is obviously in direct violation of the letter and spirit of the announcement Mayer made eight years ago.
Google’s rationale for the experiment was that Google has always offered certain visual, graphical and multimedia advertisements through their advertising platform. Media ads, product listings and image extensions all involved paid advertising, and many people considered these minor intrusions to be valuable.
Recently, companies have been backing off on the number of visual ads they purchased. Whether this was because of the economic crash or because of a lower turnover rate, it’s hard to say. Regardless, Google decided to pilot a U.S.-based banner ad program on a limited basis. Searching directly for one of the companies involved didn’t guarantee the presence of that banner ad, in fact.
There are several problems with Google’s pilot program for banner ads.
All told, the pilot program was very small. It only included a list of around 30 companies, including giants like Southwest Airlines and Nike. It only ran in the United States, and even still most users never saw it happening. Those who did, for the most part, seemed vocally against the program entirely.
With all of the legitimate objections, the benefits of the program to Google itself were not large enough to justify expanding the program. Amit Singhal, the current head of search and holder of Marissa Mayer’s former position, announced that the program had been scrapped. Though the search representative didn’t go into detail why, it’s fairly obvious that it simply wasn’t beneficial enough, either to the company or to end users, to justify continuing.
So, to answer the basic question in simple terms; Google will never have banner ads mixed in with their search results for two reasons. The first reason is simply that they promised they wouldn’t, and users expect them to hold to that promise. The other reason is that they tried it, and it didn’t work out for them.
The fact is that if Google ever wanted to run a program where they included banner as in their search results, they could, and the vocal users wouldn’t be enough to stop them. On the other hand, they would certainly use a number of power-users to Bing, which is as close as makes no different in many respects for basic search. Google would see a minor drop in search traffic, but a much more major drop in users for its other services. In addition to losing search traffic to Bing, what happens when users switch from Gmail to Hotmail?
The reality is that it’s better for Google to stop now than it is for the company to push the issue. They could include a few banner ads on guaranteed searches, and it wouldn’t cause too much of a stir beyond what it already has. The could then slowly expand the program and cite the lack of outcry as proof that it doesn’t really matter. Over time, Google would look very different, and the value they provide to users would drop. This is not a slippery slope that Google is willing to walk.