A new study suggests as many as 55% of people can’t tell the difference between organic and paid listings in Google Search. This follows a similar study that said just over half of people couldn’t spot AdWords ads – a telling statistic in the days of modern search.

So let’s take a closer look at the study and what this says about the SEO/PPC balance in marketing today.


Most people can’t spot AdWords ads

The latest study from Varn confirms its findings from earlier this year. In February, the company revealed 50.6% of adults failed to tell AdWords and organic listings apart in tests. A report from Ofcom the following month came up with almost the exact same figure, claiming half of all adults were unable to spot AdWords ads in Google SERPs.

It’s fair to say those numbers took a lot of us by surprise in the marketing community. Although it’s a given some people don’t know the difference between paid and organic listings, a whole half of Google users is a crazy stat.

Things have changed a lot since that first study in February, too. Google has made a number key changes to how it displays ads and the team at Varn wanted to see how this may have affected their study. And, after running the same test again, they now find a larger 55% of people can’t distinguish ads in Google Search.


How did the study get these numbers?

All we really know about the Varn tests is more than 1,000 UK adults were asked about ads in Google Search. Here’s what they found:


They also broke down respondents into age brackets and found the following;


At this point it’s important to question how reliable these studies are. Varn doesn’t give away many details about how it conducted them, but it appears they simply asked respondents. If that’s the case, then it’s not the most scientific approach. The margin for error would be very high, which makes the data flimsy to begin with – and a 5% shift in the second study pretty meaningless.

That said, both sets of results are consistent and the Ofcom study from April backs up the original findings from Varn. Ofcom gave more details about its test, too, saying respondents were shown screenshots of results pages and asked to point out the ads. That’s a far more convincing model for this kind of test.

The rest is pure speculation but it’s interesting to look at the changes Google has made to its ads over the last few months.


Are Google ads getting harder to spot?

Earlier this year, Google removed all right column ads from its results pages – one of the most substantial changes to AdWords/Google we’ve seen in years.


Source: Search Engine Watch

So we no longer get pages like the above for desktop searches. Instead, you get a single column layout like this:


All results on the page now run in a single column, which could make ads less obvious. Then, a few months later, Google also changed the colour of ad labels from yellow to green.


The new labels match the green of the display URLs and reduce the colour contrast against white – both of which create a more subtle ad.

So it’s easy to imagine more people struggling to spot AdWords ads now, compared to a few months ago. In fact, when you look back at the changes to Google ads over the years, you can understand why less users notice them now:


Source: Search Engine Watch

If more people fail to see AdWords ads, the benefit for Google is obvious. An increase in ad clicks over time means more money for the search giant – but it also makes it more effective for advertisers.

This trend will likely continue as Google makes further changes to its ad delivery. Google Maps is about to get heavier ad integration and organic results get pushed further down the SERPs every year – especially on mobile. And, if anywhere near half of your target audience can’t spot ads from organic results, then it may be worth putting some extra budget into your AdWords kitty.