Google Dropping Sponsored from the Golden Triangle?

Whoa..this is a bold move!

Just saw a thread on Webmaster World that indicates Google is testing removing top sponsored ads after a number of searches where a user doesn’t click on anything. Tried it myself and sure enough, after 4 or 5 refreshes, top ads were gone.

After refreshing on the same query, the ads disappeared for that query, and any modifications of the query, but still showed for a totally different query. After I went through the same process with the new query, all my top ads disappeared.

If Google sticks with this, it demonstrates a huge dedication to the user experience. Our research has shown how valuable this real estate is from a monetization perspective, but Google’s feeling (and rightly so) is that if you’re skipping past it anyway, the probability of a click on these ads is minimal. Why impair the user experience but taking up prime real estate with something that the user is just filtering out anyway.

I did some more testing with some different patterns to see where the sponsored filter seems to be tripped. If you do a number of different searches without clicking on sponsored listings, it doesn’t seem to kick in. It’s only if you do a lot of return visits to the same set of search results without hitting a sponsored link. But once the ads are gone, they’re gone for every query from then on til you clear your cookies.

Ironically, my only hesitation with this is from the user experience perspective. My feeling is the thresholds might be set too low. Intent plays a huge part in how we interact with search listings, and this can vary greatly¬†from search to search. It’s also very difficult to determine from the nature of the query. So, if I’m in a fact finding mode, even if I’m using what appear to be very commercial terms, and I skip over ads on 4 or 5 subsequent returns to a page, that doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t want ads on any search. One anomalous search could filter out top sponsored results for days, weeks and even months and the user would never know what happened. There is no indication on the page that Google is applying any type of filter. There is no way to turn them back on. For 99.9% of web users, they’d never know what happened.

Now, it’s not all ads, but only the top ones that disappear. But the fact is, the difference between visibility and performance of ads in the two locations is so significant, that moving the top ads over to the side is almost like removing the ads from the page. Almost everyone starts scanning at the top of the page.

Google’s intentions are noble here, but they’re actually removing control from the user. I’m a big champion of organic results, so I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Google might be too hasty in stripping out top sponsored ads. In two different eye tracking tests, we found that it was clicks on these top sponsored links that actually offered the highest success rates for users. I’ll be watching with great interest to see how the test progresses.

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