Banner ads on Google…a step too far?

By Daragh Cassidy

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Google has come a long way since it was founded by Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 1998.

The small company that once provided just internet search results has turned into a behemoth of a corporation involved in almost every area of digital life: social media, email, online advertising, mapping, cloud storage and much much more. Google now even provides (a pretty decent) language translation service!

The Google search site has also come a long way since it first appeared in 1998. The simple, uncluttered look and feel of the site has gradually been replaced by an increasingly ‘busy’ looking site over the years. These days, whenever anyone searches on Google, paid search ads take up an ever increasing amount of space. And if a company that you’re searching for has a Google+ profile page, then expect that to feature prominently too.

Google has also been giving personalised search results for several years. This means that two people searching for the same thing might get very different search results depending on their past browsing history and what Google perceives their interests to be. This is despite that fact that in 2005, Marissa Mayer, the then head of search and user experience, wrote that Google would never provide “biased” search results.

However, another more sacrosanct promise now seems to have been broken. Mayer, who worked at Google for 13 years before moving to Yahoo! as CEO, also vowed there would be: “…no banner ads on the Google homepage or web search results pages. There will not be crazy, flashy, graphical doodads flying and popping up all over the Google site. Ever”.

Until now that is…

Because Google has confirmed that it is testing a system with about 30 advertisers in the US in which it will show banner ads for these companies when people search for topics that include them in web search results. Google declined to say how long the test will run for, when it might be extended outside the US, or what the criteria for success – or failure – would be.

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For advertisers, this must seem like a marketing dream. Google is the world’s most-used search engine and one of the world’s most visited sites. And while AdWords provides a way for advertisers to target internet search users, the format hardly allows for a brand to communicate any type of rich, engaging or creative message. Banner ads (or better still, rich media, GIF animated banners!!) would provide a fantastic way for advertisers to get their message across to the hundreds of millions of people who use Google’s search engine every day.

But is the idea really right for Google itself?

Advertisers have been less willing to pay for ad space recently, forcing Google to increase the overall volume of ads that it sells. The banner ad tests come amid a push by Google to move from purely text-based ads to ones that feature videos, photos and other forms of visual information. This is understandable given the increasingly “visual” age in which we now live.

However, one of the major reasons why Google gained so much attention when it started in 1998 was because its opening search page, and following results page, were uncluttered by adverts and other elements such as banner ads. Users adored the clean look and feel of the site and this was one of the main reasons the company quickly overtook the Yahoo! search engine in so many markets – just compare the Google home page to that of Yahoo! But with AdWords and now banners ads clogging up search results, this uncluttered look and feel is quickly being eroded.

In the short term, banner ads may seem like a great way for Google to maximise revenue and make even more profits. But in the longer term, people may view all Google’s advertising as an annoyance and start moving back to simpler search alternatives.

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