Posted January 13, 2009 10:57 am by with 29 comments

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UPDATE: Scott Edwards points out in the comments below that the phenomenon described below is the result of a bug in a plugin that I currently use. I want to say I am sorry for making this mistake and hope this serves as a lesson to us all that nothing is as it seems in search marketing!


Okay, I am going to admit for a moment that I don’t know that much about sponsored search. Sure, I know what it is, I know how to put together basic PPC campaigns but when it comes down to it, I am more an SEO kind of guy.

With that said and done please correct me if I am wrong but, haven’t we been told over and over again that Google’s paid advertising department and their search department are two completely different entities? Haven’t we been told that it doesn’t matter how much you spend on PPC, your rankings in the SERPs will not be affected?


As long as I have been in search marketing that has always been the case, but for some reason I am starting to feel like that little rule won’t be repeated very often anymore. Why you ask? Take a look at the “Sponsored Links” in the screenshot above. Can you see them? It’s okay to look twice, I nearly missed them the first time. Why is it so hard to see those “Sponsored Links”? Because they look EXACTLY like organic search results!

So, I know what some of you are thinking, but Joe, they are separate, they aren’t part of the organic results. You’re right, but apparently, that doesn’t matter. From my point of view that screenshot tells me that I can buy the first three results for that search term.

If Google is going to continue to tell SEOs and marketers that buying PPC ads doesn’t affect their organic listings then they need to make a clear distinction between their ads and their organic search results. Otherwise, just put the whole SERP on the auction block!

  • Is this new? I can’t see this change… have they rolled it out to a subset of users? It’s definitely a bad shift for a company that every single change it makes is all about making the user experience better. This makes the search results page look more like one of those adsense sites where everything’s blended into a content blob.

  • Lisa Young


    I did the same search and the top 3 paid results were screened with a yellow background. Perhaps they are just testing.

  • Exactly right Joe.

    It is a matter of time before Google ends up being no more than a domain parking page, full of advertisements. Actually, if you come to think about it, that idea suits all the Internet. No more than a sales TV channel, a relemarketing channel, really. We better find the next title for the World Wide Web: Adnet.

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  • Joe Hall

    @Lisa you might be right, it might just be testing. I just ran the same query again and the same ads came up. However when I ran the query with personalization turned off using the “&pws=0” attribute, the ads disappear. So I guess we will have to wait and see.

  • Sorry Joe they are completely different for me. I understand what your trying to say, but until you can produce examples across a wide range of keywords and locations in the US then this is a poor example and doesn’t really show more than coicindence.

    Jaan Kanellis’s last blog post..Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions Book

  • Joe Hall

    @Jaan, I agree that more research is needed to see if this evolves into something that has lasting power. But this is not a coincidence. Lines of code do not sporadically change by them selves. For the ads to be displayed in this manner, with out the typical yellow background, a Google engineer, would have to change either the CSS, Javascript, or HTML that corresponds with those ads. at the very least it signals a deliberate test, not a coincidence.

  • Well in the image posted I cant see the URLs at all because the image is to small. And when I look on my side it is totally different

    Jaan Kanellis’s last blog post..Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions Book

  • Joe Hall

    Here is a link to a full resolution of the screen shot above for anyone that has a hard time viewing

  • I wonder how long it will be before there are 5 or 6 sponsored links at the top of my results.

  • Scott Edwards

    The problem you are having is the result of a bug in Firefox with Ad Block Plus. In the latest update of that plugin it removes all sponsored listings from the major search engines. I see you have the green ABP symbol on your firefox, as do I on Google. This will allow the sponsored listings to show, however the yellow background is still blocked out. In this particular case you see the results this way as a result of the ABP plugin, not Google changing their sponsored link display format.

  • Joe Hall

    @Scott I am testing this now, is there any documentation about this bug?

  • Scott Edwards

    Not to my knowledge. I only recognized the issue because I have the same problem on my new setup ->Leopard>Latest Firefox>Latest ABP>Updating Ad Block Filters. When I downloaded everything fresh, thats when the lack of background issue started happening.

  • Actually, I’ve never heard that PPC would not affect your SERPs, in fact the opposite since I began doing SEO long, long ago. The only thing is that a lot of clients don’t have the marketing budget to do PPC correctly as per Perry Marshall’s course so I quit doing those campaigns back in 2003 and concentrated on things that really matter as far as SEO goes.

    One thing to know about Google is that due to their localization, when you type the exact search term into their page in Arizona as you do in California, you will NEVER see the same listings, so I go along with the BAD EXAMPLE remark. Your perception of this is good to note and we all should keep an eye out for it, but at the end of the day, how our client have their landing pages structured, their ads written, what they’re selling to and how much of that the market needs is all going to determine whether or not the ads work.

    Also generally to get top 3 sponsored positions you had to have at least 30,000 visitors to a site per day to get into that slot and you could not pay for it. It was done purely on your ad popularity and number of clicks on your ad. Personally unless I was selling a product that was so hot that it was producing a 4:1 or better return, I’d not want to be in the top spot. The other reason is that in a survey that I did of more than 10,000 people in the San Francisco Bay Area during 2003-2004, 8 out of 10 people ignored the Top yellow sponsored positions and went for the first 5 organic listings.

    Target your marketplace, create a niche’ focused website/landing page, have a really cool product, create a really awesome price, write 2 press releases and 3 articles, 4 blog postings, and let the cash register begin to ring.

    Have a great 2009.

    Michael Murdock, CEO
    Sign up to ask and answer questions at [link removed]

  • Jerry

    Isn’t this what Baidu got in trouble for. Taking in money for top listings. We are pretty much paying to be ranked higher, when you cannot distinguish between advertising and organic search results.

    It’s disappointing that Google would stoop to this.

  • This might be a fluke. Someone recently reported that the search snippet now displays a lot more text…But i’m yet to see any change at my end.

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  • I agree with you Joe. I have seen many sponsored search results that are nowhere near the top of the regular results returned, yet they are displayed at the top of the screen. This isn’t really anything new, but it does disturb me that you can buy your way to the top of search results.

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  • True. Google and Yahoo both do that for very competitive terms. I don’t see that as much non-competitive terms, but the ones that make them money, they do.

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  • Wii

    I haven’t tried PPC yet but it is definitely something that could be on the horizon as I attempt to steal a cut of the market.

    Watch this space…

  • I also run Adblock Plus, and have had the same experience. Thanks for pointing this out to us, Scott.

  • Hey, Joe. Don’t sweat it. It happens to the best of us. 🙂

  • It doesn’t look the same on my screen. Check again. But if that’s the case, then they will be a conspiracy between PPC and SEO.

  • Thanks for the update. That makes more sense. I doubt Google would allow people to buy their way to the top of search engine results pages.

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  • I get a different picture too! I am not very tech savvy but will wait for you to resolve this issue before I comment on the policy itself.

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  • They’re hard to see because that’s a small screenshot! 🙂

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  • They have been making lots of changes – GO GOOGLE. Last thing I noticed on search results pages were the personalized up-down arrows to help you improve your own search results.

    That’s what I love about Google, they are always trying new things and they are not afraid to do so. They aren’t so political

  • I understand that in this case the ads match the results due to a browser bug, but I’ve seen this also when people loose touch with their organic/ppc campaigns. I’ve seen cases where folks use ppc on keywords they are showing up organically on top for, because they don’t really get the point of ppc. Also seen cases where the organic wasn’t on top initially, but the increase in quality of the website traffic/content/tags/backlinks has helped the organic listing to rise… and the client doesn’t notice that they are now paying for something they accomplish organically.

    Again, I know it’s not the case here, I just think it’s worth saying everything isn’t always Google’s fault.


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  • Maybe organic is still new around the world , less of advertiser bout organic.

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  • Is it fair if I call that a fluke?. Someone recently reported that the search snippet now displays a lot more text…But I’m yet to see any change at my end. But stumbled upon a post here