For years Google has been pulling in money, preying on users that confuse ads for legitimate content. Those text ad services have forever scarred the way we use the net. On Monday the BBC reported that Google has been profiting from those ads even when they’re placed by illegal businesses. The initial allegations against Google revolve mostly around the sale of tickets to the Olympic Games via ads placed with AdWords. But evidence suggests that the problem extends to the sale of marijuana and fake passports as well.
This isn’t the first time Google has been in hot water over their cash cow ad placement program called “AdWords.” Last year, after admitting to hosting ads for Canadian pharmaceutical companies targeting illegal U.S. sales, Google agreed to pay $500 million in damages.
Sure, Google’s steadfast AdWords product is churning out earnings like the Franklin Mint–in 2010 Google reported AdWords earnings over $28 billion–but how much longer can it sustain? Some say that stories about illegal ads are the least of Google’s problems when it comes to AdWords. Last year, enterprise tech thought-leader Fast Company announced to the world, “Adwords is Dying and Google Knows It.” Author JD Rucker explains that Google is already taking steps to move beyond their cash cow and prepare for the next big revenue generator.
AdWords IS in fact dying (albeit slowly). Click through rates (CTR) have dropped from an average of over 4-per cent to now just under 2-per cent in just 10 years. Savvy web users are finding it easier and easier to distinguish between real content and advertising, especially on mainstay websites like Google, who’s presented a similar look for many years. And Google is their own worst enemy; as their product evolves to give users exactly what they want, ad content is decreasingly relevant to searchers. But, as users get more wary, that cynicism has a litany of other effects.
As AdWords peaks and begins to tumble downhill, lets take a few moments to reflect on exactly who’s left using AdWords and how it has scarred the way we use the internet.
Who’s Still Clicking?
If you’re anything like me, you’ve asked yourself at least once or twice: “Who the hell is still clicking on banners and AdWords, anyways?” Good news, if you’re reading this article, you probably aren’t an ad clicker. Some research on the demographics of “ad clickers” suggests that “business” and “rich” media users rarely click ads. Click through rates (CTR) for BusinessWeek online, for example, average below a tenth of a per cent (.1%). That means business-class users click ads just 1 of ever 20 times that the average user clicks. So what does the average ad-clicker look like?
Well if you’ve been spending much money on internet and Google ads, you’re worst fears are about to be realised. Just 16-per cent of the entire internet population, considered moderate to heavy clickers, account for over 80-per cent of the ad clicks in a given month. And what do those 16-per cent look like? They have an average household income below $40,000 and tend to be between 24-44 years of age.
These alarming statistics really have businesses reevaluating their ad approaches. Unless your target market is a broke 20-something, AdWords might not be the best outlet online.
A Scar on How We Use the Web
After making money hand-over-fist for years with a business model built on trickery, Google is seeing the end of its scheme. In a sense, Google AdWords has done to web browsing what the African Prince inheritance letter has done to email. Its no secret that the Google ads are built to mimic the look and feel of search results; to trick users in much the same way that “Security Threat Detected! Buy This Software!” dialogues have been doing. Its no secret, either, that users will adapt, starting with the top of the bell curve and moving down. At this point we’ve moved to the bottom of that curve.
But every scheme, every boy-who-cried-wolf story, leaves lasting impressions on the people affected by it. In this case, the affected are all Internet users and those lasting impressions are becoming more evident each day. For years we’ve seen the research pile up about the ways that users interact with banner advertisements online. The image banners have declined in popularity as a result of a phenomenon researchers are calling “banner blindness.” Any out of place imagery, bright colours, change in font, or rectangular image on the top or right side of a website are completely ignored. Heatmaps generated from data on where users are looking illustrate that users’ eyes never even register the ads.
But that research didn’t apply to AdWords, whose ads are solely text-based… until now. A research team from SURL (the Software Usability Research Laboratory) has turned up new evidence that text-based AdWords ads are being ignored just as often as graphic ads now. “Text advertising is subject to the same “blindness” effects as banner advertising,” writes Justin Owens, lead researcher. “Users actively ignore text advertising unless it is required to complete their task or it is perceived as not being advertising.” In fact, the team found that any text in the right column of a site (regardless of how similar it looks) is being considered superfluous and viewed last if ever.
The sage words of Uncle Ben should be a warning to Google: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Clearly Google has great power, and used irresponsibly that power can leave a near-permanent mark on the way we interact with information online. Today that means wary users completely ignore whole sections of a page, tomorrow it could mean something far more devastating.