Study: Consumers Think Google Ads Are Query Results

Binoculars-A2Google may not be as transparent as company executives think when it comes to serving up ads on search results pages. Research from consultancy Bunnyfoot suggests 40% of Web users are unaware that the Google ads above their search results are paid advertisements.

The team discovered that 81% of users clicked on Google AdWords listings as opposed to natural search results during a customer experience research project for a client in the insurance industry.

It turns out that 41 of the 100 people tested did not know AdWords were paid ads. They thought the ads were the "most authoritative links" because they appear at the top of the page.

The confusion appears to reside in the ads above natural search query results. The same confusion did not occur with advertisements down the right rail of Google results pages, which people searching for information recognized as promotional slots.

London-based Bunnyfoot, which supports clients like Microsoft, used eye-tracking technology to capture where participants were looking and depth interviews to monitor the emotional responses and behavior of 100 experienced Internet users, all of whom had previously purchased their car insurance online and conducted various other Web transactions, so they were not new to design and structure of a Google search page.

When quizzed about what they thought the AdWords were and why they were appearing at the top of their search results, those participants who were unaware of the listings' sponsored status typically assumed that their top-of-page slot indicated quality and relevance.

Most participants believed the first three results meeting the search criteria are "presumably the best" and that they are the "best match for what you have put in the search. They have got the words that you have put in or are the most popular.

5 comments about "Study: Consumers Think Google Ads Are Query Results".
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  1. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, February 28, 2013 at 5:24 p.m.

    Given the source and clients of Bunnyfoot, combined with other anti-Google activity by Microsoft (, I would take this report with a grain of salt, about the size of Nebraska.

  2. Hollis Thomases from Hollis Thomases, February 28, 2013 at 6:13 p.m.

    This is nothing new. Consumer Reports came up with similar findings like 10 years ago. While intuitively I feel that the findings are probably accurate, I would love to see proper validation by an unbiased third party, e.g. Consumer Reports or Pew Research.

  3. Robert Stevens from Bunnyfoot Ltd, March 1, 2013 at 5:55 a.m.

    Hi Jonathan, the post is pro-Google if anything; I said 'Google Ads can be a far more effective brand building tool than they are often given credit for. If the market really gets hold of this and buys into the idea that PPC on Adwords is even more effective than was previously thought this could see the cost of Google Adwords rocketing.

    Research published by Google found that 50% of people didn't know what a browser is:

  4. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, March 1, 2013 at 8:38 p.m.

    Robert, I see your point regarding how this shows Google Adwords is more effective than relying on organic search. My comment is related to my own takeaway from this column, which implies some potential nefarious thinking by Google. This may not be your intention, but the writers'. And, the disclosure of Bunnyfoot's relationship with Microsoft was clear.

  5. Robert Stevens from Bunnyfoot Ltd, March 2, 2013 at 7:49 a.m.

    Hi Hollis, I do have two papers published on eye tracking: Like more, look more. Look more, like more: The evidence from eye-tracking and Cueing Retrospective Verbal Reports in Usability Testing Through Eye-Movement Replay:
    The research cited in this article on Google was a well planned and executed experiment and I speak from experience when I assert that I am confident it would pass peer review had I chosen to publish it in an academic journal.

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