British regulatory agency Ofcom has been getting some attention for its recent report that half of adults have a hard time discerning what is an ad and what isn’t when it comes to Google search results.
According to the study, 51% of U.K. adults failed to identify that the first three results of a Google search for “walking boots” were paid ads or sponsored links. That seems pretty high, considering they had the word “Ad” in an orange box right in front of them. Guess what? It is.
Further down in the lengthy report is a telling chart that should put some people’s minds at ease. The figure (figure no. 123 on page 151) shows the answers to the question: “Here’s an image (show card of image) from a Google search for ‘walking boots.’ Do any of these apply to the first three results that are listed?” According to the answers, 60% indicated they were sponsored links that where “paid to appear here,” while 23% said they were the “best/most relevant results.” Twenty percent said they were the most popular results used by other people and 12% said they didn’t know.
But the respondents were allowed to select more than one answer to the question. In the study, 49% selected only the paid advertising option, without any other options (i.e., “the correct response”). But an ad that is relevant is just as useful as an organic link when a consumer is searching online.
A deeper examination (figure 148 on page 181, for those following along) shows these results are further skewed by “Newer Internet Users,” who “first went online less than five years ago.” Among those 160 respondents (compared with the 1113 more experienced users), 52% were still able to identify the links as advertisements (compared with 62% of the more established users) and 35% considered them the best/most relevant responses.
Furthermore, Brits seem to have a clear understanding of the Internet’s veracity. When asked about the level of accuracy or bias in their search results, 62% of all Internet users “said some Web sites will be accurate and unbiased and some won't be.” Only 18% said that being listed by a search engine meant they were accurate and unbiased (figure 147 on page 180). (These numbers vary very little when breaking it down to newer and established Internet users.) Eighty-three percent are confident they can tell the difference between what’s advertising and what’s not when they encounter information online.
There's no question that some of these results are a bit troubling: 40% of the respondents failed to indicate that the supported links were ads at all, for instance and 12% don’t know how they get their results. Over at Search Engine Land, Graham Charlton notes that U.K. research company Varn had similar results in a recent survey as well, and notes that Google has made moves to diminish the difference between paid and organic search results. But for the most part, it does seem Brits are using the Internet with their eyes open.