John Battelle has a blog post entitled When Doesn't It Pay To Pay Attention To Search Quality? which contains the following statement and screenshot

the top result is the best result - and it's a paid link.

Bad Results

In the past I've talked about Google's strategy tax which is the conflict between increasing the relevance of their search results and increasing the relevance of their search ads. The more relevant Google's "organic" results are the less likely users are to click on their ads which means the less money the company makes. This effectively puts a cap on how good Google's search quality can get especially given the company's obsessive measurements of every small change they make to get the most bang for the buck.

When I first wrote about this, the conclusion from some quarters was that this inherent conflict of interest would eventually be Google's undoing since there were search innovations that they would either be slow to adopt or put on the back burner so as not to harm their cash cow. However John Battelle's post puts another spin on the issue. As long as people find what they want it doesn't matter if the result is "organic" or an ad.

As Jeremy Zawodny noted in his post The Truth about Web Navigation 

Oh, here's a bonus tip: normal people can't tell the difference between AdSense style ads and all the other links on most web sites. And almost the same number don't know what "sponsored results" on the Search Results Page are either. It's just a page of links to them. They click the ones that look like they'll get them what they want. It's that simple.

even more interesting is the comment by Marshall Kirkpatrick in response to Jeremy's post

The part of your post about AdWords reminds me of a survey I read awhile ago. Some tiny percentage of users were able to tell the difference between paid and natural search results, then once away from the computer almost all of them when asked said that the best ways to make it clear would be: putting paid links in a colored box, putting them in a different section of the page and putting the words "sponsored links" near them!! lol

What this means in practice is that the relevance of Google's ads in relation to the search term will increase in comparison to the relevance of the organic search results for that term. John Battelle has shown one example of this in his blog post. Over time this trend will get more pronounced. The problem for Google's competitors is that this doesn't necessarily mean that their search experience will get worse over time since their ad relevance will likely make up for any deficiencies in their organic results (at least for commercial queries – where the money is). What competitors will have to learn to exploit is Google's tendency to push users to Adwords results by making their organic results satisfactory instead of great.  

For example, consider the following search results page which my wife just got while looking for an acupuncturist in Bellevue, Washington

The interesting thing about the organic results is that it is relevant but very cluttered thus leading to the paradox of choice. On the other hand, the sponsored links give you a name and a description of the person's qualifications in their first result. Which result do you think my wife clicked?

Now why do you think Google ended up going with this format for commercial/business-based search results?  The average Web user is a satisficer and will look for the clearest and simplest result which is in the ads. However the geeks and power users (i.e. people who don't click on ads) are often maximizers when it comes to search results and are thus served by the organic results.

The question for you is whether you'd consider this a weakness or a strength of Google Search?

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