Fixing Dark Patterns: Making Google Search Ads Visible Again

This article was co-written with 

You might have seen the news that came out in the middle of January, about Google’s latest update to how ads appear on search results. Or, quite possibly, you might not have. You might not have even noticed that anything changed with search results.

Google’s changes

The reason you might not have noticed anything is that Google’s latest change has been to significantly blur the border between paid and organic search results.

Whereas previously Google showed that results had been paid for by including a visible green ad symbol:

Google’s latest update contains simply a black ‘Ad’ text in the top left:

In the name of making ads less distinguishable, Google have done two main things here.

Firstly, they’ve changed the colour of the ad icon, and removed the border that once ran around it. Both of these previously acted as helpful signifiers to a user on whether a listing was paid for or not.

“But it still says Ad, and users can still tell it’s an ad”.

Sure, they can, but in the fraction of a second that a user spends deciding whether to click on a result, many will no longer be able to process whether or not its an ad.

The green Ad symbol helped in this regard because it was immediately recognisable, and users could quickly decide whether or not to click on something based on whether they wanted to see an ad.

Which brings me to point #2 about what Google have done, which is to re-design organic results in a way which makes them harder to distinguish from ads. By displaying organic results’ favicons in search results pages, and placing them in the same place as the new Ad text, it’s increasingly difficult to tell paid and organic listings apart.

Look at the below as an example, and note the continuity of design from the first result (paid) versus the next three (organic):

Why are they doing this?

The reason Google are doing this is, of course, to generate ad revenue. By making it more difficult to tell the difference between paid and organic results, they can reach more people who consciously avoid clicking on ads. Different surveys tend to put the size of this audience, who intentionally avoid paid ads, between 25 and 35%.

By blurring the lines between paid and organic, Google can monetize this audience more effectively, and drive incremental ad revenue.

This sounds familiar

If this type of design sounds familiar, it’s because it is. It’s a UX strategy known as dark pattern design. A dark pattern is a design element which is crafted to intentionally mislead you. Often this can be by making you think something that you wouldn’t normally think, or click something you wouldn’t normally click.

Dark patterns are as old as the internet itself, and you’ll be familiar with many of them. If you have a history of downloading software from sites you probably shouldn’t have, you’ll be familiar with dark patterns like this:

Highlighted in pink, the site has helped serve ads that masquerade as download buttons for the software which the page is about.

Another classic place to find elaborate dark pattern designs is on airline check-in flows. The buttons to purchase various upgrades, whether they’re for selecting a seat or adding priority boarding, are made to feel compulsory. The buttons to ignore these upsells are often well-hidden, and worded in such a way to make us feel like clicking them is a bad decision.

What can we do about dark patterns?

The sheer scale and multiplicity of dark pattern design is so great that it’s impossible to fix them all with a single solution. That said, some dark patterns have more of an effect than others, and fixing those should be more of a priority.

Google’s dark pattern of making ads look like organic results is a significant one. Most of us rely so much on Google’s results in our day-to-day lives, that being unaware of when we’re seeing ads can have a material impact on the content we consume, and the things we purchase.

To help fix this dark pattern, I’ve put out a Chrome extension called Google Ads Highlighter.

It essentially tries to revert elements of Google’s ad design to what they were before the most recent change. The Ad symbol and URL are both changed back to the familiar green, making them clearly differentiable from organic results.

What this means is instead of seeing this:

You’ll see this:

It avoids having to use an ad blocker, but still gives you the control of knowing what you’re clicking on.

You can download Google Ads Highlighter here.

This piece was co-written with 

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