When Will We See Display Ads On Search Results Pages?

By Aaron Goldman, VP of Strategic Operations & Partnerships
Appeared in MediaPost's Search Insider

AFTER BACK-TO-BACK TRIPS INTO THE heady searchosphere to explore Ambient Findability and MyLifeBits, I've decided to come back to reality and take stock of the current landscape. One of the topics that still seems to have people buzzing is universal search. Fellow Search Insider, Gord Hotchkiss, wrote a few columns recently about how personalized universal results are changing the way people interact with search engine results pages (SERPs).

Gord's E Major

Gord's first column on this topic points to eye-tracking studies that show people moving from the standard "F" pattern of reading results top-down to more of an "E" shape, with the eye being drawn to graphics in the middle of the page first and then scanning around from there.

As Gord observes, "The implications are interesting to consider. The engines and marketers have come to accept the top to bottom behavior as one of the few dominant behavioral characteristics, and it has given us a foundation on which to build our positioning strategy. But if the inclusion of a graphic result suddenly moves the scanning starting point, we have to consider our best user interception opportunities on a case-by-case basis."

In his follow-up piece, Gord discusses how elements of personalization impact SERP navigation. Here too, the key finding was "a very significant relocation of scanning activity, moving down from the top of the Golden Triangle."

Again, Gord put his finger on the underlying issue, noting that "as Google experiments with improving the organic results set, both through the inclusion of universal results and more personalization, their biggest challenge may be in making sure sponsored results aren't left in the dust. Top of page scanning is ideal user behavior that also happens to offer a big win for advertisers. As results pages are increasingly in flux, it will be important to ensure that scanning doesn't move too far from the upper left corner, at least as long as we still have a linear, 1 dimensional top to bottom list of results."

The Eyes Have It

Results pages in flux? Sponsored results left in the dust? How will we intercept the user? Gord rasies some important questions. Surely, moving away from a "linear, 1 dimensional top to bottom list" is not the answer, though. If it were, we'd all be using Ask.com.

I believe the answer, my friends, has been blowing in the trade winds for quite some time.

Yes, indeed, I don't think it will be long before we start seeing display ads integrated into the SERPs. After all, if we can't keep the eye from moving away from the ads, let's move the ads to the eye. And, as Gord's research shows, the eye likes images.

Now this is certainly not a new concept. I fondly recall selling banner ads -- like hotcakes, I might add -- on Alta Vista SERPs back in my DoubleClick/MaxOnline days. And, later, when MaxOnline was bought by IAC, we were all about the Ask Jeeves "branded response" units, which were basically graphical paid search listings.

Ultimately, display ads on SERPs were shelved due to "poor user experience" which stemmed from a combination of bad targeting and poor page placement. Seeing an irrelevant banner at the top of the SERP was not only a license to ignore but also change search engines.

Do As Google Do

Google set the pace with the clean text SERP that all others migrated towards. Credit Ask with pushing the envelope through Ask 3D towards a more graphical SERP, but it wasn't until Google rolled out universal search that anyone really took notice.

And it won't be until Google rolls out display ads on SERPs before the concept gains any traction. So what's Google waiting for?

Immediately following the rollout of universal, Google -- via Marissa Mayer -- acknowledged that "this opens the door for the introduction of richer mediums into the result page."

To be sure, had Google incorporated display ads into its unveiling of universal, there would have been massive consumer backlash. But now, after 5 months of seeing images in SERPs, it's safe to say that consumers are used to it - even, prefer it, if the eye-tracking is any indication.

One thing that's certain is that marketers would fully-embrace this opportunity. For years we've struggled to convey core brand attributes in 95 characters of text. Display ads would deliver higher response rates and justify increased bid prices due to the branding component.

Give The People What They Want?

From a user-perspective, it's a bit of a stretch but not unrealistic to think that display ads may actually enhance the search experience. The line between advertising and content has never been blurrier than it is in today's digital media world. And, when it comes to search, as Mayer puts it, "ads are answers as well." Ahh, I can just see the Google PR machine revving up.

As long as the ads are relevant, non-interruptive and clearly marked "sponsored" -- like current PPC text listings -- I think display ads on SERPs could be received well (or at least not cause mass revolt).

Another key factor here is the placement of the display ads. Google should incorporate its personalization algorithm, learning from usage -- both aggregate and individual -- what types of queries should return display ads and in what location on the SERP. This will serve the dual purpose of providing more contextual relevancy and ensuring ads don't always show up in the same spots (whereby consumers can learn to ignore them).

So what's Google waiting for? I think it's as simple as the closing of the DoubleClick acquisition. Who better to help integrate display ads onto SERPs than the industry's biggest display ad server? So, for now, it's all eyes on the FTC.


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