Before Our Very Eyes: What’s Google Up To?

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

Lost in the shuffle of a heavy news week that included Yahoo spurning Microsoft's advances was this eye-popping bit of tid — Google is now running video ads on SERPs.

The New York Times broke the story, reporting that "on Thursday, Google started testing video ads on some pages of search results." The article includes excerpts from an interview with Marissa Mayer in which she discloses the move and provides the rationale behind it.

As I pontificated when I penned the column When Will We See Display Ads on Search Results Pages? back in October, the Google PR spin here is rooted in user-centricity. Mayer is quoted as saying, "If you search for golf clubs, you get ads for golf clubs, not a banner ad about Pepsi that you may drink on the golf course." It's reminiscent of the proclamation Mayer made last year that "ads are answers too."

Also true to my prediction was Google acknowledging that Universal Search was a gateway-drug of sorts (my words, not theirs) to get users hooked on non-textual search results. As the Times reported, "Now that Google's main search results pages include more images, video links and other elements, it is more appropriate, she [Mayer] argued, to have corresponding advertising formats." Mayer added, "With universal search, something is getting shaken up a bit on the bottom part of the page. The ads on the top part of the page should match."

So what will the ads look like? Per the Times, "Ads with accompanying videos will have a small button with a plus sign… Users that click the plus button on an ad will see a small video player that shows a commercial, movie trailer or other clip."

From my standpoint, I don't see this initial change to the Google SERP having that big an impact on users — or marketers, for that matter. As fellow Search Insider Gord Hotchkiss pointed out in his back-to-back columns in September, Universal has spawned a different pattern by which users consume the SERP. Eye-tracking studies have shown that users are drawn to images first , then scan around from there. Behold the demise of the Golden Triangle!

Indeed, Google's Q4 ‘07 results reflect a shift away from paid listings. In the investor call, George Reyes revealed that aggregate paid clicks increased only 30% over Q4 '06. That's compared to 45% growth year-over-year in Q3, 47% in Q2, and 52% in Q1. Could the advent of Universal be to blame? Are users ignoring text ads now that they have pretty pictures to look at?

In the Times article, Mayer acknowledges that this is happening. "She said text ads are not as effective on pages with search results that include images and video. The eyes of users automatically gravitate to the images more than the text, she said."

But is a plus box beneath sponsored listings really the answer? I'm hoping Gord can run a quick eye-tracking study on this — but I doubt another line of text is going to attract any more attention to the top of the page or right rail.

Google apparently recognizes this as well. Mayer tells the Times that "the company would explore adding small thumbnail photos to the video ads as well. And a spokesman said the company is considering testing other formats that may include ads with images."

My interpretation? As Google has demonstrated over the years, you can't roll out radical changes to the SERP all at once. Otherwise, you risk user revolt. Instead, the best route is to slowly condition users to accept change.

Universal was step one — get people used to images on SERPs. And even that was rolled out slowly, starting with just a few query types. This plus box is step two — show people how video ads can be relevant to queries. Step three would be displaying image and video ads in the sponsored listings areas without user-initiation — basically remove the plus-box component. In turn, step four would be moving image and video ads into the body of the SERP where the natural listings reside. After all, if you can't move the eye to the ads, you have to move the ads to the eye. Thankfully, I think Google will stop short of step five, which would have it displaying ads that interrupt the query process (e.g, non-user-initiated video ads, homepage takeovers, etc.)

One last interesting thing to note on this announcement is that "advertisers will not pay extra to put video in the ads. They enter a price they will pay for a click in Google's regular text-ad auction. But in the video ads, the advertiser pays when users click to see the video, even if they never click through to the advertiser's site."

This certainly makes it seem like a proposition geared towards brand marketers that aren't looking to drive direct response via their website. Given that DR advertisers are the bread and butter of search, I suspect Google may be closer to step three than we may think. Perhaps it's just a matter of the DoubleClick acquisition closing. After all, I can't see marketers adopting Google video ads en masse without trusted third-party ad serving.

Is the video ad plus box just a way to bridge the gap until the deal goes through? Are full-blown display ads on SERPs inevitable? Will they click with users? Who knows? The only thing I'm sure of is that this news won't remain buried for long. Unless MicroHoo moves forward, that is. In which case, what with all the hurdles to integrating those companies, this won't be the last time Google continues to innovate while everyone else's eyes are diverted.


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