At Google, advertising is crowding out search results

For years, Google was famous for its clean, uncluttered layout and its excellent search algorithms. Those days are long gone.

Google gets 96% of its annual revenue from advertising. Search results produce no revenue. That has led to some tremendous distortions and a horrifying breakdown in the once-clean Google experience.

I present Exhibit A, which I discovered thanks to Twitter.

If you’re signed in to your Google+ account and you search for pet meds, a little ad module appears at the top of the search results, with your email address already filled in.


I’m sure there are other search terms that will lead to similar results, but this is the first one I’ve seen.

The idea of pre-filling the lead-generating form is a little creepy, but technically there’s no privacy violation. After all, I gave Google my email address and used it to sign in, and they’re not sharing it with anyone unless I click the Get offers button.

But here’s what was more disturbing about those search results. I captured a screen shot showing the results page as it appears on a notebook with a 1366 x 768 screen—one of the most popular display resolutions available today. See if you notice anything odd (click to open the screenshot in its own window if you want to study it more carefully):


There is only ONE actual search result on that entire page. If you want to see the rest of the search results, you have to page down.

Surrounding that link are nine ads, plus a link to a PetMeds user account at Google+. There are 10 links to Google services at the top of the page. Below that is my Google+ profile picture (which leads to my Google+ account settings) and a big Share box.

That’s a total of 23 links on that page, as it appears on a typical computer. Only one is a search result.

That’s just wrong.

Update: As @BleepinComputer notes on Twitter, this is ironic, given Google’s January 2012 public statement on this exact issue, published on the Official Google Webmaster Central Blog:

[W]e’ve heard complaints from users that if they click on a result and it’s difficult to find the actual content, they aren’t happy with the experience. Rather than scrolling down the page past a slew of ads, users want to see content right away. So sites that don’t have much content “above-the-fold” can be affected by this change. If you click on a website and the part of the website you see first either doesn’t have a lot of visible content above-the-fold or dedicates a large fraction of the site’s initial screen real estate to ads, that’s not a very good user experience. Such sites may not rank as highly going forward.

Huh. Imagine that.

28 thoughts on “At Google, advertising is crowding out search results

  1. Agree that it’s way over the top. Interestingly, I don’t see any ads for that same search with Adblock Plus and Chrome.

  2. Hey Ed, when you get this one figured out see if you can get more than 18 minutes of TV program in a 30 minute show. I agree, ads seem to be eating us out of good direct information/entertainment/etc. Sad.

  3. @Ed Bott this article is based on information that is incorrect, and demonstrates your lack of ability/willingness to verify the subject matter, at least for this post. For example, you claimed that only one of the entries were search results, which simply is not true. So untrue in fact, that I will provide concrete evidence for my claim that only 3 (or 6 for “Show personal results”) of the 23 are ad listings, and the rest are search results that Google does not make any direct profit from listing:


    Advertised links begin with “”, Search results with “”

    [lengthy URLs deleted by blog owner]

    For standard Google results there are only 3 ads period.

    Please amend your article to account these discrepancies, or remove it entirely. Thank you!

    1. Timothy,

      I edited your comment to remove the URLs, which aren’t neceaary to make your point but made your comment scroll for more than two pages.

      You miss the point of my post.

      You are counting results on the first page. I am counting the number of clickable links on the first visible SCREEN using the most common display resolution. I even provided a screen shot.

      Apples and oranges.

      Ed Bott

  4. I remember, which pioneered the CPC business model for search back in the 1990s. There were plenty of search terms on which the entire first page were ads — all ten links! Heck, there was one search term that had ads for the first three pages.

    At some point, diminishing returns kick in …

  5. Just did the same exact search on Bing and it has an identical ad/organic ratio. The only difference is the Google+ page. So I guess this is search engine problem in general, not a Google problem.

    Or, it’s not really a problem as a large majority of the time when you search for Pet Meds you are indeed trying to buy pet meds.

  6. Step 1: Install Firefox or Chrome.
    Step 2: Install AdBlock Plus
    Step 3: Install DoNotTrack Plus
    Step 4: Delete and pause your Google search history
    Step 5: Sign out of your Google account.

    That pretty much gives you a vanilla search. You’ll still get some ads, but it won’t be as blatant, it won’t know your location so you won’t get pizza joints you can walk to, and it won’t annoy your researching by pretending to know exactly what you’re looking for and opening it up before you finish the thought.

    If you want your GMail without ads, AdBlock kills the links but still displays the text. Switch to HTML view and you won’t see the text either.

  7. The unfortunate thing is that this isn’t any better/different/worse than most of the websites I use on a daily basis. Most of the smaller blogs I visit are fairly clean (thank you Ed), but take a quick look at the website for your hometown newspaper. It is a pile of worthless ads with some articles thrown in. Most websites are nothing but clutter.

    Everyone is throwing money at online advertising, but honestly I couldn’t tell you the last time I clicked on an ad because I was interested in a product. Google might be making piles of money from advertising, but I think most advertisers are wasting their money.

    Sooner or later they’re going to wake up. Or not.

  8. On a netbook I don’t see any links, just the ads but I don’t get the pre-filled out form when I searched on Google. It is not much better on Bing either – that returned 1 result like you got on Google. Bing only had one ad at the top of the screen though unlike Googles 3.
    It’s quite interesting looking at the screen estate used by each search engine. Bing seems a lot more efficient in it’s use of space and doesn’t use as much room for it’s equivalent of the Google bar.
    Never thought that I’d promote Bing over Google in this way!

  9. If you don’t like Google Search, don’t use it. I use Bing, and don’t miss Google Search at all.

  10. JohnJ,

    I think you miss my point. Yes, people are free to use other search engines. But they don’t. Google has monopoly power, and for many users what they do defines the Internet.

    That’s why I write about it.

  11. Google has monopoly power

    No, they don’t. What they have is monopoly market share. Monopoly power implies an ability to use that market share to prevent users switching to competitors, which – for search, at least – is not there. The switching cost for search engines is essentially zero. Compare with, for example, a social networking site with monopoly market share, which has an inherently high switching cost due to the network effect; or a product manufacturer with monopoly market share who uses that share to artificially impose a high switching cost (e.g. by only allowing shops to stock their product if they do not stock their competitors products).

    That people are “free to [switch to] other search engines” at any time with little effort and no cost precludes true monopoly power – at least until Google finds some way to impose a switching cost on search engines.

    (Apologies for double-post, it posted before I’d finished).

    1. Simon, you are making the mistake of thinking that Google is a search company and then looking at their search share.

      Wrong. They are an advertising company. They have monopoly power in advertising, where their customers cannot afford to go exclusively with alternative ad networks.

      Remember, you are not Google’s customer, you are a part of the product they sell.

  12. I agree that google is getting way out of hand. Perhaps it time to switch search engines. Can anybody recommend any good ones

  13. “Wrong. They are an advertising company. They have monopoly power in advertising, where their customers cannot afford to go exclusively with alternative ad networks.
    Remember, you are not Google’s customer, you are a part of the product they sell.”

    I was going to agree with Simon, but this is concede that you are right Ed, Apples and oranges, I was thinking with the wrong perspective. The majority of the enterprises can’t ignore Google ads and stay relevant, even Microsoft itself has ads on Google.

  14. Excellent post, Ed.

    I love your blog yet I don’t always agree with your opinions; but I most definitely do here. I have been complaining about difficulties in getting relevant search results on Google for about two years now and I am usually told that I simply don’t know how to use the proper search terms – though I have been using Google Search since the first month it appeared on the Net and I am quite familiar with how to use it. Problem is that there isn’t a good alternative that is any more accurate or that doesn’t simply aggregate Google’s results along with others.

    Unfortunately I don’t see a viable solution for searching.

    Thank you.

  15. I’m another fairly recent Google->Bing convert. Hey, at least Bing still supports the plus (+) operator that makes it vastly easier to search for exact terms when I need them. However, although its results are now better than Google’s, Bing’s ad problem is just as bad. Unless Apple with its just-pay-us-money-and-use-it-the-way-you-want policies make a showing in the search business, I don’t see things getting better. Google’s server farms have to get paid for somehow, and since they don’t sell anything useful to society I don’t expect much change. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

  16. I’ve been using DuckDuckGo ( almost exclusively for the past 6 months. It serves bing results but with no tracking whatsoever, and the number of ads is very reasonable. The bang syntax is very cool. Only downsides are that it doesn’t look as nice as google and occasionally I still need google for more obscure searches.

  17. i’m shocked!! shocked!!! that Google is whoring its (and your) search results to sell more ads that target You!

    but it’s Not Evil! No! there is no Google distortion field. and you want this, you know you do. here, have some more Gool Aid.

  18. Peter, a friend of mine in Thailand said he didn’t see those ads either. Given that it’s a US market, it’s probably geographically based.

  19. To commenters asking about alternative search engines:

    I switched to DuckDuckGo as my main search engine and have been very happy with the lack of clutter, customizable (if you accept a cookie) formatting, and power-user options. The one ding is that it loads slightly slower than Google usually does.

    If you miss the Google Suggest feature in your search box (autocompletes as you type), Nathan Fredly has a one-click-install DuckDuckGo + Google Suggest solution to get that with duckduckgo.

  20. I hate how Google owns half of everything these days. I might have hoped for Google+ to take off in part because I hate Facebook but more recently I’m not so sure.

    If Google ends up buying WordPress and Tumblr… it would be quite scary.

    though I don’t think pre filling forms is scary since these advertisers don’t have your email address unless you clicked submit (right?) it sounds convenient.
    but I don’t use Google+ so I wouldn’t know what you’re talking about with its excessive ads.

  21. I’ve never given up on a Google search because the results were below the fold. I think people are used to scrolling by now that Google can afford it.

  22. Don’t see any adds (and if, then only one) when using google on a daily base. Why?
    Safari on osx, lion

  23. Try – they remove the spammy sites that exist only to serve ads…and they have their own search index / crawlers, etc

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