Charles Arthur is a prominent tech journalist in the UK with an impressive resume and a large, engaged following. He can be provocative, yes, but he’s generally correct, or at least fair, in his writing. So I was surprised to see his misleading — I even would argue, flat-out incorrect — headline last week: “Google breaks 2005 promise never to show banner ads on search results.”
As the article eventually makes clear, Google isn’t looking to display flashing banner ads inviting people to learn the five top secrets to weight loss or to talk to lonely co-eds now. And fans of Google’s clean design aesthetic needn’t worry that the site will be cluttered by auto-play video advertising. What Arthur fails to note until five paragraphs in — and then continues to crow about — is that these so-called banner ads will in fact be images tied to specific brands and will only display within the results for branded queries. So, for instance, in the example Arthur uses for Southwest Airlines, the (I think) very beautiful image of a Southwest airliner will only show up if someone searches for “Southwest Airlines.” That’s surely not like any banner ad I’ve ever encountered. Because it’s not a banner ad.
Why It’s Good for Consumers
Google’s move toward more visual results for brands once again shows that Google is committed to matching consumer intent with user experience. If a consumer has made clear that she is interested in Southwest, Google is able to deliver her not only the best results for that query, but also the best experience of it.
We all know that Google results beyond the first page are rarely clicked on (or even noticed) — as our familiarity with the worldwide web grows and our patience (arguably) dwindles, helpful, visual results will help to drive traffic and engagement with very little additional effort needed from either the consumer or the brand.
Paid listings already help ease this process to a certain degree. If a consumer is looking for a prominent brand, it’s more than likely that not only will it display top-of-search through organic means, but that it will be displayed more prominently in the sponsored search box that appears up-top. But if a consumer gets both the information that she’s looking for and associated assets, sometimes there may not even be a need to click through to the website for further research. Or, alternatively, sometimes the content will be so compelling that she’ll definitely want to click through. In either event, Google is delivering the right content, based on her intent, making it harder than ever before for a consumer to get lost online.
Why It’s Good For Brands
Sometimes brands can have similar names. (I know this firsthand — you wouldn’t believe how often someone has asked me or my employees for a ride when we’re attending an event.) And as new GTLDs roll out, there will likely be more and more confusingly-similar company names online. Visuals can be a key differentiator to make a brand stick out.
Even those companies who don’t have naming competition can benefit immensely from having a visual displaying alongside their search results. About 60 – 65% of people are visual thinkers/learners, so an image accompanying text will help a brand make a memorable impression on consumers. And if there’s no extra cost above what a brand is already spending on its paid listings, why wouldn’t it want to engage more deeply with a compelling, beautiful image?
The success of sites like Pinterest makes it clear that the consumer-centric Internet is becoming increasingly visual; brands stand to win big by being equal parts beautiful and informative.
Why It’s Good for Google
Arthur further makes the case that Google is selling these so-called “banner ads” as a revenue driver, to compensate for the declining price of online advertising — and then reports that the company will not charge Southwest, or other brands eligible for this enhanced result, anything extra for the image. So, it’s clearly not the case that Google is selling this visual content to drive revenue.
But it will drive revenue all the same. Although Google is certainly the biggest player in the search market, it has its share of competition — most notably from Microsoft’s Bing. Although the validity of the “Bing It On Challenge” has been questioned, the ads promoting it show a much more visual, enhanced search. Google understands the power of the picture, and if it is going to stay ahead of the pack — and keep its advertisers in place — it needs to keep up with consumers’ seemingly increased preference for images in search. Offering these enhancements at no cost to its premium advertisers doesn’t mean it’s losing money on free inventory, but rather that it’s engendering the favor of some of the most prominent brands in the country … brands that will likely increase their spending on the site as an increased ROI follows the new roll-out.
Andre Golsorkhi is CEO of automated e-commerce marketing company Sidecar.