Say No To Commercial Creep In Search Results
You’ve read all the guidelines. You’ve hired experts to determine the morally correct and righteous path. You’ve watched the endless hours of Matt Cutts videos on YouTube. You pay experts thousands of dollars a month to make sure your search efforts are optimized safely and accurately.
You work within the confines of the assumed moral high ground of the company that doesn’t do evil. You’ve spent countless hours analyzing content for trends in interest to make sure your information matches searcher intent. You have invested heavily in technology to help monitor positions, have spent what seems like an eternity staring down reports to make sure you have done the right thing.
You walk tall with the knowledge that you have chosen the correct path, knowing those that cheat may not be caught, but at least you are doing the right thing. And then you get hit with the proverbial sucker punch — ads infiltrating natural listings in a little love fest I like to call, “commercial creep.”
Commerce creep is the bastard child of vertical creep. For you kids just joining us, search results used to be just a bunch of text links. As local listings, maps and news began to get tied to queries, engines began adding more and more to the search results page. As the search ad monetization model became more sophisticated over time, search sites began mixing in commercial results such as shopping listings and ads within maps.
Commercial creep normally happens slowly, over time, so as not to alarm the populace — but it seems there’s quite a growth spurt happening right now. I’m still reeling from the phalanx of recent headlines as the line between paid and organic (or information and ads, if you prefer) becomes increasingly blurred. The very public surrender of graphic real estate in search results was another head-scratching development, as well as the apparent ease of hijacking natural listings to third-party booking sites in the travel category.
While category killers like Travel and Auto have long been the guinea pigs of the digital advertising world, the listing hijack scenario got me thinking and digging around in search results a bit more than usual. Though not a new ad product, Hotel Price Ads started appearing in Google Maps and search results sometime in 2010. Since driving the paid model for all things commercial is clearly Google’s direction, I wonder if the latest move hasn’t once again crossed the line.
Take a look at the image above, which shows the SERP for The Dylan hotel in Amsterdam. Pricing ads tied to local listings come into view so close to the organic listing it usurps the organic positioning by directing to only third-party booking engines participating in the ad program. The small, awkward “owner site” listing is an inadequate (at best) representation of the organic presence.
While the hotel maintains the top placement in organic results, the searcher is drawn away from the organic listing to the price (a.k.a. ads), effectively castrating the organic placement. The organic click simply does not stand a chance in this instance, and we have seen traffic declines across the board consistent with this assertion.
Similar hotel searches in other geographies, big and small, depict similar results.
The rule of thumb for working (or living, if you prefer) with Google ad products is best likened to Twain’s quote about the weather in New England: “If you don’t like [it], just wait a few minutes.” Ad models come and go and while most of the tests can barely raise my eyebrow anymore, this one has definitely gotten under my skin for a couple of reasons.
First, preaching the high ground on the moral implications of keeping paid away from earned or organic listings makes me (as a marketer) reticent to accept the commercial creep concept. Back in 2002, Ralph Nader’s letter to the FTC recommending disclosure of paid ads in search results led to search sites complying by labeling ads as such.
Since then, paid inclusion models and other types of vertical commercial creep have penetrated search in a multitude of ways while only one major thing has changed: Google is a lot more powerful than it was 12 years ago. I wonder if a letter from a consumer advocacy group would even get noticed today. Since Net Neutrality just died, I doubt search ads squashing editorial positioning would even get noticed.
Where Will It End?
It will end when people are so fed up with commercial creep, they move on to something else; in other words, probably never. From a consumer use perspective, Google and other engines can simply tweak the results to help boost usage or correct an over-commercialization problem. For brands rolling with the punches, it’s just not that simple.
In the hotel category example, brands that have invested heavily in playing by the rules to garner positioning are experiencing the marketing equivalent of the bag over the head, punch in the face scenario that sent Clark W. Griswold over the edge one Christmas. Brands are powerless when changes like this occur; they simply have to react to these “adjustments” and hope they can outlast them. In this instance, any hotel that has worked hard to position itself will now have no choice but to buy into the hotel ad model or face losing significant organically-driven revenue.
Of course, making brands play by the rules, changing them constantly and without notice, and then forcing them into an ad buying scenario goes by another name. I think we still call that extortion; but that is another argument, for another time.
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