My post on promoted search results drew some pointed feedback. People asked me what kind of promoted search behavior I deem acceptable, as well as whether I saw a clear line between promoted search and ads in general. I’ll try to answer those questions here.
What kind of promoted search behavior is acceptable?
Clearly, promoted search results should be useful to searchers. Otherwise everyone loses: searchers waste their time, advertisers don’t obtain useful leads, and search providers lose money and customers.
But usefulness, while necessary, is not sufficient. There are at least three other requirements: transparency, ethical design, and fairness.
Transparency: promoted results should be clearly labeled as such.
Ideally, organic results are optimized for their usefulness to searchers. It would be naive, however, to assume that the interests of searchers and search providers are completely aligned. For example, searchers on a retail site may be looking for the best values, while the search provider is hoping to maximize revenue or profit. Nonetheless, search providers that drift too far from searcher utility are unlikely to retain those searchers.
Promoted search results are different. The whole point of promoting search results is to override an organic ranking or presentation that mostly aligns with searchers. When a search provider presents promoted results, it’s critical for searcher trust that promoted results be clearly labeled as such.
Ethical design: no dark user experience (UX) patterns.
Transparency is necessary but not sufficient. The design should help — rather than hinder — searchers’ ability to distinguish organic from promoted results.
For example, Google recently made a change to the design of promoted results that drew such strong criticism that Google quickly reversed the change. The change was a classic example of a dark UX pattern: it made promoted results so closely resemble organic results visually that it was hard to distinguish them without careful inspection.
Dark UX patterns are unethical: they undermine transparency and trust. Don’t use them — for promoted search results or anything else.
A marketplace for promoted results should be fair, with no self-dealing.
Promoted search results compete for scarce prime real estate on the search result page. Search providers generally allocate this space using an auction.
In some cases, however, the search provider not only manages the auction, but also competes in it as a bidder. Both Google and Amazon have been criticized for acting as both marketplace managers and participants.
Acting as both auctioneer and bidder creates a conflict of interest. In the case of market leaders like Google and Amazon, it is anticompetitive. Regardless of size, search providers should not violate basic principles of fairness.
Is there a clear line between promoted search and ads in general?
My previous post asserted that promoted search results are different than ads in general. A counterargument is that we’ve long seen the lines blur between search results, recommendations, and ads; and I’m creating a false dichotomy.
I concede that the distinction isn’t absolute. Still, search is distinctive in how explicitly it solicits the user’s immediate intent and responds with results directly addressing that intent. That isn’t the case for most advertising outside of search. Browse pages (e.g., category and brand pages on ecommerce sites) are a notable exception — but those are essentially search shortcuts.
So yes, I think there’s a pretty clear — though not absolute — line.
Promoted search results should be useful, transparent, ethically designed, and fair. As I said in the previous post, I don’t love them. But I can live with them.