Thoughts on Promoted Search Results

Daniel Tunkelang
2 min readFeb 3, 2020

I’m not a fan of ads. So you might expect me to be violently opposed to promoted search results — search engine results that are optimized for something other than the searcher’s utility.

Indeed, I am ambivalent about promoted search results. I’d prefer a world where there was complete alignment between searchers and search engines.

But I’m more accepting of promoted search results — as long as they are clearly labeled — than of ads in general. Here’s why.

1. The searcher’s need is explicit and immediate.

Advertising in the context of search is different than most other advertising, in that the searcher has just expressed an information need and expects an immediate response to address that need. While most ads seek to distract users from some other activity, promoted search results can — and often do — respond to searchers’ present needs. Of course, the organic search results also respond to those needs — and the organic results are supposed to be the results optimized to meet them. Nonetheless, the promoted results are on-task rather than off-task. As a bonus, search ads don’t need to invade user privacy to be effective, since they can simply target search queries.

2. Promoted search results tend to show up in commercial settings.

Promoted search results tend to show up in commercial settings — specifically, on ecommerce sites or in response to web search queries with commercial intent. In these cases, the promoted results aren’t so much an attempt to get the searcher to buy something as to influence what the searcher chooses to buy. Again, the organic results are supposed to be better optimized to meet searchers’ needs. But for many searches on ecommerce sites (especially broad ones), this optimization is somewhat arbitrary — so letting relevant sellers buy promoted slots does not meaningfully degrade the search experience.

3. Promoted search results can serve as positive signals.

The willingness of an advertiser to pay for a promoted search result can serve as a positive signal to the searcher. For example, a job seeker who sees an employer’s promoted search result knows that the employer is so eager to fill the position that it is willing to pay extra for visibility. For many job seekers, that’s a positive signal. Promoted search results also provide other signals that some searchers see as positive, such as the ability to pay for ads, or the willingness to invest in an ad campaign. For searchers who value these signals, promoted search results are helpful rather than adversarial.

Do I love promoted search results? Not really. But they have their merits, and they are far less adversarial to users than ads in general.

Ultimately, I can live with that.