Despite vow to keep site clean, Google tests search banner ads

Google confirms test of banner ads on search results pages in the U.S.; 'YouTube generation' may like the visual changes

Despite a long-ago vow to retain its well-regarded simple and clean web design, Google has started testing banner ads on its search results pages.

A Google spokesman Thursday confirmed to Computerworld that it has begun testing the banner ads.

"We're currently running a very limited, U.S.-only test, in which advertisers can include an image as part of the search ads that show in response to certain branded queries," said a Google spokesman in an email. "Advertisers have long been able to add informative visual elements to their search ads, with features like Media Ads, Product Listing Ads and Image Extensions."

The test, which appears to have started about a week ago, is said to include Southwest Airlines among a handful of advertisers.

The spokesman did not say why Google appears to have has changed its stance on running banner ads on the search results page -- the company had pledged about eight years ago not to have them.

"There will be no banner ads on the Google homepage or web search results pages," former Google exec Marissa Mayer said in a blog post on Dec. 22, 2005. "There will not be crazy, flashy, graphical doodads flying and popping up all over the Google site. Ever."

Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group, said it's easy to figure out the reason for Google's apparent change of mind -- money.

"I have to think that this is all about money, and getting more of it from advertisers," he added. "My gut reaction? I don't like it. If the banner advertiser isn't what you're looking for, then you have to scroll down the page to see other results. Call me old fashioned, but I like my search results quick and clean."

Olds suspects a lot of other Google users will feel the same way. Many will likely be irritated by the sudden appearance of banner ads above their Google search results.

"Google search has almost become a sort of public utility, and people are very accustomed to how it displays results," he added. "They're fine with ads in the columns. They're fine with a reasonably small sponsored link or two at the top of the results. But I think many will see adding banners as a big step over the line by Google."

Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with ZK Research, called the move as a "big departure" for Google.

"It seems to break the spirit of the original founding value prop of Google -- to not have a flashy, busy home page," he said. "Simplicity and speed are why people like Google."

Unlike Olds, though, Kerravala doesn't expect much pushback from Google users.

"They are matching the banners with the content, and one could argue that this YouTube generation we're living in is a much more visual world," said Kerravala. "Maybe some hard core people who like the 'no banner' policy will be upset, but I think in general, if the content matches the search query, then I would think it's informative to the audience."

Nonetheless. if a big chunk of Google users do react negatively to the banner ad test, it would likely go away.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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