Over the years, Google’s become somewhat notorious for killing off its projects, beloved or otherwise. The most recent casualty happened today, with the announcement that the company’s backing off of a controversial search engine update—one that made organic search results and paid-for placements nearly impossible to distinguish.
“We’ve heard your feedback about the look,” tweeted Google’s “search liaison,” Danny Sullivan, in a thread earlier today. “We always want to make Search better, so we’re going to experiment with new placements for favicons.”
Google’s “favicons” are the teeny tiny pictures that a website related to your search and you might actually want to visit can plop next to their name in Google’s search results. With the new update, advertisements in search got their own favicons: a little “Ad” in bold black font, replacing the green text that previously tipped off what is—and isn’t—an ad since Google Search’s inception.
Google stressed that the initial revamp was about “mirroring” the sleek design that the search engine has adopted for mobile, and that its early tests on larger screens were “positive.” It just so happened that the aesthetic freshening made every ad look like a goddamn search result. A move that would surely be good for its ad business, at least on paper.
Over the past few years, the click-through rates for ads at the top and bottom of everyone’s favorite search engine have slid more than a few percentage points, and with it, the cost that advertisers are willing to pay Google. As New York Magazine pointed out roughly one year ago, the cost-per-click that advertisers have been willing to pay to appear in Google search was down more than a quarter between 2018 and 2019—and during that same time period, while that same number increased for Facebook.
It also notably increased for Amazon—which is probably the first place a lot of us would be searching for cheap cat food in the first place. Knowing what people want to buy—and when—is catnip for advertisers, which might be why Jeff Bezos’s baby has gobbled increasingly more of their budgets with each passing year.
Google, for its part, is in no danger of giving up the stranglehold it has over the digital ad ecosystem—along with Facebook, the company still swallows most of the money that’s passed around online. But it’s becoming more and more clear that Google’s feeling that its territory is being encroached on—which might explain this drastic step to crush those click-throughs. It just so happened to trample on its user’s trust in the process.