55% of users don’t recognise PPC ads in Google search results

There is still confusion over which search results are ads and which are organic, at least in the minds of some web users. 

According to a new survey, 55% of searchers don’t know which links in the SERPs are PPC ads,

I covered this topic a few months ago, using data from an Ofcom report which found that up to 50% of users shown a screenshot could not identify paid ads in the SERPs.

The article on Search Engine Watch also mentioned data from Varn, which found that, of the 1,010 UK internet users who were asked the question below, 50.6% didn’t know which links were ads:


The survey above is from February this year, but there have been a few changes to the SERPs since then, so Varn repeated the survey last month.

The new version found that almost 55% now don’t know which links are paid ads and which are organic.


The results are also split by age, with the general trend being that the younger you are, the more likely it is that you’ll spot the ads. Though almost 50% of 25 to 34s still aren’t seeing ads.

Ages (1)

As before, the results can seem surprising when you look at a typical search results page, and the results labelled as ads.

Then again, perhaps I’m not in the best position to judge. As someone who looks at search results all the time, and is well aware of paid search ads, it’s impossible not to notice them.


Since the first survey, 5% more people are unable to recognise ads, so is this just about the margin of error or have Google’s recent changes made ads less ad-like?

The first of the changes was the removal of right hand side ads, meaning that all paid ads appear in a list with organic results.

This is what they used to look like, just in case you need a reminder:

london hotel Google Search with right hand side ads

Then we had the change of labels, from the yellow ad labels you see above, to green ad labels which are, of course, the same colour as the URLs.

The reason for the change to the green colour is unclear, but the ad text now blends in more easily with the green text showing the URL, thus making it look less like an ad.

This seems to be a continuation of Google’s changes to ad labelling. This visual from Ginny Marvin on SEL illustrates the point brilliantly.


While they used to be shaded to distinguish them from organic results, ads now look less like ads then ever. Of course, the text is a clue, but it does seem that around 50% of users simply aren’t noticing that label.

Varn also asked about people’s attitudes to ads, finding that the majority see them as a nuisance:

How do you feel about paid adverts online. (1)

In summary

None of the surveys asking about ad recognition in SERPs are perfect.

If you show people pictures of SERPs or conduct user tests, then sample sizes are small, but if you ask, the answer is often revealed in the wording of the question.

However, the trend is clear. Whatever the exact figure, it seems that around half of web users simply aren’t distinguishing paid results from organic ones.

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