Google Quietly Ends SERP Banner Ad Test

Peter Roesler, President - Web Marketing Pros

By Peter Roesler

President, Web Marketing Pros

google-anti-trustBack in October, Google created a stir with a controversial plan to include large, banner-sized images in the sponsored results of search engine results pages. Last week at the Search Marketing Expo West, Google confirmed that the test is over and that Google has decided not to continue the ads for now. This post will explain what was going on and what Google has said recently about the plan.

To explain briefly, the test allowed certain brands to include an image that would show at the top of the page instead of the traditional text-based ads for the brand. The most commonly seen example of the time was of Southwest Airlines.

For those who felt the entire four-month experiment passed without them noticing, there’s a reason for that. The test only featured 30 brands and would only show for some branded searches.

In a keynote discussion at SMX West, Google’s Amit Singhal said the test didn’t perform well and has ended. Though no official reason was given, the click-through rates (CTR) on the new image-based sponsored listings weren’t high enough to justify keeping around. However, if the CTR were low, it probably has to do with the fact that what so many were calling a banner ad actually functioned more as a graphic introduction to the organic listings and has no call-to-action.

During the short life-span of the test, Google received criticism to the plan. Google responded to the concerns over the test at the time by saying it was “a very limited, US-only test, in which advertisers can include an image as part of the search ads that show in response to certain branded queries.”

Despite such assurances, some commentators considered the plan to be a broken promise from Google. In response to an announcement that Google would be indexing more pages from AOL, Marissa Mayer, then Google’s VP of Search Products & User Experience (now the president and CEO of Yahoo!) said, “Business partnerships will never compromise the integrity or objectivity of our search results. If a partner’s page ranks high, it’s because they have a good answer to your search, not because of their business relationship with us.”

Famously, she also stated, “There will be no banner ads on the Google homepage or web search results pages. There will not be crazy, flashy, graphical doodads flying and popping up all over the Google site. Ever.”

Google noted that they have used images for in sponsored links for SERPs for a while, thus suggesting that the images weren’t banner ads, per se. The plan most likely didn’t directly violate the pledge, as Barry Schwartz from SearchEngineLand noted, “I assume since it is a very branded query, Google finds this ad to be relevant and they are testing to see the click-through on this ad.”

Though Google has put an end to this particular test, the situation shows that the search giant is willing to bid the rules when it comes to image-based advertising on search engine result pages. As Google continues to experiment with different tactics to increase their ad revenue, marketers should expect to see more creative uses of Google’s SERP.

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