Whatever Google’s proposed changes to the European Commission include, the priority must be to restore the balance between paid and organic search results.
As things stand, almost any commercial query leads to a search engine results page with exclusively promoted results above the fold. On the smaller screens of tablet and mobile, this problem is further accentuated.
On this basis, it is impossible for Google to defend their current service, as they have done in response to the EC fine, as an improvement to user experience. By decreasing the visibility of the most relevant results (organic), they are restricting user choice.
The EC case is focused on Google’s anti-competitive behaviour in relation to price comparison websites for shopping, which are certainly damaged by the current structure of the search engine results page. But the EC should think beyond just price comparison websites, to acknowledge the importance of any organic search result in providing value to the user.
Google simply isn't practising what it preaches. In its AdSense policy, which gives guidance to publishers on the placement of ads, Google states that "publishers should avoid website layouts in which the ads push content below the fold. These layouts make it hard for users to distinguish between the content and ads".
Furthermore, regarding the ratio between ads and content on a page, Google states that "Advertising and other paid promotional material added to your pages should not exceed your content".
Google is in extreme violation of their own principles, with many search results pages being comprised of 100% promoted material above the fold.
I love paid ads and I’ve built a business off the back of Google’s ad dominance. But things have gotten way out of control. What we should be hoping for in Google’s changes, first and foremost, is a better balance between paid and organic results. There are a number of options here. Reducing the maximum number of paid ads appearing at the top of a page from four back to three would be a start. Or, changes to the structure of ad units to reduce their size, may also free up space for organic ads to appear above the fold.
The obvious amendment, however, is to reduce the size of the ad unit reserved exclusively for Google – dubbed by them as the OneBox – which includes results from Google’s universal search algorithm (such as Images, Maps and Flights). It is this feature which the EC has primarily condemned in its case against Google Shopping, on account of the artificial prominence it is given by its owner. And I agree: it takes up an outrageous amount of space, and is damaging to competition.
To put this into perspective, Google itself conducted a study a few years ago on the impact page position on performance. The research measured viewability against page position, finding that the highest viewability was at the page fold (approximately 70%), which then plummets to almost 40% once below the fold. Their focus was on ads served on publishers’ sites, but the principle applies to any webpage, including their search console.
The proposed changes sent by Google to the EC may never become public, but the changes will of course manifest themselves soon.
I hope Margrethe Vestager is aware of this fundamental problem with Google search, and I hope, for the sake of advertisers, users and in the long term Google itself, that this problem will be resolved in the process of reaching EC compliance.
Daniel Gilbert is chief executive of Brainlabs