SAN FRANCISCO — A couple of weeks ago, when Dan Shure was searching on Google for information about butchering meats, he did something he had avoided for 20 years: He unknowingly clicked on an ad.
Mr. Shure, a consultant who helps companies manage where they appear in Google searches, had always thought it was easy to distinguish between paid search results and unpaid links.
That changed on Jan. 13 when Google revamped the look of its search results page for desktop computers. Even for someone with a trained eye like Mr. Shure, it was hard to see the difference between an ad and a regular link.
“I felt dumb because I had never clicked on an ad before,” said Mr. Shure, 40, the owner of Evolving SEO, a consulting firm in Worcester, Mass.
In the two decades since Google introduced text ads above search results, the company has steadily made ads less conspicuous. But its latest look may have pushed things too far. Users complained that Google was trying to trick people into clicking on more paid results, while marketing executives said it was yet another step in blurring the line between ads and unpaid search results, forcing them to spend more money with the internet company.
The dust-up comes at a bad time for Google, which is facing accusations around the world that it unfairly takes advantage of its search engine dominance. And it is an indication of just how careful the internet giant now must be when it makes subtle — and sometimes unsubtle — tweaks to wring more money out of its giant ad business.
Regulators and politicians are investigating Google’s influence over the digital advertising industry. And some advertisers are openly challenging search ads as a “shakedown” and “ransom” by the tech giant, which controls about 90 percent of web search.
Ginny Marvin, editor in chief of Search Engine Land, a website that covers the search industry, said there was more awareness among users of Google’s behavior because of recent privacy complaints and government antitrust probes.
“There is much more scrutiny by your regular user who may not have thought anything about this a year or two ago,” Ms. Marvin said. “To see them make this change in the face of antitrust regulation” was not going to go unnoticed.
Google said in January that it would eventually strip third-party trackers, or cookies, from its Chrome browser, a decision it described as an effort to build “a more private web.” But the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers quickly complained in an open letter that removing cookies could “choke off the economic oxygen from advertising that start-ups and emerging companies need to survive.”
The reaction to the recent search page changes was so negative that Google took the rare step of reversing some of the design changes last week. In a statement, Google said it was “experimenting with a change” to the new logos next to the unpaid links, although it did not alter the new ad logo.
Lara Levin, a Google spokeswoman, said in a statement that the recent design changes mirrored a new look the company introduced for search results on mobile phones in May. The company tested the new look on desktop search, and the results were positive, she said, but it decided to make some changes to respond to “feedback from users.”
Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is expected to report next week that annual revenue topped $ 150 billion in 2019. But Google’s ad business is under growing pressure from rivals like Amazon and Facebook.
Money from Google advertising accounts for about 80 percent of Alphabet’s revenue. Search advertising is essential to the future of Google, though the company does not say how much it makes on it alone. Magna, a media intelligence firm, estimates that overall search advertising increased 14 percent in 2019 to $ 144 billion.
Google constantly tinkers with the design of its search results page, and its once bare-bones approach to search results — characterized as “10 blue links” — has changed drastically in recent years. The company once tested 41 shades of blue to find which one users liked best, and it has steadily made its search ads more inconspicuous over time.
Increasingly, Google’s search results page is not just the on-ramp to direct you to the most relevant information on the web; it’s also the destination. The unpaid links are buried amid a hodgepodge of fact boxes, news links, ads and snippets of text.
For marketers who rely on Google to bring them web traffic, the blurred lines between ads and regular results make it hard to decipher whether the customers being redirected to their sites are people who were going to come to them anyway or those who stumbled upon them because of the ad.
“You can’t figure out where the highest-value customers are coming from if everyone comes in through that paid ad,” said Amanda Goetz, vice president of marketing at the Knot Worldwide, a wedding planning group. “Right now, it’s just a bidding war, and brands now have to buy against their own name as a defense mechanism.”
Ms. Goetz called the redesign a “transition to this almost deceptive dark pattern.”
Josh Zeitz, another Google spokesman for the ads team, said the design changes were in line with guidelines from the Federal Trade Commission. In 2013, the F.T.C. made recommendations for how search engines should label ads, but stopped short of specific requirements other than that paid results should be “noticeable and understandable to consumers.”
Google’s recent changes adhered to some of the guidelines but ignored others. Google did not follow what the F.T.C. prescribed for “visual cues” with paid results marked by “prominent shading that has a clear outline,” by a “border that distinctly sets off advertising” from unpaid search results or by both. But the new ad icon met the F.T.C.’s recommendation for ad labels to appear before the paid result on the upper left-hand side.
Google declined to comment on the record about how it interprets the F.T.C. guidelines, citing a quiet period before the earnings report. An F.T.C. spokesman, Mitchell Katz, declined to comment on Google’s changes.
Google is not alone in trying to squeeze more revenue from prominent internet properties. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Amazon are increasing the numbers of ads that appear on their sites and apps and labeling advertisements in different ways.
For Mr. Shure, Google’s recent changes were more jarring on desktop than on mobile because there is so little visual difference between the paid and unpaid search results. He said he found that there was no difference in font size, spacing or color between the ads and the regular or organic results. On mobile, each ad is contained within a box and comes with an “i” or information icon on the right.
“If you look at a result that is ads and organic links, it all looks the same,” Mr. Shure said. “And that’s a problem.”
Daisuke Wakabayashi reported from San Francisco, and Tiffany Hsu from New York.