It would appear that some companies get the privilege of paying to be featured in Google search results that most others don't. Obviously anyone can pay for AdWords ads, but Google reportedly has a new presentation for a certain kind of ad that is a little bit different.
Danny Sullivan, with contributions from Pamela Parker, has put together a very interesting report about Google's apparent paid inclusion program, which comes in the form of sponsored comparison ad results. According to Sullivan, Google considers these to be something in between organic results and ads - a "third kind of thing". As he points out, it seems very much like paid inclusion, even if it's only on a few select types of searches (hotels, flights and financial products).
Update: A Google spokesperson tells us, “We’re changing the design layout of our hotel, flight, credit card and bank account results, which help users complete actions such as booking flights quickly and easily. We’ve always disclosed that Google may be paid when a user completes such an action; we want to be clear and consistent in how we do that.”
Who's to say this won't expand to other types of searches in the future, as Google looks for more revenue streams? Meanwhile, Google is continuing to make improvements to mobile ads, which could help in that department as well.
The main point of Sullivan's article is that Google has long been against paid inclusion in search. He points to Google's 2004 Founders' IPO Letter from its S-1 registration statement, which includes the famous "Don't Be Evil" section. This says:
Google users trust our systems to help them with important decisions: medical, financial and many others. Our search results are the best we know how to produce. They are unbiased and objective, and we do not accept payment for them or for inclusion or more frequent updating. We also display advertising, which we work hard to make relevant, and we label it clearly. This is similar to a well-run newspaper, where the advertisements are clear and the articles are not influenced by the advertisers' payments. We believe it is important for everyone to have access to the best information and research, not only to the information people pay for you to see.
It is interesting that financial is mentioned in there, considering that financial products are apparently one of the verticals that display this new format.
I'm not sure the new format is a complete contradiction to this statement, however, as they are still clearly marked as "sponsored". Just not as clearly marked. They don't come in the colored boxes like AdWords ads. There's a white background that will make them blend in much like other types of Google results. Though, it's pretty much the same approach Facebook uses on its sponsored posts. Of course the big difference there is that with Facebook, these posts were organically made by your friends in the first place, so there's a good chance you would've seen them anyway.
Image courtesy: Search Engine Land
The timing of this is pretty interesting, considering Google's massive push against webspam with the Penguin update, which is designed to target sites violating Google's quality guidelines, which, of course, prohibit paid links and links schemes.
The idea behind paid links is that you are paying to influence search results. Obviously this is quite different than Google's new comparison listings format, but in effect, it is still select companies paying to influence search results. The big differences are that Google is the one being paid and they are marked as sponsored. It's that positioning of them as "a third kind of thing" rather than an ad product (and the fact that they don't use the well-known ad background color) that might raise a few eyebrows.
I'm sure you remember the debacle over "Local Paid Inclusion" a few months back, which sent SEOs into an uproar. If what Google is offering is a kind of paid inclusion, which one of the most respected names in the industry is calling it, I'm guessing we'll see some backlash here too.
According to Sullivan, the new sponsored comparison results format is going live over the coming days, so you may or may not see them yet. I'm not seeing them, but it looks like Google will be controlling a lot of what users see on hotel searches. I'm already seeing plenty of ads, Google Maps and Places results and Google+ Page results on a search for "hotels":
We've reached out to Google for more on these so-called "paid inclusion" results/ads. We'll update with any more info that comes to light.
What are your thoughts about what Google is doing?