Until the internet unbundled newspapers, they kept the advertising side of the business strictly separated from the journalistic side. The moral code was so strong, journalists called “the wall”.
That same wall separated organic from paid results on search engines and other online platforms. And just as for newspapers, it's coming down right now and changing the landscape. Organic and paid results blend into each other.
When Google promoted Prabhakar Raghavan to Head of Search, they also made him executive of Google Assistant and... Ads! The long-standing between barrier organic and paid results broke, and looking at the SERPs these days, I see an accurate reflection of that.
One example is "Popular Products", which rolled out earlier this year.
Google's "popular products" carousels are not exactly ads, but lead users to a SERP with a clear user intent (to buy the product) and loads of ads at the top.
Google Image Search ads
In recent years, Google's image search became more Pinteresque and now also shows paid results.
The universal search integration with Google images and the promise to "make search more visual" bear a lot of monetization potential.
Local ads exist since 2013, but last year, Google added promoted pins to Maps (source). As searches for "near me" are shooting through the roof - because users understand it yields high-quality results - Google wants a piece of the expanding $21b pie that is mobile advertising.
Google Discover Ads
Discover has been a rising traffic star in my mind, but it didn't take long for Google to start showing ads in the feed. Advertisers can use "Discovery ads" to buy visibility on Discovery, the Youtube homepage, and Gmail.
I haven't seen many ads in my Discover feed, yet, but expect them to increase. The push feed is Google's answer to Facebook's and Instagram's feed.
Google is not the only search engine that meshes organic with paid results. Bing's differentiation of paid from organic results in search is now close to zero. Both search engines seem to bank on increasing ad revenue by making ads indistinguishable from organic results, which comes at the cost of user experience (in my opinion).
The "redesign" might be a reaction to Bing's plummeting revenue due to Covid (source). Either way, in my mind it's a missed chance because a better user experience might have persuaded more users to go with Bing.
Amazon is mixing paid and organic results when people search for products.
They also provide ad slots on product pages for similar or related products.
Facebook search and messenger
From Tech Crunch:
Facebook is testing a new feature that aims to keep users inside its platform when they’re looking for factual information they would otherwise turn to Google or Wikipedia to find. The company confirmed to TechCrunch it’s now piloting an updated version of Facebook Search that displays factual information when users search for topics like public figures, places, and interests — like movies and TV shows.
For example, if you type in a movie title in the Facebook search bar, you’ll be shown an information box that gives you all the details about the movie.
The information is gathered from publicly available data, including Wikipedia. But instead of requiring users to click out of Facebook to view the information, it’s displayed in a side panel next to the search results. This is similar to the automatically generated Knowledge Panel format Google uses for these same types of searches.From: https://www.socialmediatoday.com/news/facebook-adds-wikipedia-knowledge-boxes-in-search-results/579510/
Granted, Facebook's knowledge graph isn't close to competing with Google's. the social network already tried building a knowledge graph years ago, which would allow the company to mix audience based data from the Open Graph with other types of entities. It ultimately failed.
The attempt at building a knowledge graph now comes with problems:
"For starters, it doesn’t always recognize a search term as a proper title. A search for “joker,” for instance displayed a Wikipedia-powered information box for the movie. But a search for “parasite” failed to do so for the Oscar-winning title that became the first non-English film to win Best Picture in 2020.
Meanwhile, a search for “Donald Trump” easily returned an information panel for the U.S. president, but information for many members of his cabinet did not come up when they were also searched by name. Information about leading coronavirus expert Dr. Anthony Fauci came up in a side panel when the term “anthony fauci” was entered in the Facebook’s search box, but not when “dr. fauci” was used as the search query."
However, making search more appealing for Facebook users would give the social network more real estate to display ads. It would also provide more intent signals, something Facebook is traditionally not good at.
Facebook provides ad slots in its Messenger app, which recently merged with Instagram and Whatsapp to allow cross-messaging (source).
When organic reach on Facebook has died a brutal death, the action moved in messengers and apps like Whatsapp. Facebook wants to display ads where users are, and with 100B messages sent per day, it makes only sense to push messenger ads forward (source).
The advertising options on Facebook are vast. Of course, stories can't be missing (across Facebook and Instagram). The super short-form format gets high engagement and, as a result, is a great ad surface.
How should you navigate this trend?
Mixing paid and organic results is one of the characteristics of Platform Confluence. Online platforms scale ads and organic results separately to a point, but then either find other revenue streams or become more aggressive with ads.
Amazon started without 3rd party sellers altogether, Google is continuously increasing the number of ads in search results, and Facebook is looking for more channels to run ads on, e.g. Messenger.
As marketers, we need to face reality and use ads in combination with organic results to maximize reach (if our budget allows it and the ROI is greater than the cost). We need to accept that organic results compete more with paid ones over time, but also look at our data to understand the impact because the trend doesn't affect every vertical the same way.
Direct and brand traffic become even more important to decouple from platform dependency. I see link building, podcast ads, and strong positioning as vital.
Lastly, pushing users to environments you can control like email, web apps, or native apps, keeps its position as top retention channel that provokes companies' antifragility.