Since I haven’t been planning to write this for a decade, I had to search around Google Images for a while to find screenshots taken over the last 13 years to demonstrate the evolution of the way Google has presented pay-per-click ads to users.
It turns out that most historical screenshots of Google results are the kind taken by SEO and PPC providers for the purposes of overlaying a not-so-subtle arrow and some earth-shattering marketing copy like “YOU COULD BE HERE,” so please excuse any such additions in the images below.
Please note: As some of our more AdWords knowledgable readers will no doubt point out to me, I’ve taken a bit of liberty with the exact dates I’ve given some of Google’s visual changes. They often test new developments for months or years prior to rolling them out globally, so it’s difficult to always pin an exact date on when a change was unveiled.
1999 – Ad Free!
Although the screenshot below contains no ads, I’ve included it to demonstrate a time before Google accepted payment for placement in search results.
2000 – Launch
When AdWords was first launched, the ads featured an “Interest Bar” which was basically a representation of that ad’s click-through rate. The upper ad area spanned the entire page width with a light pink background colour, while the side ad area had a light blue box with each ad being contained in a seperate box.
Initially, the entire box containing these new Sponsored Links was clickable, so you didn’t have to aim too well.
2001 – Testing
The early years of AdWords were very volatile. Google trialled hundreds of variations of how to display the ads to the user. The size, shape, position and colour of these new “Sponsored Links” were seemingly different each time you searched.
2002 – More Testing
2003 – Refinement
2004 – Somewhat stable
The dark-blue navigation bar has disappeared and the tabs have relocated to above the search box. In a change likely designed to make the ads seem more like normal search results, the side Sponsored Links are no longer contained within a coloured box.
The top-section of Sponsored Links is now restricted to only spanning the left column instead of the entire page-width.
With significant testing throughout 2007, 2008 saw the first appearances of the infamous 10-Pack of local business listings thrusting itself onto the main search results pages.
Big changes in 2010 included the appearance of the left-side menu and the new Google Instant to pre-empt a users search intent. Also notable was the decision, towards the end of 2010, to change the description of the advertisements from “Sponsored links” to simply “Ads.” If you built your business on that phrase, 2010 was the year you started to look outdated.
2011 – New Interface
In 2011, Google unveiled a completely new look and feel for the search results. For localised searches, this means that the right-side Ads were pushed quite far down to accomodate a Google Map.
2012 sees the Google results return to their simplistic roots, with many of the extra features more frequently hidden from view
“…we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.” – Larry Page & Sergey Brin – quote taken from The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine.
The evolution of Google’s paid-inclusion program demonstrates an on-going effort by Google to strike the almost impossible balance between the user, who is seeking the most relevant search results, and the advertiser, who is seeking a targeted and effective advertising platform.
It’s likely that this struggle to maintain the optimal balance will continue to dictate Google’s design and interface improvements for the next decade.