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Confusion over Google’s paid services could land it in trouble, again

Some people are still confused over what is paid or sponsored content in a typical Google search. Shutterstock/Denys Prykhodov

Confusion over Google’s paid services could land it in trouble, again

Some people are still confused over what is paid or sponsored content in a typical Google search. Shutterstock/Denys Prykhodov

Google is the world’s most popular search engine and is by far the most popular search engine used in Australia. But our research suggests that most Australians do not understand how the Google search engine works or what they are clicking on when they use it.

Most of us use the Google search engine every day, whether to find information for our work, study, shopping, leisure or for pure idle curiosity. But have you taken a close look at the kinds of results Google produces when you conduct a search? And do you know the difference between an advertisement and what Google shows because it thinks it is most relevant to your inquiry?

This is the question at the heart of our research on Australian internet users, which seeks to shed light on whether they understand the different search results Google produces.

These results include paid-for adverts, organic or natural results produced because they are most relevant to the search inquiry and results from Google’s other, affiliate services such as Google News, Google Maps and Google Shopping.

We surveyed more than 1,000 Australians from different backgrounds and parts of the country with the results published this week in the International Journal of Law and Information Technology.

User confusion

Our results show that Australian consumers are confused about the different parts of Google’s search results pages, and why Google produces them.

In particular, our research indicates consumers are especially confused about the nature and origin of Google’s vertical search services such as Google Shopping and its newer search features or refinements such as the Knowledge Graph box. Our research also shows that consumers are confused about the origin of organic search results.

In our survey, we showed respondents two screenshots of Google search results pages from the Chrome browser on a desktop computer. Chrome is the most popular browser used in Australia.

The screenshots related to the search terms “apple” and “rolex”. We boxed and labelled the different parts of the search results page. Then we asked respondents a series of questions about those different parts.

A breakdown of the Google search results for ‘apple’. Screenshot

For instance, when we showed respondents the “apple” search results page, we asked them why Section A (advertising) appeared and 58.7% correctly believed Apple Inc had paid for placement there.

But when we asked them about Section B, an organic search result, 36.4% thought incorrectly that Apple had paid for its placement and only 49% thought this section appeared because of its relevance.

We also asked them about the two Google Maps results, and only a minority (13% and 21% respectively) correctly identified that these were from another Google service. About 22% of respondents wrongly believed that Apple Inc had paid to appear in the Google News results, and only 19.8% correctly identified that Google News is an affiliated Google service.

We then asked the survey respondents some more general questions about how Google produces different kinds of search results and 67% were unaware that organic search results could not be purchased from Google by advertisers. Less than half of the respondents (47.9%) knew that these results were determined by Google’s algorithm.

Next, we showed respondents the “rolex” screenshot.

A breakdown of the Google search results for ‘rolex’. Screenshop

We were particularly interested in the Google Shopping results (Section G). Nearly 70% of respondents were unaware that this was a result from one of Google’s affiliated services.

Finally, we asked survey respondents some general questions about the labelling of results. While 60% of people agreed or strongly agreed that Google clearly differentiated each section of its search results page, 68% agreed or strongly agreed that Google could improve the layout and labelling of results to make their origins and/or how they were generated clearer to users.

Some respondents thought this could be achieved by better, clearer labels and headings. Others wanted more transparency and honesty in Google’s search results, particularly with respect to preferencing of affiliated services and perceived Google kickbacks.

Legal context

The prompt for this survey was the _Google v ACCC _case, where the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) alleged Google had engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct in violation of Australian Consumer Law regarding its publication of misleading sponsored links, including by not sufficiently distinguishing between the adverts and the organic search results.

While Google was successful in defending the allegations levelled against it, the case exposed a concerning and unsubstantiated assumption.

The judge at first instance, Justice Nicholas, said that Australian internet users understood the difference between organic search results and sponsored links or adverts, without reference to any empirical evidence in support.

Our research, the first of its kind in Australia, directly contradicts this assumption, and should give Google (and its competitors) some cause for concern, because it potentially exposes them to a possible new legal challenge on misleading and deceptive conduct.

It is true that evidence of consumer confusion does not necessarily equate to misleading and deceptive conduct against Australian Consumer Law. But evidence of confusion can be a first step towards showing that the company was not acting in accordance with the law.

And our results suggest that this is an issue on which further and more thorough research into Australian consumers’ understanding of Google’s search results would be highly desirable.

From Google’s perspective, it should consider taking simple steps to label the different parts of its search results page more clearly. This could protect Google against further litigation, while also delivering a better search experience to consumers.