Research carried out by Bunnyfoot suggests that many people are unaware of the difference between paid and organic search listings, with 40% of web users unaware they were adverts. 

While conducting a research project for an insurance sector client, Bunnyfoot discovered that 81% of users clicked on Google Adwords listings as opposed to natural search results.

Further investigation of this surprising bias revealed that 41 out of the 100 individuals tested did not know that Adwords were paid-for adverts, believing them instead to be the most authoritative links. 

Looking at a Google results page for 'car insurance', the paid ads do stand out thanks to the background shading, while Google does add the label 'ads related to car insurance' at the top. 

However, this label could be easily missed and, if you don't know they're ads, the shading could mean anything. 


In addition, the background shading isn't always easy to see on every monitor, while Google's new hybrid sponsored ad for its own insurance comparison site looks more organic than ad. 

In short, it's easy to see why the users in the Bunnyfoot research were unaware that these ads were ads. 

Bunnyfoot's heatmaps illustrate this point. 

This shot shows the results page for 'car insurance'

The heatmap suggests that the PPC ads may be more valuable than the top natural positions, for this search at least. 

I asked Bunnyfoot co-founder Rob Stevens about the test and the implications of the results: 

Can you tell me a bit more about the test and participants? 

The test was conducted as part of an end-to-end customer experience research project for an insurance sector client. With a view to exploring a representative of the general UK population rather than an online only population, test participants were recruited from an in-street intercept.

In theory, your findings would mean that the top two or three paid results would do better than the top organic ones...

In this particular study, we found that 81% clicked on paid results, 19% on organic search results.

In theory this may be true for some categories and the heatmap for ‘Car Insurance’ supports this hypothesis. Results of the eye tracking tests support the notion that internet users do not differentiate between organic and paid search results.

The heat map demonstrates that it’s the area of the screen displaying the top results, regardless of whether they are natural or paid for, that receives the most activity and attention from users.

In this scenario, specific terms are more likely to convert than generic ones: Marketers should optimise more specific searches for click through like “car insurance for porsche over 40” rather than “Cheap car insurance”. 

Stats we published recently suggest that the vast majority of clicks are on organic results. How does this fit with your findings? 

While a direct comparison between the two pieces of research is problematic due to a number of key differences, the two data sets are reconcilable and valuable shared learnings can be taken from both. 

The quoted GroupM research looks at a wide range of verticals from “airlines” and “online games” to “government” and “current news,” while this particular piece of research of ours looked at one very specific vertical - car insurance.  

The MEC sample is across all data while Bunnyfoot looked exclusively at the sub set of car insurance,  a category that is full of Adwords - and importantly the familiar brands abound within those Adwords - and this would have a significant bearing on results.

The specific categories undoubtedly have an effect on tests of this nature. As internet users do not follow one particular behaviour for every search they carry out, we would expect each search vertical to produce very different search patterns.

With that in mind, we would envisage the vertical “government” - one of the categories looked at in the GroupM research - generating very different behaviour from the car insurance category.

The type of search and the keywords are important considerations also. While the Bunnyfoot research looks at ‘head term’ searches, it’s unclear from the published article what the GroupM research explores. Reading the article and looking at the infographic, we would expect that the study probably includes a lot of long-tail searches.

We find that in many cases involving long tail searches (e.g. an individual searches “renew car tax”), there won’t even be any Adwords displayed and so by definition the clicks will land only on natural results in those cases.

What are the key takeaways for marketers? 

The key takeaway for marketers from this test is that there is a world of people out there who don’t know adwords are ads and marketers should be wary of making assumptions that remove them from a true consumer perspective.

We were astounded by the numbers when they first came in but there can be no doubt about it: a significant slice of internet users simply don’t recognise Adwords listings as sponsored links.

I posit that there is a digital technorati that live a lot of their life online, they (we) know that Google ads are Google ads and don’t often click them. 

I don’t know what the % is but we could apply Pareto Rule for lack of a better tool: 80% of the clicks come from 20% of the people.

Secondly - and with the above in mind - Google Ads can be a far more effective brand building tool than they are often given credit for. If the market really gets hold of this and buys into the idea that PPC on Adwords is even more effective than was previously thought this could see the cost of Google Adwords rocketing.

This makes it imperative for marketers to maximise the conversion of browsers to buyers and the most cost effective way of doing this is usability. This could put $50 or more on to the stock value of Google.

Are there easy opportunities for PPC in the kinds of results which have no or fewer PPC listings? 

Absolutely, but the user experience needs to be right before spending any money on hits. It’s all very well carrying out a PPC campaign that delivers people to a particular destination for the duration of the campaign, but it’s the user experience that converts clicks and achieves longer term success.

Graham Charlton

Published 28 February, 2013 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is editor in chief at SaleCycle, and former editor at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin.

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Comments (11)

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Green Deal Wales

Totally agree with the research, as this has been our findings. Many users do not understand that the first 3 results are paid for adverts, and as shown in the heat maps above this is shown in where their eye is drawn to and where they are clicking

over 5 years ago


Joe Schaefer

It should not surprise us that people don't realize that PPC is paid advertising. It is the same as back in ancient times when the public thought the yellow page directory was a public service and not a strictly "for-profit" enterprise selling space to the highest bidder. Also, the study showing that PPC was only 6% of traffic, looked at all internet searches and that means everybody from movie reviews to recipes.

over 5 years ago


Nick Taylor, Marketing Manager at Alternative Route Finance Ltd

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised to hear this - but for some reason I am. Perhaps is a generation thing...or just an industry thing?

over 5 years ago


Will Russell

This is really eye-opening stuff. I think you're right about the "digital technorati" - we get so used to a world and commentary that we sometimes forget how others view and understand information that to us is common sense.

over 5 years ago

Robert Stevens

Robert Stevens, Director at Sharp Ahead

Research published by Google showed that 50% of people don't know what a browser is, search for 'What is a Browser?' on YouTube and click #3

over 5 years ago


Brian Park

I was watching similar with average users how they search and click..

Many users were open browser(back then IE), search in Bing..just click whatever first in line(mostly PPC ad) chrome and firefox..I am sure average users will just search and hit first line that comes up on page..

so I am not surprise with 40%..

over 5 years ago


Jamie Grant

How can a study of just 100 people, taken off the street in a given city/town, ever be representative of the general UK population? I appreciate the motive behind the study, but the data would surely not stand up to any rigorous statistical test of significance. Therefore, I will be taking the findings with a bucket of salt.
Is there any chance of opening this study up to a larger, more diverse sample of the population? If so, I would be greatly interested in the findings.

over 5 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at SaleCycle

@Jamie - no-one is saying this is representative of everyone. The data is limited due to sample size and focus on one vertical. However, it's a useful starting point for debate, and perhaps merits further investigation.

Whether the 40% would stand for a broader look at this issue, I think it's entirely plausible that a proportion of web users wouldn't necessarily know the difference between paid and organic results.

about 5 years ago


Nick Taylor, Marketing Manager at Alternative Route Finance Ltd


I couldn't agree more. I've re-read this article and asked a few people myself about their understanding of Google Rankings. Every single person I've asked has stated the following:

1) They did not know anything about paid advertising, some believe you had to pay for inclusion in the first place.

2) The more you pay, the higher you rank (even in organic SERPS).

3) The best businesses are always ranked higher.

It's a very interesting topic...!

about 5 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at SaleCycle

@Nick I'd like to test this theory with a bigger sample of consumers.

We could do so in an online survey but the problem is that it's hard to ask the right question in survey form, but a user test with more than 100 participants would be tricky to arrange.

about 5 years ago

Bill Robinson

Bill Robinson, SEM Specialist at REA

I would agree as across my friend group 40-50% do not know the difference between paid and natural links. We only know and think its obvious because we are in the digital industry.

almost 5 years ago

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