What are you looking at when you have performed a search in Google?

There are typically two sections to the results. The first section is listed towards the lefthand side of the screen and is known as “organic results”. The second section is listed down the righthand side of the screen and is called “ads” (it used to be called “sponsored links”).

Google Search Results highlighting organic results and ads

Google Search Results - figure 1

This clear distinction can be blurred a bit by Google sometimes showing several “ads” at the top of the “organic” listings (as in figure 2). You can tell when the first “organic” listings are, in fact, Google AdWords ads by the off-white background colour to these ads. It has to be said, though, that it’s very easy indeed to forget – or not notice – that the first two or three so-called organic entries may, in fact, be part of Google advertising.

Google Search Results highlighting ads at top

Google Search Results - figure 2

So what’s the difference?

On the face of it, Google are showing you the organic listings that they think are the most relevant to the search term that you entered. No money changes hands for Google to list a website in the organic listing. The implication is that the organic listings are “impartial”, “fair”, “accurate”.

The “ads”, on the other hand, are part of the “Google AdWords” scheme. 97% of Google’s income comes from advertising (source). They are expecting advertising income in the UK in 2011 to be about £2.5 billion. In fact, this year they are expected to out-run ITV as the biggest earner from advertising in the UK (source).

The way that these ads work on Google results pages is that the advertiser “bids” up to a defined amount to have his ad displayed when searchers enter certain words or phrases into the search box. But it’s not the actual displaying of the ad that costs the advertiser money. It costs him nothing unless the searcher actually clicks on his ad (which then takes them to the advertiser’s website).

So why should I care about the difference?

A lot of people maintain that they are never swayed by ads, never read them, would never click on them on a Google results page etc. These same people are happy, however, to use Google search to provide them with apparently “fair and impartial” organic results.

Well, I think that those people need to re-consider what’s actually going on here because the “organic” search results are most definitely NOT unbiased, value-free, simple reflections of the websites that are the most pertinent to their search term.

Google do not divulge how they work out which websites to display and in which order (known as ranking). They do, however, issue guides as to the kind of things that are most likely to impress them so that they show a particular website in their results and, just as importantly, how high up the list. They develop ever more complicated “algorithms” that are meant to fine-tune the validity of the results they display. “Validity”, however, is defined – in this context – by Google themselves and evaluated by their (secret) algorithms.

Since a good, high, listing in Google search results is a valuable asset to anyone wanting more website traffic, it stands to reason that it’s worth spending time (and money) honing a website so that it will be looked on favourably by the Google-gods. This means jumping through all of Google’s hoops (both known and guessed-at) to get the website up the rankings.

A whole industry (called “Search Engine Optimisation” or SEO) has developed to cater for this. If you own a website your are quite possibly being bombarded with unsolicited email and phone calls from so-called SEO experts promising to get your website ranked near the top of page one of Google results. As a provider of computer support, I would suggest that Google advertising in general, and SEO optimisation in particular, may well be marketing tools that you should investigate, but be very careful in selecting a company to act on your behalf.

So, my point here is not that we shouldn’t use Google search. After all, they have over 90% of the UK search market. My point is that all those purists who claim never to click on ads because they “never take any notice of advertising” (which is, of course, utterly impossible in our society) are being illogical by clicking on Google’s organic results as these organic listings are no more free or unbiased than the entries which are more openly listed under the heading of “ads”. Their appearance and prominence has just been paid for in a different way.

Google logo magnifiedAlmost everyone I know uses Google’s Search engine. And very nearly everyone seems to use it at its very simplest level: just type something in and see what comes up.

Trying to get a detailed grasp of Google products can be mind-numbing and I don’t advocate it. Nevertheless, with something as ubiquitous as Google Search I thought it might be worthwhile to spend just a few minutes becoming aware of some of the simplest ways to make it work better for us, so I’ll just “bullet-point” a few hints and facts.

To make it a bit clearer which parts of the following text are search terms to be keyed into Google, the search terms are enclosed in square brackets [like this]. These square brackets are not included when you type something into Google. They are just here to distinguish the search term from the surrounding text.

  • Google searches are case-insensitive – typing in [Clapham High Street] is the same as typing in [clapham high street], so just type in whatever is easiest for you.
  • If you want to search for a specific phrase (as opposed to just searching on more than one word) then enclose the search term in double-quotes – eg [“clapham high street”] will only return results where those words appear together and in that order.
  • Google will try to match ALL of the important words in your search term, So, if your search term is [ham or bacon] then it will, in fact, return pages that contain references to both ham and bacon! This is because Google is ignoring what it sees as an unimportant word (the word or). The way to force it to recognise the true meaning of your “or” term is detailed below (confusing, isn’t it ?)
  • The way to force Google to return results containing either one word or another is to type the word “or” in capital letters eg [bacon OR eggs] will return results where the page includes either of those words. In other words, the results you see will have some pages referring to ham and some pages referring to eggs (but not necessarily on the same pages). As I said – confusing.
  • Google will usually ignore “unimportant” words. For example, if you enter [I want to buy a plasma TV, preferably from a shop in Camberwell], you will get (more or less) the same results if you type in [buy plasma tv camberwell]. Grammar and normal syntax are irrelevant. Google is just matching the important words in your search term with web pages in its index.
  • Google will usually ignore most punctuation and unusual characters such as @#$%^&*()=+[]\. There are exceptions to this – see below.
  • If you want to exclude results that include specfic words then add the word to the search term preceded by a minus sign. For example, if your search term is a street name then the results will be swamped with pages from estate agents. Maybe Google will sort this out one day, but in the meantime you can try filtering the results by searching for (for instance) [“edgeley road” clapham -property -estate -agent]. This will return results that contain the exact phrase “edgeley road”, that also contain the word “clapham”, but which do not contain any of the words “property”, “estate”, or “agent”.
  • Despite all the rules above, Google do sometimes tweak their searches to take account of facts in the real world. For instance, the character “&” is usually ignored in a search term but if your search term is [M & S] the result is what you probably wanted – Marks & Spencer come at the top of the list of results. Similarly, if you just type in [who] the results relate to just that word, but if you type in [the who] it will recognise that you are referring to a rock group.
  • Finally, you may remember that Google’s search page used to have an option that said “search within results”. You would expect that this means that if you enter a new search term it will narrow down the previous results to take account of the new criterion. This option has now disappeared. I’ve been reading a rather “lively” exchange on this subject. Google claims that all you have to do is add the new search term to the original search term and you will get exactly the same as you used to since the previous “search within results” was just a con. Google claims that the second search merely repeated the first search but with the second term added to it. The other side in the exchange maintains that that’s just not true and that the previous “search within results” produced a better and different result. I don’t know the truth. I just know that I sometimes used “search within results” and it’s not there any more, so don’t bother looking for it. Just add your new term to the end of your previous term and search again.

There are lots of Google web pages that go into far more detail on the subject of search. If you want to investigate further, I suggest starting here.

© 2011-2019 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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