The move by Google to display sponsored ads on its search pages is a strange addition to the financial comparison market. Apart from the clear abuse of its position as a search engine offering relevant search results, it also raises a number of concerns for the consumer. Google is, at its core, a trusted search service, but although the introduction of search ads will not move the majority of its users away from the traditional destination sites, some may get side-tracked.
If this happens, it could spell a number of problems for the less financially savvy consumer. Those looking for financial products, such as credit cards, tend to need more than just a simple comparison table – they need information about the products and context so that they can make an informed choice. It’s vital that consumers find the best product for them based on their individual needs, as choosing the wrong product can cost them dearly. These results tables are sorely missing the broader information that consumers need and that sites like ours provide.
There are also questions over the transparency of these tables as, although a clear APR is shown next to the cards, the Google sponsored search ads do not show a representative APR (cost of credit). Its response has been that the representative APR is one click away, but with the introduction of the 2011 Consumer Credit Directive all sites are required to show the cost of credit. Does this now change how other sites can list credit products? The jury is still out on this.
Transparency about how the tables are ordered and commission payments is also lacking, which doesn’t create much trust or confidence in the impartiality of the results. The other worry for consumers is that the sponsored adverts clearly push down relevant natural search results. This seems unfair on those sites that are offering rich content and valuable information to consumers. Consumers may also be frustrated by the move as their search for relevant sites will become slightly harder, and it’s more likely they will be led astray.
The move also seems to be the beginning of the end of clean, clear search results as results pages become even more cluttered with adverts. Are we ever going to get just pure search results from Google again? And isn’t that what consumers want instead of having the waters muddied by more adverts?
Overall, Google’s foray into this space has shown that it, along with Beat that Quote, is very commercially minded and that it might not have the consumer’s best interests at heart. The company has moved the goal posts to benefit itself. However, while it has increased its ability to get financial suppliers on side, in the long run it may reduce revenue from direct advertisers bidding on key search terms. Advertisers will need to decide if they want masses of un-targeted search volume that is no different from their standard paid for search or they would like to have their products on destination sites where the focus is on the customer experience and quality. And what does this mean or the other search engines, as users will now get totally different results on Bing and Yahoo as Beat that Quote/Google Compare will not have the same relevance outside the Google frame work.
However, the overwhelming concern is the impact it could have on consumers. If they make poorly informed decisions on financial products based purely on the tables Google displays, without additional research into what suits them, it could end up costing them money. It also begs the question, what is Google? A jack of all trades and a master of none? It seems that over the years Google is intent on dominating the web by venturing into areas that are already working well. However, by doing so and by introducing new species such as its image adverts Google may end up causing more confusion for its self and customers looking for finance. At the end of the day, comparison sites have traditionally been part of the solution – let’s hope Google’s new venture into this territory doesn’t become a problem.