Search Result or Advertisement - Google Results Gone Wrong

The Call

I recently received a call from a good friend who was alarmed about a recent experience he had with a support person from Yahoo! Mail. He was trying to log into his mail account and was having trouble as it was requiring him to enter a security question that he setup years ago and had since forgotten what he put for the answer. Something, I must admit, I have done as well.

After a couple of failed attempts he decided he would try contacting Yahoo! support. Since he wasn't sure how to contact them he performed google search and typed in "Yahoo Support." The first thing listed in his search was "Yahoo Help" with a 800 number. So he picked up his phone and gave them a call.

The person on the other line told him that his account was most likely hacked into and they could help him recover his account for about $100. They also wanted remote access to his computer so they could better assist him. Thinking this was a bit odd, and that he didn't want to spend $100, he gave me a call.

The Problem

Some of you might be thinking the same thing I thought when my friend told me he talked to Yahoo! phones support. Yahoo! doesn't have a phone support line for their mail service. And despite what the movie The Internship  may have you believe, neither does Google. I even checked before writing this article by calling the number on their contact us page. Not only did Vince Vaughn not answer the phone, I was told directly that Google does not provide over the phone technical support.

So who did he call?

I asked him to tell me exactly how he found that number. I mirrored what he told me and typed "Yahoo Support" into Google and looked at the results. Here is what I saw:


Google Search results for Yahoo Support

There was the answer. In a rush, my friend had mistaken the ad listed at the top of the google results page as the top search result.

Many of my readers might consider this a silly mistake, but here is the thing: I do a lot of trainings with very smart, but not tech savvy people, who make this same mistake. When I worked as a Creative at Apple I lost count of how many times I had to explain to trainees that the top results in Google are paid ads and not search results.

So why do so many people make this mistake? After all, ads at the top of Google results are marked as "Ads related to"  and marked with a colored box. Here are a few reasons why this mistake might be easier to make than you think:

The Top Results are only Sometimes  Ads

Take a look at the results for when I search for information on Comic-Con: 

Comic Con Search Results

No ads this time and the first result listed is exactly what I am searching for. So let's try "Google Support" this time:

Google Support Search

No ads and the first result is what I want.

 "Ok, Jonathan. I see your point, but what about when the ad box does show up? How could that be mistaken for a search result?"

That brings me to my second point...

The Top Ad is What You Are Looking For

From time to time I supply phone support for a group that uses GoToWebinar to deliver online presentation. When someone is having trouble finding their webinar invitation they will call and I will direct them to visit Many of these people actually end up just doing a Google search for gotowebinar, since that is the way they are used to finding things online.  Let's do that that search right now:

Gotowebinar search

The top result, an ad in this case, takes them to the correct website. Remember that the ads are targeted directly at what you searched for and will often times be either exactly where you wanted to go or to a site with relevant information. The line blurs even more when searching for specific products like an iPad microphone:

iPad Micrphone Serach

The top results are not "ads" this time but rather sponsored. If you click on the button you will see an explanation of what sponsored means. What you get is:

Based on your search query, we think you are trying to find a product. Clicking in this box will show you results from providers who can fulfill your request. Google may be compensated by some of these providers.

Some of the products that show up as the first result might not be the "best" result but a paid result. 

I once read half of a full page article in our local paper before noticing that it said advertisement in tiny print at the bottom. Sometimes it isn't clear, and usually its on purpose.

Why It Matters

Most of the time mistaking an ad for a search result isn't too damaging but what happened to my friend was an advertiser managed to intercept his request for help. Google let an intentionally deceptive set of ads come before his actual search results. Without a tech minded friend to intervene I don't know how far it would have gone or how much money they would have charged him in the end. What might have happened if he had given them remote access to his computer?

Being aware of how search engines display paid advertising verses search result is something that every web citizen should know how to do. Next time you do a search result, take a moment to look carefully over the results. If you have a friend or parent that is not tech savvy consider asking them if they can spot what is an ad or a search result.