What just happened? Google changed the way search results look on mobile devices last year, making it easier to identify brands while making ads a little less obvious. Now those changes are being rolled out on desktop, but not everyone likes the new look.
You may not have noticed, but Google has been busy updating the look of search results, first on mobile devices and recently started rolling out those changes to desktop users as well.
Update (1/23): Following a small yet justified backlash Google has backtracked, promising to 'experiment' with search results' look following the negative reaction from users. They have removed the tiny favicons and said they plan to tweak the formula before it hits desktop clients again.
The company has added tiny "favicons" into its search results and rearranged blue text links in a way that makes it easier to blend together ads and organic search results. Of course, that also makes it more likely for a user to click on an ad, as evident from studies made by Varn and SearchEngineLand. This has invited some criticism, with people speculating that this is simply a clever tactic to avoid being hit with another fine by the EU for "abusive" online advertising practices.
To be fair, Google does mark paid search results with an "Ad" favicon, but that doesn't mean users looking for relevant results will always be able to tell the difference at a glance. Studies made over the last eight years by Pew Internet and university researchers show that as many as 40 to 60 percent of users are "unaware of or unable to distinguish ads from organic search results."
The company announced the subtle changes via a tweet earlier this month, and explained the new format "puts a site's brand front and center," while giving users an easy way to scan search results cards and decide if they want to explore any further.
Critics point out to a 2016 tweet that shows the progression of Google ad labelling changes over the years, starting with shaded backgrounds and ending with the green "Ad" label in the header of search results. This has resulted in a cleaner, flattened look that doesn't have distracting elements, which looks very good on mobile. On the desktop, however, the favicons are relatively small and easy to ignore when sifting through the search results.
Understandably, these changes won't bode well with everyone, but advertising is Google's core revenue stream, so it's trying to strike a visual balance between organic and paid search results.