Google desktop favicon search results study

With this latest update, Google has made identification of ads less accurate so people think more results are ads when they’re not.

Richard Falconer

In 2019, Google introduced a new format in mobile search results that included a small “favicon” icon from the website to the left of the snippet. This week, Google announced that a similar format was being launched in desktop results.

Yard carried out a user study on mobile results in September that concluded that some users think favicon results are ads. When the desktop results were launched, we carried out a similar study to identify the effect of the changes.


We asked a set of 250 users to look at 12 images of desktop search results and answer the question “Does this image contain any adverts?” with a “yes” or “no.” We compared these results to results of the old format, without favicons, for the same search queries.

Search query: Car insurance

There were 4 paid ads at the top of the search results. In the old format, 73% of users identified that there was advertising on the page. In the new “favicon” format, this changes to 71%.

Search query: Online programming courses

“Online programming courses” was the query used as an example by Google, so it seemed right to test it. We looked at three versions:

1. With a single ad at the top.

2. With no ads.

3. With a single ad at the bottom.

Single ad at the top

Users identified that there was advertising on the page 67% of the time with the new favicon format, an increase from 63% on the old format.

Single ad at the bottom

There was no change for the result where the ad was at the bottom of the page. This suggests that the new “Ad” marker might be clearer to users, given it’s more visible at the top of the page than at the bottom.

No ads

The most significant change was found when there were no ads at all. The number of users who identified that there were no ads dropped from 65% to 57% with the new format.

Search query: home insurance

The pattern of users seeing ads that weren’t there is consistent throughout the study. The percentage of users identifying that there were no ads here dropped from 62% to 55% for “home insurance.”

Search query: Flights to New York

The biggest drop we noted was for “flights to New York” where only 58% identified that there were no ads on the old format, this plummeted to 42% with the new format.


The effect that we noted on mobile, where recognition of advertising remains the same or even increases a little with introducing favicons seen on a desktop. It is possible that the number of people recognizing advertising from the correct signals (e.g. “ad” markers) drops as some users think the favicons indicate ads.

It seems likely also that some users may have missed the black ad markers because of their similar appearance to favicons but this is difficult to confirm using this method.

The number of people who identify ads on Google search results was low with the old format. The new format doesn’t seem to have changed that percentage but has made identification of the actual ads less accurate. People think more things are ads when they are not and may identify real ads less often.

With this change on mobile and desktop, Google has reached the limits of hiding “ad” markers and has chosen instead to change the paradigm, making natural results appear more like regular results.

The logical conclusion of this approach is that it normalizes paid search results, escalating the amount of advertising space acceptable to users.

That assumes that we shouldn’t accept Hanlon’s razor to never attribute to malice that stupidity can adequately explain. Here, Google is smart enough to know exactly what it is doing and has tested these changes before rolling them out.

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