WASHINGTON -- About a month ago, search giant Google made a significant change to the way it displays its search results. With all the brouhaha surrounding the company's new e-mail service known as GMail, this shift is worth revisiting.
As with other search engines, the page you get when you enter a query in Google includes "sponsored links" -- search results paid for by advertisers. On Google, these appear on the right-hand side of the page, in a separate column from the search-engine results.
One of the best things about Google through the years has been the way it has resisted the temptation to mix the two together, as competitors such as Yahoo do. Until now, sponsored links were clearly delineated by smaller type and a colored background.
Now, the type is nearly identical to the regular search results, and the differentiating color background is gone. It's a disconcerting change that breaks accepted design rules about using contrasting sizes and colors to help readers navigate a page. But more disturbing is the apparent creep toward the melding of sponsored and unsponsored search that is so important to avoid. What could possibly be the reason, other than to sow possible confusion?
Google insists that the changes make its pages easier to read and were not requested by advertisers. It said that the "sponsored links" label is now larger and that there is a vertical line separating them from the other results.
The color background, said engineer Jennifer Fitzgerald, was fading out on some monitors, and the smaller type was harder to read.
I'm afraid I remain suspicious. Background color is widely used on the Internet.
Will many users be tripped up? Perhaps not. But the move does not inspire confidence in a company whose next big initiative is an e-mail system that will present sponsored links next to individual pieces of mail, based on the content of each message.
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