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Google has rolled out a limited test of a new banner ad for Southwest Airlines that will display atop the results page for queries about that company, contradicting a long-standing pledge to never run such advertising.
The banner appears front-and-center on the result page for "southwest," just above a set of links to different parts of the airline's website. A small "sponsored" notation is visible at the upper-right of the ad, with a pop-up explanation that "based on your search query, we think you are trying to find a specific brand," and confirms that the brand is paying for this placement.
A Google representative confirmed that the company is testing new banner ads "that show in response to certain branded queries," noting that the rollout is a limited trial that will appear to U.S. users only.
"We're currently running a very limited, U.S.-only test, in which advertisers can include an image as part of the search ads that show in response to certain branded queries," said a Google spokesman in an email.
Since 2005, the trend has been away from the plain blue-on-white list of links and towards the integration of more image-heavy advertising on the company's search result pages. The Google rep cited image extensions, product listing ads, and media ads as examples.
The spokesman did not say why Google appears to have has changed its stance on running banner ads on the search results page made back in 2005. Marissa Mayer, who was then Google's vice-president of search products, wrote in an official blog post that "there will be no banner ads on the Google homepage or web search results pages. There will not be crazy, flashy, graphical doodads flying and popping up all over the Google site. Ever."
Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group, said it's easy to figure out the reason for Google's apparent change of mind -- money.
"I have to think that this is all about money, and getting more of it from advertisers," he added. "My gut reaction? I don't like it. If the banner advertiser isn't what you're looking for, then you have to scroll down the page to see other results. Call me old fashioned, but I like my search results quick and clean."
Olds suspects a lot of other Google users will feel the same way. Many will likely be irritated by the sudden appearance of banner ads above their Google search results.
Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with ZK Research, called the move as a "big departure" for Google. Unlike Olds, though, he doesn't expect much pushback from Google users.
"They are matching the banners with the content, and one could argue that this YouTube generation we're living in is a much more visual world," said Kerravala. "Maybe some hard core people who like the 'no banner' policy will be upset, but I think in general, if the content matches the search query, then I would think it's informative to the audience."
Google's advertising business has continued to grow over the past year, booking multi-billion-dollar increases in each of the last four quarters. Google's latest quarterly report says that advertising accounted for $13 billion in revenues over just three months.