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“We’re constantly testing and experimenting on Bing, and with that, we carefully measure user engagement and reaction to these changes.” This was a Microsoft spokesperson confirming to Search Engine Land that Bing will be testing paid ads which will be incorporated directly into organic search results.  Search Engine Land’s Barry Schwartz’s reaction:  “I almost cannot believe it.”  Why not?  And what might a change like this mean for SEO?

Since the ad changes are only in the testing stage, only a few users will be able to get a sneak peek.  If you’re not looking for the change, it might be hard to spot.  The search results page will look nearly identical to the pages Bing has always had.  One difference, though, is that next to some results, there will be a small, very subtle “Ad” sign on the far right.  It would be easy enough for a searcher in a hurry, or just a searcher who is not accustomed to looking to the far left of the SERPs, to miss entirely.

What’s the impact on SEO? It is conceivable that, because the ads are virtually indistinguishable from “real” results, the sites who pay for those ads will benefit from a boost in ranking.  Schwartz writes, “Placing search ads online with organic free listings is somewhat taboo for search companies…to allow advertisers to inject ads with guaranteed rankings in the organic results seems unethical to me.”

According to a User Centric study from earlier in 2011, consumers spend less time looking at ads on the top and sides of the search results, which is really not a surprise.  Ninety percent glance at Bing’s top search links, but less than a quarter looked at the ones on the right.  By placing the ads in the middle of the page, they are virtually assuring they are going to be noticed.  Whether or not they are noticed as ads is another question.

Bing hopes that by doing this, they can generate more clicks for their advertisers, though SEOs wonder if it will result in diminished trust among users.  Microsoft’s Director of Search, Stefan Weitz, responds to Schwartz’ story, saying, “To be clear – this is a flight for placement of algo driven ads lower in the page – not paid inclusion.  We test stuff all the time – if the experience isn’t good, it doesn’t ship.”

If comments at forums and blogs are any indication, then users are most certainly not expecting the experience to be good.  We’ll see if it ships anyway.

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