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Comparison shopping sites not wicked after all, says Google

As it intros comparison shopping services

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Google is adding "AdWords Comparison Ads" to its armoury of weapons designed to squeeze even more money out of advertisers "make ads more relevant and useful".

The ads will list prices and features for multiple products from paying advertisers on a single page, thus making it easier for shoppers to find the best deal without having to hunt around multiple sites.

Aren't there sites that do that already? Indeed, but they lack Googley Goodness. In its announcement, Google gives the mortgage and loan market as an example, but the company has also been running test ads displaying comparative pricing for other sectors - including consumer electronics - on its search pages in recent months, and it's understood to be planning related moves in the comparison shopping and travel markets.

Which prompts some input from The Register's Department of Strange Coincidences. Google assigns "quality scores" to the landing pages of AdWords advertisers, and these help dictate the amount of money the advertiser has to pay for a keyword. So if the landing page for your ad is deemed by Google to be high quality, you pay less, while if it's defined as low quality the rate is likely to be prohibitively expensive. The idea is - allegedly - to enhance the users' experience and to avoid troubling them with dreck.

For some years now, up until just a few weeks ago, Google's AdWords guidelines said that the following types of websites "are likely to merit low landing page quality scores and may be difficult to advertise affordably... eBook sites that show frequent ads; 'Get rich quick' sites; Comparison shopping sites; Travel aggregators; Affiliates that don't comply with our affiliate guidelines."

Note that the only two in the list who don't have to be doing anything wrong to get tagged as wicked are comparison shopping sites and travel aggregators. There's certainly quite a lot of cruft in these categories, but there are useful sites in them too. Nevertheless, Google's guidelines presumed them to be guilty, and quite a few sites - some of them quite high profile - have been hit by Google penalties, sometimes for years.

That, however, is what Google's guidelines used to say. Around the beginning of October, just about the time that Google's latest experiments in, er, comparison shopping ads were being spotted in the wild, the wording changed to: "Poor comparison shopping or travel sites whose primary purpose is to send users to other shopping/travel comparison sites, rather than to provide useful content or additional search functionality."

An earlier version of the text, still showing travel aggregation and price comparison as inherently wicked, can be found on the AdWords blog. Google's guideline housekeeping is, for a company dedicated to organising stuff, strangely slack.

The mortgage example from Google's comparison ads announcement does seem to include "useful content or additional search functionality", so it handily doesn't fall foul of that Google rule - and seeing it's designed by Google, which makes the rules, it's unlikely to be a poor comparison shopping site.

It does still seem to come dangerously close to breaking the rule that says you should "direct users to the page where they can buy the advertised product, rather than to a page with a description of several products", but maybe that's an old one that needs amending.

According to Google the new ad formats will initially "only show to a small number of users in select US states and is only available to a limited number of advertisers in the mortgage/refinance space." But from the illustration in the announcement you'll see the service gets prominent positioning on the search page anyway. Ahead of mortgage comparison sites offering comprehensive listings, not just ones from paying advertisers? Spot the level playing field... ®

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