January 13 was a fairly eventful day, at least for pre-pandemic times. Cory Booker dropped out of the presidential race. LSU trounced Clemson in the college football national championship game. Attorney general William Barr asked Apple to unlock an iPhone. And Google pushed out a seemingly tiny tweak to how it displays search ads for desktop computers.
Previously, the search engine had marked paid results with the word “Ad” in a green box, tucked beneath the headline next to a matching green display URL. Now, all of a sudden, the “Ad” and the URL shifted above the headline, and both were rendered in discreet black; the box disappeared. The organic search results underwent a similar makeover, only with a new favicon next to the URL instead of the word “Ad.” The result was a general smoothing: Ads looked like not-ads. Not-ads looked like ads.
This was not Google’s first time fiddling with the search results interface. In fact, it had done so quite regularly over the last 13 years, as handily laid out in a timeline from the news site Search Engine Land.
But in January, amid rising antitrust drumbeats and general exhaustion with Big Tech, people noticed. Interface designers, marketers, and Google users alike decried the change, saying it made paid results practically indistinguishable from those that Google’s search algorithm served up organically. The phrase that came up most often: “dark pattern,” a blanket term coined by UX specialist Harry Brignull to describe manipulative design elements that benefit companies over their users.
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