Google Assistant Sponsored Links

Google Assistant Now Showing Sponsored Link Ads for Some Travel Related Queries – EXCLUSIVE

Unlike Google search, Google Assistant is largely considered to be free from advertising. That is no longer the case. Reuters may be concerned about potential FTC violations for Google Assistant results of home services providers that do not generate direct compensation to Google. However, there are now properly labeled sponsored links for a narrow set of Google Assistant search results related to air travel.

Matt Ware of First, a digital agency in Australia, recently discovered that a search using Google Assistant on a smartphone yielded several sponsored links. Voicebot was able to recreate the search from several cities which asks how long it takes to fly to Fiji. The responses did not actually offer a general answer to the question as it does in a feature box in browser search, but instead suggested flight times, along with prices, to four Fijian cities.

This behavior was not limited to Fiji. Voicebot was able to recreate a similar experience for Google Assistant searches asking about how long it takes to fly to Cook Islands, Jamaica, and Malaysia.

Similar results are delivered through both Google Home and Google Home Hub without the sponsored links. The flight time and price is mentioned, but you cannot engage with an airline. Google Home doesn’t have any clear follow up to get to a flight purchase and even though Google Home Hub will display flight information and take you to a screen that lists airlines, there is no way to click-through.

Results Originate in the Google Knowledge Graph

The results are being pulled directly from the Google Knowledge Graph. A browser-based search for time to fly to Fiji from San Francisco and Washington, D.C. delivered identical results as the same search through Google Assistant.

Similarly, flights to Dublin and other European cities don’t offer sponsored links through browser search or Google Assistant queries creating some continuity between the experiences. However, for searches such as the best mobile phone, there are differences in the results.

Browser Search (left), Google Assistant Search on Mobile (right)

Is This New Functionality?

When contacted about the sponsored links appearing in Google Assistant search results a Google spokesperson indicated, “The sponsored label you’re seeing is an existing feature and is not new.” The alignment with the browser-based search could support this contention. However, Voicebot has yet to identify someone that has seen this previously and First’s Matt Ware said this was not appearing in earlier searches. He added,

It hasn’t been around for ‘a while’ as I am talking with airlines and travel agents and I’d remember seeing this before. Also, if it were standard functionality then it’d work in multiple categories

This could be a test given that it is showing up in a limited number of travel searches through Google Assistant. Or, it may be that Google Assistant is simply drawing from the knowledge graph and these searches for some reason don’t have the same filters as other topics. Either way, these are ads. The Google spokesperson confirmed that click-throughs by Google Assistant users on mobile may result in compensation to the company by the airlines.

Will Voice Assistant Users Accept Ads?

There were a lot of negative media stories and social media posts around a previous ad test promoting a Disney movie though Google Assistant in 2017. That experiment was not technically an ad because the studio didn’t pay for it. However, the test was controversial in part because it was inserted into a daily routine that previously had not included any unasked for information. Users also appear to be protective of their voice assistant interactions as ad-free experiences. A seeming promotion for the video game Fortnite to U.K. Alexa users in March raised the ire of several people online even though it wasn’t an ad at all.

The “flight time” ads are likely to be less controversial because they are a response to a search query and users are accustomed to these from their browser-based search experience. And, the information may actually be deemed helpful regardless of whether the links are sponsored. In addition to flight duration, it is likely many users with that query will also want information related to flight departure times and cost. The answer from Google Assistant may eliminate the need for users to ask three different questions.

As evidence that some users may be okay with ads in certain contexts, today there are promotions routinely included in Flash Briefings on Alexa and in news segments delivered through Google Assistant. These may be more easily accepted by users that are accustomed to hearing similar ad formats when listening to the radio or podcasts. A recent BMW ad buy in France targeted Amazon Echo and Google Home users while listening to Flash Briefings and through Google Actions. Despite running during multiple popular shows, French consumers appeared not to notice the novelty. So, there are ads being served during voice assistant use, sponsored links appear to be newly available through Google Assistant, and maybe consumers will be okay with some ads after all.

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