But Why Has Google Gone Goth, and What Is A/B Testing, Anyway?

But Why Has Google Gone Goth, and What Is A/B Testing, Anyway?

19/05/16 | Chloe Mayo

Google has done it again. Another change has been rolled out, although admittedly this one has only been implemented for some users, and everyone is panicking. For once, though, it’s not just us digital marketers that are metaphorically taking to the streets with placards, screaming: ‘Why would you change? We thought we knew you!’ This time, everyone seems to be confused; confusion is quickly leading to anger because no one likes to feel confused. If the changes are kept and implemented for all users, that anger will soon likely become an almost emo melancholia, which seems fitting for the colour-situation in question. Google has turned all Rolling Stones on us; Google has painted its links black.

We recently talked about just how much effort Google puts into keeping the SEO marketers of the world on their toes through its algorithms. However, in its most recent radicalisation, Google is shaking up the experience for the user, instead. Obviously this is something for digital marketers to keep a beady eye on too, as we want to optimise our client’s websites for a good user experience. This time, though, it seems Google’s big change won’t affect our job all that much: that’s if it even gets pushed through. Because we can’t actually be sure that it will – Google is just testing us. As mentioned, only some people are seeing this new implementation. What’s actually happening right now is some classic A/B testing. This gives us at Active Internet Marketing the novel experience of discussing Google not just as a force for us to learn and conquer and optimise, but instead as a fellow business just trying to generate the best user experience, so that they continue to succeed in the vast landscape of the World Wide Web.

A/B testing (or ‘split testing’ as it’s sometimes known) is the fairly straightforward process of developing two different looks for a business’ web content. The business, or marketing agency, then show one, ‘A’, to a certain number of users, and ‘B’ to the rest. All of the user behaviour will then be tracked (from how long you spend on the webpage, to where you click, to what you click on) in order to put together an accurate and data-driven idea of which version will result in the desired user behaviour. We do it, Obama did it, Netflix is doing it, and of course Google is doing it, too. The thing is, Google’s A/B testing has never really been this noticeable before, and it’s never changed the user experience so drastically. People are notorious for not liking change, as the resulting Twitter implosion has demonstrated.



There’s been a multitude of rumours flying around, both from the general population and in whispers over the marketing-office water cooler, about just what Google is trying to achieve with this new round of A/B testing. By changing the links from blue to black, the title matches the meta description. It all looks the same. The psychological impacts of this are entirely unknown but that hasn’t stopped speculation. Does it make PPC (Pay Per Click) adverts less obvious? Does it encourage further scrolling and clicking because the titles aren’t so grabbing anymore? Is it trying to look more streamlined and stylish? Or is Google just having its ‘goth’ phase now that it is 18 years old?


“No, Mum, it’s not ‘just a phase’!”


Speculation has lead to anger, as will often be the case, as we people do like to demonise and panic. That pesky Google – just trying to make more money! More clicks is all they want! Well, yes. Yes, they do. Are we really surprised by this? Google wants to continue to be a successful business. Google aids us in making our client’s businesses’ successful, too. We are in a business world. We should support all A/B testing that makes the user experience more appealing, more engaging, more, well, clickable. But this is where this new A/B testing falls down somewhat: it is not a better user experience.

The other big change that has been rolled out by now-goth-Google, is that once you have clicked on a link it turns grey. Not an obvious, extremely light grey. It changes to slightly-not-quite-black grey. This means that we, the users, are finding it pretty difficult to see what we’ve already clicked on. This could be a stroke of evil genius – we’ll accidentally click on the PPC adverts again! Or, it could be a genuine oversight. We know, from previous experience, that one of Google’s key goals is to increase click rate. They spent an unimaginable amount of hours A/B testing 41 slightly different hues of blue just to find out which one would increase how much we click. And it worked, netting them an immense £138 million. So, Google cares about clicks. Does that mean that this is all a clever ruse to hide from us what we’ve already clicked on, and trick us into clicking more? We don’t think so.

There’s one thing that Google cares about more than clicks. Google cares more about user experience. Granted, they care about this more because it leads to more clicks, more popularity, more trust. However, the user’s experience has to form the pillars holding up the rest of their building. Our prediction: Google overestimated the user’s ability to differentiate the colours. Google will roll out another round of A/B testing, this time utilising more striking contrasts in the colours between clicked and unclicked links. The internet has already been outraged, so we’ll be unlikely to accept this new compromise. Links will return to blue, and Google will return to its highly successful, much more subtle tactics to get us to click as much as they want us to, right where they want us to, and we’ll be happy in our ignorance, comfortable in our (incorrect) assumptions that they can’t manipulate us like that because we pushed back and won.

Speaking of subtle, has anyone noticed what else Google has slipped out at the same time as this highly overt, attention-grabbing, gossip-inducing colour change? That’s right: Google has updated one of its algorithms.