Matt Rhodes, Head of Digital Strategy at WCRS explores data from the latest Ofcom report, reminding us that many consumers are still unaware of the truth behind paid search.

Only 48% of UK adults understand that the results at the top of Google search results are there because a brand has paid for them to be there. In fact 23% of UK adults think they are there because they are the best and most relevant results.

This data, from the latest Ofcom report on adult media use and attitudes, shows the extent to which the typical UK consumer is aware of search and of advertising. In a climate where the revelations from Facebook and Cambridge Analytica are dominating the headlines it is easy to forget that many consumers are not always conscious of what we might think of as the basics of digital advertising. This is not because they are negligent in some way – why should consumers think about how brands are trying to sell to them – but perhaps says more about their engagement with and attitude to the online services they use.

That only 48% of consumers in the UK understand how paid search results work is a wake-up call for many in advertising. The recent discussions about Cambridge Analytica and Facebook are raising awareness of advertising and how it works, and will certainly lead to a larger proportion of UK consumers questioning and ultimately understanding how advertising works. This 48% will rapidly become a much larger number. And that is something as an industry we need to be prepared for.

As we are busy worrying about, and preparing for, the fall-out from Cambridge Analytica, with questions about targeting and the concerns about segmentation, we forget that many consumers are still learning about how digital advertising works. What might, to those in the industry, seem like basic issues (such as paid search results in Google) will be new information to a majority of UK adults. And indeed to the almost a quarter of adults who think they are just the best results there are out there. Consumers are currently getting more sophisticated, more aware of how advertising works and so will increasingly question what many in the industry might consider to be basics.

So we shouldn’t expect the next challenge in digital advertising to be about the use of targeting or data. We should prepare for more fundamental questions from consumers, as they become cognisant of how advertising works. When the 48% of UK consumers who understand how paid search works becomes 88%. We need to be prepared with answers about what might seem like more basic forms of digital advertising; to reassure consumers as awareness of what is advertising, and what is not, becomes more clear.

It is easy to think that helping consumers to navigate the worlds of big data and personalisation is the next challenge for brands and advertising. But the reality is that many consumers are only just becoming aware of how the fundamentals of digital advertising work.

Matt Rhodes

About Matt Rhodes

Head of Digital Strategy for work. Marathon runner and charity trustee for fun.

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