So far, so direct response 101. The point i'm ambling to is that Google built the brand on usefulness, with a side order of clean layout & design. Brands now know that a Search strategy has to include SEO and SEM, and have got good enough at it that natural page one results will be useful enough for anyone - the example below is for the highly competitive 'car insurance' term, with the comparison sites that are actually going to be the most useful for someone searching on that term in the top positions for both paid and natural search.
So who is that duplication benefitting? Not the person searching. And the layout is pretty scruffy too (even when it's screengrabbed better than I've done here!). So not very on-brand for Google.
Which is why Customize Google represents such a threat. Customize Google allows you, among a range of other things, to block paid search ads. The search results above now looks like this
Just as useful, and much neater. And that's before we've taken into account anyone who might prefer to avoid ads on principle.
Now this is not a threat to Google. Google are way beyond that. Customize is only available for Firefox so far, but since the launch of Chrome, another major incursion into Microsoft's business model, it will be really interesting to see Microsoft's reaction. How tempting must it be to add this functionality into IE8, and automatically dry up your biggest rival's biggest legacy revenue stream? (actually arguable whether they are rivals any more - you need to be in the same league to be rivals.... you might call it a North London derby question....)
So Google are too big and too clever to be hurt by this hypothetical tactic, but the fact it is only hypothetical must be a relief to any number of media and digital agencies, who see the absolute transparency of paid search as a life raft in the economic floodwater of 2009.
And will Microsoft do this? Well I would, just for the annoyance factor. They have lost the battle for search budgets, so why not just be a spanner in the works.......