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A website I've recently worked on has a fairly extensive product search. The search returns results from the company's affiliates as well as products that the company produces and sponsors.

A requirement of the search is that these "sponsored" items be highlighted, or shown in a manner that the users gets a sense of greater importance about them. Our attempted solution was to give the sponsored items a background color and the company's logo to highlight/draw attention to them.

Unfortunately, after some usability testing users were prone to skipping over these items and not giving them a second glance. In fact, some users even commented that "Sponsored Products!! Those must be ads." and proceeded to skip them.

What would be a good web design technique to draw attention to these products without giving them the feeling of an advertisement, or something "forced"? Does anyone have any resources/suggestions on this subject?

Thanks for your help!

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Why not call them "Featured Products"? That way they are still clearly labeled as products for sale but still notes that they are special.

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Or: Recommended. Or: Editors pick / webmasters pick / Best value / etc

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