Whatever happened to Google Search Results? GO Mobile 2018 Presentation
Today we will talk about Google organic (i.e. the free, unpaid search results) and how they changed recently.
Let’s take for example PCman, a technician, fixer (in the good sense of the word) and an expert in computers, hardware and software equipment.
PCman digital presence is pretty successful. He owns and maintains a business website for more than a decade, where he sells computer equipment, advices customers on how to troubleshoot their computers and more.
PCman uploads new content on a regular basis, including customers’ testimonials and new products, and if you google a recommended computer repair shop his website usually surfaces at the first page of the organic search results. He read articles, optimized his website content for long tail keywords, published information about software updates, tips on how to handle malwares and other viruses, and built links. After some time he started to bear the fruits of his labor, generating new clients mainly from Google, without investing in paid search campaigns. All he did was to maintain his website, add value to its visitors and pretty quickly Google’s organic search results became his leading source for traffic and leads, and almost for free.
But then, just when it looked too good to be true, something terrible happened. On one hand, PCman didn’t lose his rankings, and even the search volumes didn’t decrease, but on the other hand, he started looking at Google Analytics report in dread; on each report he saw less and less visitors, especially from Google. How can it be? Why is he being penalized for working by the book?
But PCMan didn’t give up. He loves his business and his clients, so he decided to dig deeper to reach the bottom of this issue. After failing to find an answer or a solution, he asked me for help. Here are my findings.
Google is no longer a kid. Actually, the company has just celebrated its 20th birthday and undergone a facelift. First of all, they’ve closed the social network Google+, because Google has lost this battle to Facebook and was ready about time to admit it.
Despite its almost absolute dominancy in search, Google continues to strive for more: more searches, more ad clicks, more accuracy and more information in the search results instead of the first click. In my opinion, Google wants to be much more than a search engine, and they haven’t given up this dream yet.
Currently, we visit Google when we look for a specific information, but Google was happy if we’d visit its search engine for no particular reason, as we often do in Facebook and Instagram. Once we analyze PCMan’s – and many other websites – traffic, we see that organic search results generate less traffic and volume, even if the ranking and the amount of searches do not change.
Why causes the drop in organic traffic?
More competition, which means more competitors who advertise and push down the organic search results, lots more keywords with ads than in the past, and many more advertisers on each keyword. That way, the war on the above the fold spot for ads, where users don’t require to scroll down, becomes more challenging and complicated, the budgets increase, the procedure takes more time – and Google earns more money.
The switch to mobile usage also plays a significant role in the general drop in organic traffic. Nowadays, about half of the searches are done from smartphones, where the screens are smaller and the users’ patience is limited. As a result, fewer users bother to scroll down to reach the organic results and click them. While the clicks on the first organic result in desktop dropped in 25%, the clicks on the first mobile results saw a decrease of 45%!
From “search” to “discovery”
As mentioned before, Google wants to expand its horizons beyond just search, aiming to help users to discover information even before they search. After all, Google knows so much about us: where are we and with whom, if we are asleep or awake, when and what we search online, to whom do we send emails and about what, which websites and webpages keeps us engaged and which ones drives us away… So why shouldn’t we expect Google to foresee our needs, wishes and capricious?
Google wants us to be there even when we don’t search anything in particular, in our leisure time and when we are on the go. So, how does this ambition express itself in the search results?
The four ads above the fold are already a standard, and now there are also expanded ads and sitelinks, which serve as ads inside ads and can include up to four different links to a campaign’s landing pages in a single ad. More ads basically mean a longer scroll down to the organic search results, which in turns mean fewer clicks.
Google Shopping Ads
If you search products such as wireless keyboards or electric shavers, you are most likely to get Google Shopping Ads, which usually include an image, price and some call to action. So, if you look for information about a certain product, Google will spare you the visit to a price comparison website and will direct you straight to the seller’s landing page – and charge him for the click.
More News, Images and Updates
Google also makes news updates more accessible, especially during wartime or special events, and once Google recognizes a trending search, the latest news will be displayed in a prominent way in the search results, saving us the visit to the news source or Twitter.
A growing number of search queries includes maps above the standard results; it’s easier for the users, helps them navigate and reach their destination, and in most cases – prevents them from clicking the organic search results, since they’ve already got the answer from Google. This type of results is known as “No Click” searches, because they don’t lead to any search results. Currently, they appear in mainly informational queries, but we’re about to see more of them.
Speaking of maps, let’s talk about “near me” searches. According to Google data, published May 2018, “near me” searches, such as “wedding dresses near me” have increased in more than 500% during the last couple of years; “Open now” searches increased in 200%, while “near me tonight” or “near me today” searches, such as a stand-up show near me tonight, have increased in almost 1,000%. We, as users, understand the power of location recognition, and use it when we interact with Google. And as a result, the organic search results which are distant from us will not appear on these search queries…
To summarize, these are the main thieves who steal the focus from the organic results:
- More ads
- More shopping ads
- More news updates
- More maps
- More location-based results (near me, buy today, express home delivery, etc.)
What else bothers us and our organic traffic performance? Let’s get back to the discovery engine. So, Google wants to help us discover more stuff.
Google’s Knowledge Graph is actually a semantic knowledge and information base, which pulls information from third-part websites and displayed on Google search results. The Knowledge Graph is yet another way to push down the organic results. Are you visiting Wikipedia to find information? Google will save you the click and display the main information directly on the results page.
The topic layer is another type of expanded search results that replaces the standard organic results. For example, if you search “Big Lebowski”, Google will display information such as the movie’s storyline, cast, reviews, trailer and more, directly from the results page. In fact, Google tells the users: click no more, I can give you all the information right here. Once again, we found all the information without clicking on any of the search results.
Google Neural and Answers
Here’s an interesting fact: although there are about 40,000 Google searches in each second and 4 billion searches a day, still 15% from the search queries are new to Google, mostly long or specific queries.
Beyond that, in many queries Google aims to provide the answers directly from the search results. For example, when I search recommended laptops, Google displays a list of laptop models. Google wants to help us and become our assistant in all areas. No need to mention that I didn’t click on any search result…
Currently, voice search makes about 20% from Google searches, and is also responsible for the drop in Google traffic. In the near future, this technology will improve significantly and many of us will talk with digital assistants and voice search tools on our smartphones and computers, at home, office or in the car. According to comScore data, by the end of 2020, about half of Google searches will be voice-based. Voice search is a different and less known platform, and currently most SEO and keyword research do not match voice search queries and behavior.
In several industries, Google is being replaced by vertical search engines. For example, people search products directly on Amazon, hotels on booking or TripAdvisor, recommendations for local businesses and service providers on Facebook, fashion brands and new collections on Instagram… There are alternatives to Google, and the users are familiar with them.
So, what can we do? How to turn this threat into an opportunity and precede the competitors in the battle on these new results?
Optimization – using analytics tools and Google data to learn more about your target audience: what and how are they searching? What are their pain points? Then, create relevant and valuable content (based on a keyword research) and distribute it.
Schema tags – it’s a bit technical, but by implementing structured data (schema tags) we increase the chances of high and prominent rankings. Depending on the type of results, schema tags can include rankings, opening times, contact information and more.
Branding and social media marketing – Google may not admit it, but diverse traffic sources and brand searches can help in slowing down the drop in organic traffic.
Image optimization – as more images appear on Google web results and more users click the image results, it’s essential to optimize images, improve their loading time, add descriptive title and alt tags and optimize the content around the images.
User experience – a happy user makes Google happy, so we need to measure and improve users’ pageviews, session duration, the percentage of returning users, etc. And also help users – and Google – to better understand the webpages’ content, improve and simplify navigation, goal setting and measuring…
The last thing Google wants from website owners is some kind of a surrender agreement: we will give up the fight on the organic search results and increase the budgets for the advertising campaigns to compensate for the loss of traffic. It may be frustrating and even unfair, but most of us will surrender.
To summarize, here are all the proactive things to do:
- Understand users’ searches and optimize accordingly
- Implement schema.org tags
- Branding and social media marketing
- Image optimization
- User experience
- Pay for the lost traffic
The original version of this presentation was displayed at GO Mobile summit in November 2018.