I have something to tell you and you aren’t going to like it. SEO is dead. Queue the fire alarms and get ready for SEOgeddon 2016.
Okay, okay, I’m totally joking. SEO is not dead, not even close. But as technology continues to alter the way people search, and as Search Engine giants *cough* Google *cough* try their hardest to please users, businesses have to start preparing for losses in Organic Sessions and Users. After all, according to NetMarketShare, Google currently holds 68% of Search Engine Market Share on desktop devices and 94% of market share on mobile and tablets. So why should you start preparing for a loss in organic traffic, you ask?
Today, I typed “what is Google’s mission statement” into my Google Search Bar and I was provided with an “answer box” at the top of my Search Engine Results Page (SERP). In less than one second my query resulted in an answer in “position 0”:
“Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Because my query lead to an immediate answer, I didn’t need to scan or analyze the subsequent results which ultimately halted an act of clicking on a search result in order to find the answer. And because I didn’t click on any of the search results, none of those webpages received an organic session from my query.
As a human being, I’m likely to have an attention span of around 8 seconds, some days less than others. As a Google searcher, the answer box result saves me time and effort which yields a positive experience. The less time it takes for me to find an answer, the better. But, as an SEO, I immediately foresee a problem: If users no longer need to click on an actual SERP result to answer their question, won’t we see a decrease in Organic Traffic? Yes; and it’s been happening for quite some time.
SERP Layout Changes
In February 2016, Google decided to make one of the biggest changes to the layout of the search engine results page. They removed paid advertisements from the right-hand rail and shifted the fourth position ad under the first three. While this page layout on desktop now appears more like a mobile SERP, it essentially pushed organic results below the fold on desktop devices. It’s always an organic win to rank in position 1-3 for a business’ relevant keywords due to the standard click through curve (results in organic position 1 can get around a 35% CTR while results in position 5 get around 7%), but now position 1-3 is technically position 5-8, which gets an even lower CTR. See our problem?
Marketers like myself are more inclined to ignore ads whilst searching, but the rest of the population may not recognize the differences between organic and paid results. This “blending” of results is likely to result in more clicks on paid results and less clicks on organic results that are now below the fold.
Voice Search & Assistants
Along with the visual changes in SERPs, the way people search has shifted. Over the past few years with the introduction of wearable devices and voice command, users are more inclined to ask questions verbally in their devices and expect an answer or a command fulfillment in return.
Siri is Apple’s voice-controlled assistant and has been around for a few years now; it enables mobile users to speak natural language voice commands in order to operate the device, apps, emails, text messages and search results. As voice search has become more and more popular among searchers of all generations, new players like Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana, Facebook’s M, Hound and Google Now are coming into the mix which is surely going to help shape the new way of how people find answers. Want to know how far away Mars is from the Earth? All you have to do is ask your voice assistant. This new way of finding information will again lead to less searching, browsing, analyzing and clicking in organic SERPs.
Google’s answer boxes come in all shapes and sizes. If you ask a question in a search bar, you may get an answer box that populates a website extraction, definition, video widget, list, recipe or even step by step instructions. Google is doing a great job at answering popular questions with these answer boxes which is causing a reduction in the amount of times a user would normally click through to a website listed in an Organic result.
The knowledge graph normally gathers information from a variety of sources and takes up the right hand rail for some searches on desktop devices. The entire goal of the knowledge graph is to provide users with as much information relevant to their query that they wouldn’t have to navigate to other websites to figure out the information. Once again, leaving organic search engine results in the dust.
SEO Tools are slowly starting to catch up with the new search engine landscape which is going to help SEOs in developing strategies that are out-of-the-box. In enterprise-level tools like Conductor Searchlight, we can track which of our clients are showing up the answer box, carousel, images, AMP pages, local 3 pack and local pack. This is especially important with our local SEO engagements.
Unfortunately, Google has yet to catch up. At SMX Sydney in May 2015, Google Trends Analyst Gary Illyes said that they might be adding functionality to Google Search Console to track featured snippets, but it’s been a year and we still can’t distinguish featured snippets in the search queries report. If our clients are appearing in an answer box (#winning), we can’t necessarily report on it through free Google tools.