by Charlie Stewart (@CStewart_ZA) Recent research from Jumpshot and Rand Fishkin, one of the SEO industry’s pinup boys, found that nearly half of all Google searches fail to lead to a click. The study, which was based on an analysis of around 150bn Google queries from US-based browsers in Q1 2019, reported that 48.9% of searchers didn’t click through to any of the organic listings they found.
At first glance, the findings look like trouble for brands which rely on organic search for a chunk of their web traffic or sales. Unsurprisingly, the data has tempted many to (once again) call time of death on SEO. But the naysayers are missing the point. SEO’s not dead; it’s just harder to work with — and, for that reason, it’s all the more rewarding for those marketers who have the smarts to get it right.
Searching for love
Like one of the goddesses of Greek mythology, organic search is alluring. Offering an opportunity to intercept prospects during the discovery and consideration phases of the buying cycle, it’s as hot as Aphrodite but just as fickle.
Go back 10 years and SEO was pretty straightforward. Publish some content on your website, place your chosen keywords in its meta data, persuade a few websites to link to you and Google would bestow its love in the form of prominent rankings and bountiful traffic.
But if there’s one thing that’s marked the passage of search — just as it has mankind’s own existence — it’s evolution. As we’ve become more accustomed to using the internet to find stuff, so our habits have changed. So, too, has the way Google, the goddess of the internet, operates.
One of the most-profound changes has been our adoption of smartphones. Back in 2015, Google announced that more searches were taking place on phones than on desktops. Although Google’s provided no recent numbers, the frequency of mobile search will have increased significantly in the past four years with the widespread adoption of voice search. However, mobile searches, and voice searches specifically, tend to be informational in their intent: ‘What’s the weather in Cape Town today?’, ‘How are the Proteas doing in the cricket World Cup?’ (crap would be an appropriate response in both instances).
To cater for these types of questions, Google provides short snippets in its results pages so we can find answers to our questions without needing to click anywhere.
While informational intent may have impacted click-through ratios, it certainly doesn’t mean SEO is dead. Indeed, it has created an opportunity for shrewd marketers to build awareness of their brands by optimising their schema markup so their sites appear in Google’s featured snippets.
Another change that has impacted click behaviour lies in Google’s approach to monetisation.
Its own sites increasingly feature in the search results we’re served. According to Fishkin, in Q1 2019, nearly 12% of all clicks led people to Alphabet-owned properties, such as its travel booking or food delivery services. The search giant has also made it difficult to differentiate between an advert and an organic listing. Although PPC ads still only account for 7.2% of all clicks, their click-through rate has increased by 75% in the last three years.
While there’s little brands can to counter Google’s understandable desire to swell its coffers, it does seem that, like Icarus (another one of those fickle mythological characters), it could be flying too close to the sun. Regulators in Europe and the US are scrutinising whether these changes constitute uncompetitive business practices.
That might be why early June 2019 saw the appearance of a branded favicon to denote organic results when a search is conducted on a smartphone. Of course, for the favicon to display, brands need to be on top of their SEO and make sure their sites’ schema markup is on point.
In the latest iteration of its periodic table of ranking factors, industry publisher Search Engine Land lists the attributes it believes contribute to Google’s assessment of whether a website deserves to feature in its organic rankings. The table is very different from the first one it published back in 2011, with far greater emphasis on web architecture, site speed, user experience and quality content.
These are complex matters that require a variety of very specialised skills to implement. Which means it’s harder than ever for brands and digital agencies to compete with a second-rate SEO offer. That’s the essence of evolution; only those who are fit for purpose survive.
But, for those who are, the rewards are greater than ever. As the Jumpshot analysis found, around 41% of all searches result in an organic click to a non-Google site — that’s around 82% of all click action. And with more searches than ever, organic traffic volumes continue to grow.
Those calling the death of SEO are clearly living their own Grecian tragedy. Believe them at your peril.
Charlie Stewart (@CStewart_ZA) is CEO of Rogerwilco, a multi-award-winning independent digital agency best known for its expertise with Drupal, SEO and content marketing. A Scot by birth, he moved to South Africa in the early 2000s in his quest to support a winning rugby team — a search he’s reluctantly forsaken. Together with Mark Eardley, he co-authored Business to Business Marketing: A Step by Step Guide, (Penguin Random House, 2016) and may be found on LinkedIn. Charlie contributes the monthly “Clicks ‘n Tricks” column, which looks at how brands are using digital channels to engage their customers, to MarkLives.