Evidence is growing that Google increasingly favors its own digital properties over organic search results. That could be a problem for your web traffic if you rely on SEO. Here’s what to consider.
Nearly two years ago, Facebook made a decision that led to some major fraying of its reputation among marketers.
The company, in an effort to remain in its users’ good graces, decided to scale back the organic reach of brand posts—already a point of contention on the network’s news feed—even further. While Facebook still has value in the marketing ecosystem, it’s not the same, and many brands, associations among them, responded by switching to more traditional methods of reaching their audiences.
One method that made a bit of a comeback was search engine optimization, or SEO. There are some major advantages to allowing search engines to help dictate strategy, including an avoidance of some of the privacy risks associated with Facebook and other social networks. But SEO has always had some built-in weaknesses—the biggest one being that Google, like Facebook, has not been afraid to make changes to its algorithms to favor its own business interests.
Evidence is mounting that Google is competing with its own users. Earlier this month, Sparktoro, the audience intelligence firm founded by well-known search-engine expert (and Moz founder) Rand Fishkin, revealed these findings from the data analysis firm Jumpshot: In June, half of Google searches did’t lead to a single external click, meaning that the results of the search didn’t exit Google’s own ecosystem.
“We’ve passed a milestone in Google’s evolution from search engine to walled garden,” Fiskin wrote.
In addition to its namesake search engine, Google also owns Google Images and YouTube—together, they are the three largest search platforms on the internet, representing 94 percent of all searches. Competitors such as Yahoo, Bing, and DuckDuckGo each make up less than 2 percent of total searches. Even given Jumpshot’s broad definition of a search engine—it included many social networks and Amazon—Google absolutely dominates. This means the traditional diversity advantages of the digital ecosystem have been lost.
(Google’s dominance could be even more significant, given the fact that Jumpshot’s analysis doesn’t include mobile apps. Considering that Google’s parent company, Alphabet, owns much of the ecosystem via Android, adding mobile to the numbers could actually make 94 percent look like a lowball estimate.)
One way Google keeps search results in the family is by using structured data. For example: Do a search for a buzzed-about movie, say Brittany Runs a Marathon. Without even having to click another link, you’re told the movie has received 88 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, the names of the lead actress (Jillian Bell) and director (Paul Downs Colaizzo), a brief summary of the plot, and its date of release (August 23). The info box links to a trailer, which is on YouTube. If you simply need some top-level information about this movie, Google has already told you everything.
This is handy for users, but there’s a dark side for content producers: Google can disrupt entire business models with these information boxes, called Featured Snippets. A well-known example is CelebrityNetWorth, which found its information—and its traffic—suctioned up by Google.
“Google’s ongoing attempts to answer more searches without a click to any results OR a click to Google’s own properties are both proving successful,” Fishkin wrote. “As a result, zero-click searches and clicks that bring searchers to a Google-owned site keep rising.”
Fishkin, who is taken very seriously on issues like this, drew a lot of discussion in the SEO community with this data, and for good reason—it’s kind of scary, and it comes at a time when Google is facing antitrust scrutiny.
This is a complicated picture, and for associations, it needs to be understood. Google could be underexposing relevant content created by your platform by increasingly favoring its own offerings in search results. On the other hand, there are opportunities in zero-click search results: Google could still be carrying a lot of water for your organization by making basic information about your association, like the date of its next annual meeting or the number of members you have, easier to access.
In comments to Search Engine Land, Fishkin noted that these results are still important to marketers. “Rich information appearing in Google’s results may be, like billboard ads or press mentions, harder to track than website traffic, but it’s still exposing your brand name to an audience, building familiarity, and sharing information,” he said.
But the fact remains that these shifts, if they continue, could harm or disrupt existing association-used models built around search, like advertising-supported news or content marketing.
The news here isn’t as bad as Facebook’s frustrating cutback on organic reach. But it’s a reminder that in digital marketing, there is no sure thing—and you should be aware of the fault lines, wherever you look.