Organic search marketing or SEO has always been challenging, but here are some thoughts on why it could become redundant.
The endless struggle to attain the top organic positions becomes ever more challenging due to the monthly tweaks of Panda and the Penguin changes. But there are more fundamental issues that are reducing the significance of organic positions; Google’s own features and usability.
In the age of tablets and laptops, on average this is what @40% of visitors will see on a search results page. In 2003 being listed in the top 10 was a major organic traffic boost. By 2009 it was only the top 3-5. In 2013, unless your number 1 you’re not on the first visible part of the page.
Consider the standard results page for a retail search;
1. Six site links included in the first 3 Adwords listings
2. Eight shopping results prior to further Adwords
3. Just one organic result above the fold in a standard tablet/laptop resoution
Google Base, then Google shop, once a free feature, another “organic” tool to pursue, is no more. There is the inevitable need to deliver value on a major IPO and continue to add value to a share price that’s has increased 7-fold since launch. Consequently every revenue avenue is being explored, and moving previous free tools to a paid model is the inevitable conclusion. So now the opening screen of a retail-related search is dominated by (or should is that “buy”) shopping results, be they Adwords or product listings and prices.
Whilst 800/600 was the mantra for page development once, and then 1024/768, which arguably is still the mantra of most developers. But mobile/tablet views are 23-29% for end users. Equally many websites are not based upon responsive web design and do not auto-adjust to browser conditions.
A more sophisticated presentation, the map presentation reduces the impact of a top 3-5 position in Adwords as the map moves with the scroller. Of greater impact, particularly in location-driven searches such as travel, is the presentation of local results over organic. A search such as “Cantebury hotels” offers 3 organic results then 7 specific hotels as “local” results. Arguably a less useful result for the researcher (having to click 7 individual hotels when the search term implied a general result was needed is poor usability)
Google industry features
Many sectors have their own “generic” or major providers. Think about Michelin or Ordnance Survey and mapping. Perhaps the BBC or ITV for UK news? What about travel; Trip Advisor or Expedia? All of these are gradually being replaced by Google features, some of which are designed as income generators. Consider the “hotels in Canterbury” search; Google now offers its own hotel search, aggregating other major OTA’s and taking a portion of the commission. So what will be next? News paid for by ITN? Newspapers have a pay-wall; why not Google? Maps only viewable if you’re a Google premium user (subscription feature)? All these aspects impact the design of the SERP’s and reduce the worth of organic listings.
The expanding options
Adwords have always dominated the simple Google page, yet only accounted for 20-25% of the traffic from a page. But with increasing features, the real-estate of the opening page is being gradually dominated by adverts and “tools”. Enhanced listings with site links (4) and telephone numbers push organic results lower. The advent of social likes, with the inevitable promotion of Google+1 takes another line out of the page. If your logged in, that adds a further line of options above the results. The right hand column of options has now become horizontal; another line gone. Its perfectly possible to generate a search result with no organic results visible above the fold, or even in the first half of the page.
And speaking of instant…organic results are in theory better served by instant but in fact what is increasingly happening is a result appears which related but not specific to the clients search. Their typing is interrupted and so a result appears that might help…or not. The user continues typing and gets a second result page. But what has actually happened is they have been exposed to double the adverts…hence boosting possible click through but not necessarily helping the user, and more likely to ensure the search process takes longer with more sites visited. Arguably this might help organic listings but in practise its more impressions of paid results.
Google has shareholders to satisfy with good EPS averages. That will not be achieved through free services. Hence it is inevitable that the share of organic traffic will decline. So as this is the case, why do companies put so much effort into organic search marketing when in fact they are chasing an ever reducing pot of gold? Should web strategy companies be telling clients they are chasing an ever decreasing pot? Is it in their intrests!?!
Search strategies in 5 years’ time will involve spend on click’s and impressions, not on content and links.