As Google celebrates the 10th anniversary of its IPO (and 1,293 percent cumulative growth), dating back to Aug. 19, 2004, it’s fascinating to take a look at the search engine through the years to see not only where it once was but how far it has evolved.
As digital marketers, we are constantly evolving our practices to match the ever-changing search landscape. From recent search engine updates named Penguin, Panda, Hummingbird, and most recently (coined by some)Pigeon, Google is constantly changing to better serve the demands of searchers.
It’s easy to see the evolution of search in a review of search engine results that were previously displayed in 2001 up to now. One thing is very evident: Once a portal to other sites, Google has seemingly shifted to a monopoly of information for any and everything online. If Google is now a publisher of information, not just an aggregator of it, where does this leave search marketers?
As you can see in the pictures above, the SERPs have changed dramatically. In the latter picture it’s easy to see that Google is no longer simply providing searchers with a list of links from sites it deems authoritative, but is instead providing searchers with a multitude of information – most of which comes from Google itself.
One Google co-founder Sergey Brin stated, “We want Google to be the third half of your brain.”
The other founder, Larry Page, once said that the company’s aim was to “get the search engine’s users out of Google and to the right place as fast as possible.”
But, is this still the case? Anyone who searches on Google can see that the natural content and sites Google previously aimed to get searchers to, are continuing to be pushed down by Google’s own array of advertisers as well as its own content.
Is Google trying to serve you and send you to the most relevant information or instead trying to keep you in its own virtual universe? Let’s take a look.
The local carousel was rolled out to provide searchers with the best local results for a given search query. The carousel layout is most likely to appear for search queries where user interaction, such as reviews and photo uploads, are common.
However, a click on the results within the local carousel does not take you directly to the listing’s website. Instead, it redirects you to a new results page altogether. In this new results page Google owned content again takes up a lot of real estate.
In another major step toward semantic search, Google rolled out the knowledge graph – a SERP display that provides supporting and supplemental information about certain people, places, and things. The knowledge graph displays important information about particular people, and for businesses that information is pulled directly from Google Places, Google Maps, and Google+. The idea behind this was to provide searchers with answers, not just links to other pages.
What happens when these two are put together? The Knowledge Graph + Carousel = Walled Garden.
Google dominates the main real estate as seen in the image below, providing searchers with an abundance of its own information with other sites seemingly becoming an afterthought.
But how about we take both the carousel and the knowledge graph out of the picture. What do we see now? The same thing. Google. Google. Google.
In a search for “flights to San Francisco” everything above the fold is related to Google. Whether it’s booking a flight directly through Google or in paid advertisements, Google takes up all of the above the fold real estate. Only upon scrolling down is a searcher given the first natural listing.
This movement of a Google dominated SERP landscape has worried some publishers and advertisers who fear that they’ll lose out on search traffic. After all, if search engines provide answers, right within their results, why would anyone click elsewhere?
The head of Google Search, Amit Singhal, was posed this same question when he was the keynote speaker at SMX London. His response:
“If you build great search engine for users, they will search more. For the first query there is an obvious answer. For the height of Mt. Everest you give them the answer, then their curiosity is peaked and they do another query. The number of queries goes up and every time we have improved our search engine results this way the amount of traffic we send out to the web goes up because frankly people are spending less time digging around and they are spending more time doing more things.” He went on to say, “Providing succinct answers to the users gives them more time to search. They search more and the web grows and we are all in this together.” (Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClozVPkQUUE – Search Engine Land)
In essence, what Singhal is saying is that providing answers translates into more searches and traffic to Google, which eventually will lead to more traffic to your site. Is this true? Only time will tell.
So where does this leave marketers?
It leaves us in the same position as we have found ourselves before, battling with Google to give us ground. With that said, we should continue to focus on the same elements that have come to define SEO (e.g., keyword research, on-page optimization, content optimization, information architecture, link building), while simultaneously incorporating newer search behaviors to serve a growing yet ever changing demand.
Here are some other areas and actionable insights to consider.
Now, more than ever, paid and organic search teams need to work together to support and supplement each other. Integration between paid search and SEO is essential to any campaign, and it has been shown to increase CTRs. Co-optimization also helps identify gaps in content, highly coveted keywords, and audience behavior. The two disciplines have different audiences and purposes as organic traffic tends to be earlier-funnel and self-education oriented, while PPC traffic tends to be more action based. Also, if a keyword is highly competitive and hard to attain organic rank for, it may be easier to bid on it and gain a paid listing. One is better than none and two is better than one.
Predict what users want and give it to them.
With semantic search at the forefront of search, search marketers will need to pay even more attention to users. What are they are really looking for? Determiningsearcher intent will be essential in providing your audience with the right type of content. For this, you will need to know exactly who you are targeting. How? The same ways we have previously – through data analytics, internal search data, heat map tracking, and other business specific KPIs. You want to see how searchers are getting to your site and what they are doing on your site. The data will speak for itself so you can focus on speaking to your audience.
It is becoming even more crucial to optimize for different devices, as consumer search behavior and intent is clearly different across different devices. What are searchers looking for with this specific search? At what time? What location? What device? These are all questions you need to answer in order to serve your searchers’ intent and provide them with relevant results.
Yes, content is still king.
That said, it is changing the way in which it services people. As such, you should align your content creation and marketing goals to utilize a more detailed, useful, and fresh content approach. The internet is filled with information. Content should be there to answer a demand or a need – not simply to promote your business. Most content should be aimed at bringing about brand awareness early in the funnel through informative text. With Google providing more and more answers directly in the SERPs, it’s essential to find and develop unique content that only you (or a competitor) can provide. Remember that all content is not created equally and top of the funnel sales content is going to be vastly different than content that brings about brand awareness by supplying a more generic answer. Adjust your content marketing strategy accordingly.
Social is the new black.
Social signals could be the new links. Regardless whether this is going to happen or not, there should be effective cohesion between your brand’s content creation and social media platforms to ensure brand awareness, user engagement, and a positive user experience.
Both natural and paid search have evolved tremendously in the past 10 years, and this evolution will continue. When we think of search, we think of an ever changing landscape where the way in which people search, too, is ever changing. Follow the basics and evolve your content and strategy around your target audience.
Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is a good SEO strategy.