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Reality Check: Google Isn't 'Killing' Organic Search

  |  July 11, 2013   |  Comments

A business owner measured the amount of space organic search results had in a SERP on a computer screen, and the finding was: 13 percent. Mainstream news sites picked up the story, pointing the finger at Google. But here's the rest of the story.

Being annoyed with Google is every marketer's and site owner's God-given right. But when people report about the changing face of Google search results with shock and awe, and the fact that Google is trying to make money off said search results, it makes me wonder if people aren't missing something.

Recently, Aaron Harris, a business owner in NYC proclaimed the death of organic search in a blog post when he showed the amount of real estate (or lack thereof) that organic search results have today.

His calculations were based on the amount of space the organic results took up on a computer screen, and that came out to about 13 percent:

google-auto-mechanic-13-percent-organic-search

Image Credit: Aaron Harris

The findings were so intriguing that a whole slew of news outlets reported on them, including Forbes. But I think the piece was missing several points and the fact that it was propagated by a bunch of mainstream news outlets only compounded the matter.

I'm not bashing Harris. I can understand why what he pointed out could make people nervous. And he's not the first person to bring this topic up. Last year, another person used a similar form of measurement to demonstrate the decreasing space of organic results on a SERP.

But instead of getting caught up on the façade of the SERP with those types of measurements and percentages, there's a little more to the story.

First, I think we can all agree that the SERPs are changing, and they have been changing since their inception. Oftentimes, these changes can work in our favor.

Not only are SERPs changing, but things that give users data about search behavior are changing, too. It's hard for marketers who do this stuff for a living to keep up, let alone the average business owner. And this is why it can be so scary to some.

In every change, there's probably some good and bad. But it's inevitable it will change, and that's key to remember, and is also why search marketers are adaptive and nimble.

Is Google a Hypocrite? Misunderstood? A Little of Both?

Yes, it's definitely ironic that Google itself doesn't seem to take its own advice when it comes to things like its page layout algorithm. And the following example from Harris's post seems like a pretty drastic demonstration of this:

"Open your iPhone. Search for 'Italian Food.' What do you see? If you're in NYC, you see 0 organic results. You see an ad unit taking half the page, and then a Google owned Zagat listing. Start scrolling, you'll see a map, then Google local listings. After four full page scrolls, you'll have the organic listings in front of you."

italian-food-iphone-google-search

But a closer look, and I think there are other things to consider here. As a mobile user, do you really want to go to the restaurant's website first when you're doing a local search? Reviews, a map and local listings seem fitting for a local-intent search like "Italian food".

In fact, according to the Mobile Path-to-Purchase study published earlier this year, 60 percent of consumers using mobile expect a business to be within walking or local driving distance from their current location. And one out of every three smartphone users are searching for a business's contact information.

Not to mention personalization is at play with every search. Whether the person is logged in or out of Google, what time of day it is, the location of that person and his or her previous query all factor into the intent behind the words and thus, the search results.

When I performed my own search on an Android phone for "restaurants Los Angeles," here's what came up:

google-los-angeles-restaurants

Yes, there are two ads (which I automatically glaze over), but it's also followed by Yelp reviews as the top organic listing (a competitor to Google-owned Zagat) and then a map and local listings, then more organic search results.

It's also worth mentioning that Google said back in 2012 only 30 percent of online searches trigger ads.

And if it does get too out of hand, we hopefully have some organizations that got our back. The FTC recently asked multiple search engines to evaluate the transparency of their paid products in search results as the SERPs continue to change:

"Search engines provide invaluable benefits to consumers. By using search engines, consumers can find relevant and useful information, typically at no charge. At the same time, consumers should be able to easily distinguish natural search results from advertising that search engines deliver. Accordingly, we encourage you to review your websites or other methods of displaying search results, including your use of specialized search, and make any necessary adjustments to ensure you clearly and prominently disclose any advertising. In addition, as your business may change in response to consumers' search demands, the disclosure techniques you use for advertising should keep pace with innovations in how and where you deliver information to consumers."

Let's Focus on Making the Organic Search Results Great

Sure, there's plenty to worry about when it comes to the Google search engine and competing for visibility. And there always will be. I think Harris's post touches on a very real concern amongst business and site owners.

While we don't know what the future of the search results are going to be, we can bet on a couple things:

  • They are always going to change.
  • Search engines like Google want to make money.

This means we will always need to be adaptive in the way we approach marketing online. But instead of focusing efforts on pointing out what we don't currently have in the search results, there's something we all have within our control: Making the most out of the space we do have.

Google owes it to all of us, and we owe it to users to offer the best results possible for a query. In that area, I think Google is trying darn hard to make results quality and relevant. Is it perfect? No. But as site owners, we can do our part, too.

I hope we'll always have a way to compete fairly in the search results. And I also hope that when it comes down to it, user expectations and demands influence the future of search, not the pursuit of profit by the search engines.

So while we should always voice our concerns about the information in the search results if it seems worth mentioning, there's a lot of factors at play in the SERP. The fact is, search engines are a complicated place to do business.

What's your take?

This article was originally published on Search Engine Watch.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jessica Lee

Jessica Lee is a marketer specializing in web content strategy and B2B/B2C writing. Since 2005, Jessica has been in the business of content and communications, with the past several years focused on the web marketing space.

Prior to launching her consulting business, bizbuzzcontent, Jessica was responsible for content strategy, development and marketing for Bruce Clay Inc. – a global SEO firm, where she served small businesses and Fortune 500 clients. Jessica's background also includes positions in traditional marketing, communications, broadcasting and publishing.

Jessica has a bachelor's in communications and public relations from San Diego State University. She also contributed to the book “Search Engine Optimization All-in-One For Dummies” 2nd edition.

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