Is Google killing mobile organic search?

Click-through rates for websites depend a great deal on their position in organic search results.

But to what extent are local businesses further compromised as Google pushes all organic results further and further off the bottom of the mobile screen as it prioritizes paid ads, Google My Business listings, Knowledge Graph and/or Accelerated Mobile pages?

And when directories, aggregators, articles, reviews and chains dominate the top organic slots, what hope is there that the mobile user will scroll two, three, four or more screens to find the website of the local restaurant or hotel they seek?

This is the first of two columns on the state of mobile search.

  • This column is focused on what’s happening to mobile organic search – i.e. where websites come in the search engine result page (SERPS).
  • The follow-up column will consider the Google-owned properties – particularly Google My Business and Knowledge Graph – that are displacing organic results, including the impact as Google commercializes these businesses.

So burning question is: has Google killed mobile organic search? For these two columns ClickZ consulted five experts.

The answer (as you’d expect from inbound and local marketers and SEO specialists) is organic search is not dead, but there is no doubt that the game has changed immeasurably, and continues to change every time Google introduces a new innovation, including on-going changes to paid search, Google My Business listings, Knowledge Graph and its latest baby Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP).

Andrew Shotland sums up the responses nicely:

Google hasn’t killed organic search on mobile but it has certainly maimed it. There is still a large amount of traffic going to non-Google properties in local organic SERPs. Despite Google’s continuing takeover of prime SERP real estate with its own properties, its algorithms still need to allow for a wide breadth of results because it still has to account different intents from a single query.

As shown in the Local Search Ranking Factors report (June 2016), Google treats “implicit” geo queries (searches like “pizza” that may have local intent but don’t specify a geography) differently than “explicit” geo queries (e.g. “pizza in Chicago”). And while Google is generally pretty smart about what the most popular intents are, when it’s fuzzy, they will need to provide a variety of results. So smart SEOs still have a lot to play with.

So what has Google done to organic search?

A. More paid search ads.

B. Prioritized Google My Business (GMB).

For a business-related Google mobile search, the priority for results is usually as follows – as demonstrated by results for “Restaurants in Mayfair”, below:

  1. Paid search ads (designated by a PL in the screenshots below) – up to four different ads for popular search queries in popular locations. These can be quite sizeable, including up to 10 lines of text or links.
  2. Google My Business (GMB) results – three local businesses (listed in Google’s directory) are shown on a local map, then given an individual listing of four lines each. The listings do not correspond with the organic results below.
  3. Organic results (OL) – approx. 10 listings. For popular search terms such as “restaurants in X” or “Pizza nearby” the top ranking results are often dominated by aggregators such as directories, delivery services (if restaurants), articles, reviews and national/international chains – this may mean (as in the case below) that there are no restaurants on the first page of search results at all.
  4. More ads – often including ads for download native apps.
  5. Related searches – approx. eight listings of searches recommended by Google.

(Aside: a study of how these recommended searches relate to the keywords favored by advertisers would be a really interesting read).

  1. Option to see next page of results.

C. Prioritized Knowledge Graph

For a content-related Google mobile search, the priority for results is usually as follows – as demonstrated by results for “Mayfair”, below:

  1. Paid search ads (none present in the example).
  2. Knowledge graph (KG) – this is an expandable panel of information and images related to the search query, drawn from various sources e.g. Wikipedia and may include GMB-type listings (as shown below, these may be restaurants or hotels.)
  3. Organic results.
  4. Related searches.
  5. Option to see next page of results.

D. Accelerated mobile pages (AMP)

A further complication to organic search is AMP, which is a Google backed initiative to make mobile pages load faster. Currently these are mostly news stories (it has yet to gain much traction with business), and are usually displayed as a carousel of headlines and images.

Depending on the search term AMP results will come first, second behind paid ads, third behind ads and GMB or KG results, and sometimes among the organic results. Whichever, the effect is that organic results can be pushed further below the fold.

The following screenshots show two mobile searches conducted in London (results in different countries may bring different results). The fold line denotes where the visible screen ends (before scrolling) on large smartphones, such as Samsung Galaxy S6.

  • The first is for “Restaurants in Mayfair” – which shows how organic listings are pushed two+ screens down search results by three ads and the three Google My Business restaurant listings (notated by GMB in the image). These GMB listings do not correspond with organic search results. Also note the absence of any restaurants at all in the first page of search results.
  • The second search was for “Mayfair” – which shows how organic listings are pushed off the first page by Google’s Knowledge Graph (KG). Interestingly the restaurants in the KG are different to those in GMB results for “Restaurants in Mayfair”, if expanded (not shown) KG also shows a carousel of hotels, these results are different to the GMB results for hotels in Mayfair.

Bizarrely, restaurants (RL) and hotels (HL) do better in organic results for “Mayfair” than “Restaurants in Mayfair” or “Hotels in Mayfair”. This may reflect the fact that the context is not what Shotland would call explicit.

dna33_mayfair_screenshots_2

Mobile search is different to desktop search

Organic search on the desktop has also been hammered by Google, but not as badly in all cases.

In February 2016 Google shifted paid ads from the right side panel to above organic results.

For content-related searches Google’s Knowledge Graph (KG) has taken the place of the ads in the panel. This means that in situations where there are fewer paid ads, organic search results may be above the fold on a PC screen.

GMB would also fit well in the side panel, but instead it sits above the organic results, and below the ads, leaving the side panel blank. This means organic results are pushed down the page, and depending on the dimensions of the PC screen size, below the fold.

The disparity of PC screen sizes makes it difficult to estimate where the fold would fall on the screenshots.

dna33_google_desktop_mayfair

Why is Google doing this?

There are two motivations:

  • First, Google want to make more (even more) money from advertising and partner referrals.
  • Second, it wants to provide better answers to the searchers’ queries – this we assume is partly motivated by expectations for growth of voice search. If it can achieve this without searchers leaving Google’s properties all the better (for Google).

HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan:

I think there are two real changes that have happened with Google Search, since we started HubSpot 10 years ago:

  1. AdWords: 50% of above the fold v 100% above the fold… 

10 years ago, for most searches you got a few ads along the top and bunch of ads along the side of the results page. For that same search today, there are no ads along the side and the ads along the top cover the entire space above the fold on a regular computer and above the fold on a mobile phone. This means that if you want to get found in Google, paid is far more important than it used to.

  1. Organic: Research the answer v Give you the answer…. 

When we started HubSpot 10 years ago, for most searches, you just got a list of 10 links on the first page and the name of the SEO game was getting to the first page and as high as possible. Increasingly, Google is just giving you the answer to the question. The percent of queries I do where the answer is provided is going way up and the quality of those answers is very good.

Organic search isn’t dead, by any means. The long-tail game of getting many keywords on the front page of the SERP still works, but increasingly you’ll need to work to just be “the answer” to the query as opposed to one of the list of answers.

How are Google’s changes impacting organic results? 

Click-through rates (CTR) for organic search fall as the position increases

All studies conclude that CTR declines the further down the SERPS the results is, but there is disagreement over the numbers and how this varies by the type of site and the search query.

The following table shows the results of a study by Authoritas (formally Analytics SEO) in 2015, which illustrates how rapidly the chance of traffic declines with each search position. Note the differences between desktop and mobile CTR per position and between search terms that relate to the brand and search terms that do not.

dna33_search_ctr_v_position

But what is the impact of paid ads, Google My Business and Knowledge Graph on organic CTR?

Unfortunately, there does not appear to be any research on the impact of Google move to monopolize the prime search real estate with its owned properties.

However a survey by ComScore and Localeze reveals that:

  • 72% of respondents perceived local search results most relevant, compared with 23% for organic results and a meager 5% for paid search results.
  • 67% – slightly fewer – perceived local results the most trustworthy, ahead of 26% for organic and 7% for paid.

If this sense of relevancy and trust influences click-through rates, as you would expect, then it is inevitable that Google prioritizing GMB results will impact organic search results.

The big question is: to what extent would that trust in local results be undermined if/when Google starts to introduce paid local listings? The impact of Google commercializing GMB and KG, we will consider in the next column.

dna33_trustworthy_search

 

Anecdotally, it appears that some sites have been hit harder than others by Google’s changes.

Andrew Shotland:

The damage has been real. We have seen local organic traffic, particularly on mobile, for large sites trending downwards over the past two years. The big event was Google anchoring the Google My Business three-pack at the top of most local SERPs on both mobile and desktop from late 2015. We’ve definitely seen GMB cannibalize organic traffic to a far greater degree than paid ads.

When searching a local business name on a phone, there is now enough information on many of the Google My Business panels to reduce the need for a user to scroll to the organic results. This is great for local businesses that have a well-optimized GMB page. Not so great for everyone else trying to show you info about that business.

For other sites we still see growing organic search traffic and businesses are still getting a lot of conversions from organic mobile listings – particularly those who value phone calls. Even for those sites that have been losing overall organic traffic Google still knows to send you highly relevant traffic – the traffic that converts well – so sometimes conversions go up even as traffic goes down.

We’re in it for the long tail.

While Google attempts to condition and steer searchers with recommended search queries – both as the term is typed and through related searches at the end of the results page (assuming anyone makes it that far) – and attempts to distract with paid ads, GMB and KG listings, Google will always try to deliver the best results for the query.

The more precise, relevant and frequent the terms used by the mobile user visa vie your sites keywords, the more likely the mobile searcher will be to find a listing for your site and the less clutter they will find in the way.

Will Critchlow, CEO, Distilled:

However much Google tries to give one-box instant answers, and no matter how much they monetize commercial phrases, so far, total mobile search volume is growing strongly enough that total organic mobile is growing as a channel.

It’s really easy to forget the huge volume in the long-tail of search. In the long tail advertising is much sparser, one-box answers are less compelling, and the aggregators have much thinner content. It’s even easier to forget this as keyword data recedes into the rear-view mirror in the form of (not provided).

Thus, in terms of tactics, we recommend moving further up the funnel, and capturing searchers earlier in the lifecycle, as well as beating out the aggregators based on your business’ strengths and USPs – of course you will likely want to complement that with conversion-oriented paid search and appearing on appropriate aggregator / powerful sites as well.

SEO on its own may not be sufficient.

While SEO remains very relevant for mobile search, it should be used (as Critchlow also suggests above) as part of a coordinated marketing plan.

Kevin Cotch, SEO analyst at TopRank Marketing:

I do not believe that Google has killed organic search for mobile users. Google still shows the information that is the most relevant for the mobile audience including organic listings, but the SERP on a mobile phone is more limited. Google is typically showing more owned results (i.e. paid, local listings, featured snippets, etc.) with the limited space on mobile SERPs.  

I recommend approaching mobile with a unique strategy that targets where your audience is within the marketing funnel. Marketers should implement an integrated mobile strategy to attract, engage, and convert your target audience by incorporating SEO, paid, email, and social campaigns. Part of the mobile strategy related to SEO would utilize development resources to implement AMP, schema markup, and optimizing your website for site speed to enhance user experience. 

At the end of the day, Google will continue to change the SERPs to provide the best results. Search marketers will need to continue optimizing their integrated mobile strategy to get the most out of each campaign, including SEO.

The follow-up column to this one will consider the Google-owned and controlled properties – particularly Google My Business and Knowledge Graph – that are displacing organic results.

We will investigate what this means for your search strategy and web design and the impact of Google introducing sponsored results and prioritizing partner businesses

 

This is Part 33 of the ClickZ ‘DNA of mobile-friendly web’ series.

 

Here are the recent ones:

Read the reports:

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