In a previous article on how to start using structured data, we talked about a possible downside of getting too deeply into it. Giving search engines more information to work with may put your content at a higher location in the SERPs.
There are a lot of fancy features that search engines are developing to help you get answers faster than ever before. You can often get the answer to a question straight from Google rather than clicking through to another website.
Herein lies the problem. What good does making all this content do if the searchers aren’t landing on your pages? Even more troublesome is this. Why are search engines, notably Google, allowed to capitalize on your information so well that clicking through isn’t necessary?
We don’t know if we have answers, but knowing about the problems and why it’s happening is crucial for content marketers if they want to continue to use search engines as a channel for their marketing.
Rand Fishkin, former head of SEO company Moz, wrote an article about how people are behaving on Google. In June, for the first time, over half of the visits to a SERP ended with no further clicks on the page. Of the remaining clicks, 4.42% went to ads. The remaining 45.25% of clicks went to organic search results. This data was collected by Jumpshot.
This is a big problem for Google because Congress is keenly interested in wondering whether or not Google’s business practices are forcing people to stay within Google-owned properties. So, what percentage of organic clicks go to Google-owned properties like Google Images, Google Maps, and Youtube? Roughly 6%. It’s safe to say that anyone reading this isn’t likely to be working for a Google-owned property, so the whole rest of the web gets to divide up the remaining 40% of organic clicks.
So, could you go to another search engine and avoid this? In theory, yes. But 94% of all searches happen on one of Google’s properties. Furthermore, over the past three years, organic clicks have been shrinking while paid clicks and zero-click searches have risen.
On mobile, it’s even worse. Organic CTR on mobile has dropped from 41.12% in Jan 2016 to a paltry 26.68% in June of 2019. More amazingly, the paid CTR has jumped up to 11.38% from 3.29%. That’s an astonishing conversion.
There have been questions raised about whether or not this reduction in non-Google organic clicks and rise in paid clicks has been due to unethical or illegal business practices. A case could be made that they are a de-facto monopoly. On the other hand, a case could be made that they really are offering the best material for searchers. There are ongoing investigations about this.
We won’t get into the political argument here. What we’re interested in is what content marketers have to do in the face of these trends. Fishkin outlines four possible solutions:
- Wait for regulators to deal with the problem.
While this would create schadenfreude for businesses who have lost CTR due to Google’s results manipulation, there’s no guarantee that whatever fell out of that process would help them claw back what they’ve lost.
- Lean into Google further.
We’ve willingly given Google (and Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.) all the information they needed to build the online world we have today. A business could lean into giving them what they want in the hopes that by scratching the backs of Big Internet you’ll get preferential treatment.
You could start using YouTube for content marketing, jump fully into using structured data, build Knowledge Panels, and watch for the latest features. It’s a technophilic approach, but businesses would have to justify it to investors. Given the statistical trends, it’s not a terrible idea.
However, it’s the equivalent of turning your content over to Google and hoping they treat it right. You’re playing the marketing game by their rules. Do you trust them enough to be your main source of marketing?
Alternatively, you could reduce your efforts in organic content marketing and increase investment in paid advertising. If your audience is on mobile, it’s an attractive option given the rise in the amount of paid clicks. But not every company has the budget to pay for PPC ads or an audience that’s inclined to click on them.
- Keep hunting for better keywords.
Businesses could also keep playing the current marketing game. They could hunt for higher-value keywords that will give them enough return to make up for dropping click-through rates. This may work for some niches but not for others. And depending on how aggressive Google is about lowering organic non-Google clicks over the next few years it may end up being a losing strategy.
- Beat Google at their own game by getting value from zero-click searches.
This may be the most dangerous road, but it is possible. It would involve using structured data in certain ways. Let’s say you make a FAQ page on your site with structured data. Google likes it and puts it up at the top of several related queries related to the questions.
If users click on those FAQ questions, that doesn’t lead people to your site. But you could put, as part of the question, a link to an article that has further information. A balance would have be struck between putting enough information in the FAQ to satisfy Google and having enough to say to make the link enticing enough for people to click.
However, Google does not like sites that abuse structured data. They can and will delist pages just like if you were doing old spammy practices like keyword stuffing. This technique, and others like it, is the equivalent of leveraging Google’s new features in ways they aren’t expecting. If Google decides they don’t like what you did, you could lose placement or, worst case, get delisted.
An Abuse Example
Depending on how long you’ve been in the online marketing game, you may remember many of the tricks people used to pull to manipulate search engines into giving certain pages preferential treatment. The reduction in CTR has pushed some companies into figuring out new ways of doing this. But just like those days, if you get caught you’ll get burned.
Outdoor gear brand The North Face experienced a lot of backlash after they tried an inventive way to get their photo content promoted. The Brazilian branch of the company wanted to get images with their products to the top of Google Image searches. They took photos of people in popular nature destinations in Brazil wearing the products, then snuck the images into the Wikipedia pages of those destinations.
From an amoral standpoint, this makes perfect sense. Wikipedia pages and images have extremely high value to Google. Wikipedia’s editors are the bane of many businesses and people who try to make pages about themselves.
Unfortunately, not only is what they did against the terms of service of the site, they went out and bragged about it in a video, calling it a hack and that they intended to not attract attention from Wikipedia’s moderators. It was the video that caught Wikipedia’s attention. After public backlash, the company was forced to apologize and remove the photos.
What To Do?
There is a silver lining to all of this. If your organic CTR has been dropping for some time and you can’t figure out why then this trend is a sign that it may not be the fault of your content marketing team. Organic CTR is dropping for everyone, especially if you’re mobile-focused.
It may be time to stop thinking of Google as the main driver for traffic and start investing in other channels for content marketing. Social media marketing, email marketing, or influencer marketing could come out on top. Search engines and Google properties aren’t the only places people search for content, even if they are the most convenient ones. If organic CTR drops to the point where the CTR from other marketing methods becomes comparable, the best practices for content marketing will have to shift.
It might even be time to take another look at traditional marketing methods, especially if things look really sour for Google. If Google should get cut off at the knees, the entire digital marketing landscape will be completely altered. We’ve become so used to Google’s presence as the head bull of the online marketing herd that their removal would cause a lot of chaos until a replacement came along. Traditional marketing might fill that gap in the interim.
By diversifying your content marketing away from relying entirely on Google, you’ll have a better shot of reaching your audience if things get shook up. That doesn’t mean that you can’t take tips from the other approaches as well. It certainly doesn’t look like it’s time to abandon Google completely. But if businesses stop getting the ROI they were from them, especially if they have to start paying, then there may be an exodus from their products.
No one ever said content marketing would be easy! The better you can keep up with the times, the better you can retain the online reputation and ranking you have.