Those of us that work in online marketing are well aware that Google is constantly changing the way it selects which sites to show in the SERPs, in which order of importance to display them, and even which sites to downgrade or exclude.
Many site owners may be only vaguely aware of what criteria Google uses in its efforts to respond to a searcher’s query. After all, it’s pretty much a full-time job to keep up, since the search engine’s algorithms are in a constant state of flux.
The Dominant Trend: From SERP Results to Answers
Nevertheless, some trends are fairly obvious to those that pay attention. Things like Instant, Knowledge Graph and Rich Snippets were a few products that were quickly noticed by even casual searchers. But looking at many such features, over time, can help in detecting trends. And those trends can sometimes show you where Google may be taking us.
Google has made it quite clear, in both statement and deed, that the era of “10 blue links” has passed. They now strive to answer questions right in the SERPs, rather than provide us with links to sites that may answer our questions.
What does this mean to site owners? A couple of things, actually. First, in the short term, it accentuates the need to have pages that are highly relevant to the questions we want our pages to answer. For now, at least, that strategy can still help a page rank highly for specific topics. But what about the long term? Will that really be enough?
Today, when you use your smart phone to ask Google for the nearest pizza parlor, you’ll be provided with several different pizza shops in your immediate vicinity. But tomorrow? Perhaps they’ll take “nearest” literally and only show you that single location. Or maybe because you’ve previously shown a preference for a particular brand, they’ll only show the nearest location of that brand.
The trend seems to support what Google Chairman Eric Schmidt has indicated in many ways… Google intends to provide answers, not resources. They intend to BE the resource. That presents a threat to any site that wants to bring users to its pages. Crafting attractive meta descriptions to encourage a high CTR won’t do a lot of good, if no snippet for your page is displayed to searchers.
And that seems to be where Google is taking us – to a page that displays not search results, but answers. In fact, according to Schmidt, just one answer. Need we point out the fact that when there is only one answer provided, it’ll only be the single answer that they care to share with us?
Exit Organic Traffic, Enter Paid
If you’re asking for the current temperature in Sydney or the dollar to yen exchange rate, that may be fine. But if your query is more subjective, like good Caribbean resorts, do you really want an algorithm to determine what “good” means to you? Price, amenities, service quality, customer reviews, 5-star rating, accessibility… as a searcher, which is important to you? More accurately, which should be more important to you, according to Google? If things continue in the current vein, it may become which must be most important to you.
The potential impact to online business, as a whole, is huge. Millions of sites depend upon attracting potential customers, so that they can market their products to them. If Google continues this trend, only two scenarios seem likely – possibly both:
- millions of online businesses will be starved for organic traffic;
- millions of online businesses will be forced to engage in PPC.
Hmmm… who could have seen THAT coming, eh?
We’ve already seen Google handle different types of queries in different fashions – informational and transactional queries are handled distinctly. But at this point, we’re still being shown an assortment of possible destinations where our questions can be answered, even when the search engine prominently displays its answer at the top of the page.
You can bet that Google is tracking CTR (or the lack of it) on those pages. If your satisfaction with their presentation of Sydney’s current temperature is indicated by you clicking Back in your browser or closing the tab, that will most likely be recorded as a success.
And somewhere deep in the bowels of Google’s conclave, some behavioral scientists and search engineers will be gauging public acceptance of that success, making recommendations on how to improve from acceptance to embracing while they’re fine-tuning the entire process.
We have some interesting times ahead… don’t blink, you may miss something.
Feature Photo credit to William Warby via Flickr Creative Commons