Anyone remember this guy?

Google SERP 1998

If you’re working in digital now you might not recognise how Google looked when it first emerged out of Stanford University onto the mainstream web back in 1998. Google.com was first registered the previous year, but ’98 is when the SERP we’re more familiar with started to make an appearance. Most of the core components are there – the query bar, the pagination, the blue links and green URLs. Notice how everything here is organic – this was before the engine started monetising!

First Adwords SERP

Here’s a snapshot from October 2000, showing what the first text ads and “sponsored links” looked like as Adwords launched. Rather than grind through the many incarnations, tests and changes that the search giant has made over the years, though, we’re going to skip ahead a decade to a more familiar-looking SERP snapshot from around 2010:

Google Plain SERP 2010

Now straight away on an ordinary desktop monitor of fairly typical resolution at the time, we can see that the majority of screen real estate sits with ads and organic is definitely playing second fiddle. Of the thirteen links shown here, only three are natural – in other words, a little over 23% of the screen can be attributed to “SEO” in some form. By this time paid search is a definitive and crucial channel for most businesses, and paid clicks are of course going to be driving a significant amount of traffic.

Let’s skip ahead again to the introduction of the Knowledge Graph in 2012.

Google Knowledge Graph 2012

By now there’s a lot of other stuff competing for both ad and organic listing space – the big knowledge graph entry on the right is dominating the view of course, and there’s News inserting itself into the main listing as well as ads, but one could argue that in fact there’s still a decent amount of real estate sitting under the “SEO” remit here, even excluding the Knowledge Graph listing itself.

But what about today? I hopped into incognito on Chrome and tried a quick Google search for the same green-skinned musical, but results are very different…

2016 Incognito Google SERP for Wicked

For the same query as the 2012 example we’ve gone from four organic results and a Knowledge Graph entry above the fold on a laptop to just two organic results and sponsored entries taking over everything else (the KG is still there on the right, incidentally, but you have to scroll down to see it). That’s a pretty transformative drop.

Let’s try a more commercial brand query like “Dell computers.”

2016 Incognito SERP for Dell Computers

The Knowledge Graph is back to prominence with this one but there’s a lot of stuff competing for a user’s attention here – the shopping sponsored ads are very prominent and appealing with their images, the KG itself, even the official Twitter feed is now integrated into the SERP. There’s only one organic result – the brand’s own website – so if you’re a reseller of Dell you’re going to be struggling to make any noise in this space unless you’re doing well on the shopping ads.

Let’s try a more generic query, like “patio furniture.”

2016 Google SERP for Patio Furniture

Even for a really broad term like this we’ve lost a whole organic slot over the classic SERP from October 2000. Again there are around thirteen links on this page but now only two are organic, a smidge over 15% – and that’s before we take into account the foibles of user behaviour, like the fact that someone looking for something as broad as “patio furniture” is highly likely to be drawn to richer results like the images in the shopping ads.

Above the fold on mobile is even worse – no organic results visible at all for this query without a scroll!

2016 Mobile SERP for Patio Furniture

What about in the B2B world, where (in theory) we’ll see less in the way of those shopping ads?

2016 SERP for IT Outsourcing

2016 Mobile SERP for IT Outsourcing

Again on mobile the ads have the above the fold space dominated, but even on desktop the only listing that can qualify as organic is actually one of Google’s “answer boxes,” providing informational rather than conversion-orientated content which may not even result in a click at all. Informational and broad searches in particular tend to see a lot less in the way of clicks these days, although impressions (averaged out across all the usual caveats of personalised results, not to mention the rise in ad blocking changing the reality of that SERP real estate in a lot of cases) aren’t necessarily dropping off a cliff.

Not only that, but think of the previously traffic-driving “quick questions” like opening hours or store directions, which can now be answered without ever leaving Google – in terms of pure organic click volume, most businesses will see a decrease on that front although it won’t necessarily be affecting their bottom line negatively (after all, the user is still looking for the business to visit or purchase, just not clicking onto the website)!

What Does It All Mean?

Of course the 2016 screencaps are just a few quick examples, but nobody can deny that it isn’t hard these days to come across a search engine results page on Google with very little real estate given over to organic listings designed specifically to drive clicks to a website. Long gone are the basic lists of blue links and green URLs. Google is a far cry now from just being a library card-index style system taken online.

Does that mean organic search is dying out?

No. But it does mean that SEO as a discipline is evolving, changing and adapting to meet the needs of both brands and users. The technical aspects in particular can now very rarely be powered by the incremental improvements to visibility they may offer. Canonical handling, site speed, redirection methodology, proper heading structure, even formerly advanced markups like schema.org or hreflang for international sites; all are beginning to move away from growth avenues into simple hygiene where the benefits of having these things implemented correctly are far outweighed by the potential penalties of not having them in place.

Technical SEO shows all the signs of evolving into something closer to site security, or PCI compliance – something driven more by concern about the cost of problems than the benefit of opportunities. No business would consider undertaking transactions online without proper digital security in place – and in the modern digital world no business should consider marketing to a customer without proper technical SEO considerations in place.

Bad Technical SEO

On the flipside, organic search as an acquisition strategy is moving further up the awareness-consideration-conversion funnel into something driven by content and engagement that helps brands to surface early in the journey of a potential customer and position themselves correctly as a desirable solutions provider. The final click before conversion is now more often earned through pre-conversion loyalty in the form of a branded search – so the brands seeing the best growth aren’t just trying to influence the search results but in fact what people are searching for when they open up a browser. Tools like Google Trends are invaluable here – if interest in your brand isn’t growing, SEO alone can’t save you.

Google Trends Interest

That means integration. No more silos. It means understanding all user touchpoints with your brand, and using that understanding to enhance the experience of the user at all those touchpoints so that they return to you for the simple and time-honoured reason that you offer a good experience. Remember that the most valuable users – the ones with a solid lifetime value for your business – don’t think in terms of whether they clicked an ad or an organic listing or read a blog on your site or a piece of PR somewhere else. They just think about your brand – how easy was it to find you, and did they like what you had to say when they did.

So where have all the organic clicks gone? They haven’t just been eaten up by ads and answer boxes and the Knowledge Graph. They’re moving into the minds of your potential customers, where decisions aren’t just made on the basis of who appears at the top when they search for that really generic just-starting-to-research-this query that the Keyword Planner shows gets however many tens of thousands of searches a month. Or, as I like to put it:

Disregard clicks. Acquire data-driven attribution model.