Should SEOs Prepare for the End of Google as We Know It?

google-moneyI’m not usually one for a conspiracy theory, unless it’s contained within a decent yarn like “The Da Vinci Code”, but over the last year in particular, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that Google wants to get rid of natural search results – to the point where I would really like them to make a statement of some kind and put people out of their misery.

Google will always base any statements around the words “user intent” or “user experience” and on the face of it, most of the things I’m about to list could easily be batted away by Google’s ever-inventive PR wing using one of the two phrases above. However, user intent aside, Google has consistently taken steps to devalue the natural search results.

The question remains: is Google’s master plan to abolish the natural algorithm, which is what made it so popular in the first place?

There are a number of specific developments in particular that point to this. And in true conspiracy theorist style, I will list them in bold. I might also throw in some exclamation marks too.

The removal of the referrer string for people logged into their Gmail account: although notionally only 10 percent of search traffic will be affected by this, we all know the value of robust data and 10 percent “unknown” is not robust. Natural search tracking tools will be inaccurate all of the time, and reporting ROI won’t be accurate either! And this is before Google’s wonderful social media offering takes off, increasing the percentage of people logged in while doing a search…

All studies carried out into the click-through rates for natural search show that it has fallen significantly – some suggest that the rate of decline has even increased in the last six months! Certainly, the heady days of 70-80 percent of traffic going to natural search results is over. Many seem to suggest that 50 percent is the very best we can expect, especially for searches with commercial intent or searches where the cost per click for PPC ads is highest...

Some (Google) will argue that this is due to improved, targeted PPC creative and a superior understanding of user intent by PPC practitioners, but in truth, it could also be something to do with the fact that with Google Instant products/local business results/PPC site links etc. most natural search results are now way below the fold.

How much is it worth to Google to increase traffic for commercial searches? Let’s just look at [car insurance] as an example of one keyword, admittedly a highly competitive one, but still just one keyword.

If only 30 percent of the 500,000 or so people who search on Google each month for car insurance used to go through a paid search ad and Google were paid on average $2.50 for each of those 150,000 visitors, then they would have made $375,000 from that keyword. If 50 percent of searchers now go through a paid ad, that number has gone up to $750,000! If you replicate that across all of Google’s search, it’s clear that they have a large lever to pull to ensure they hit their quarterly forecasts to keep the markets happy, and there is still another 50 percent of room for maneuver!

The thing is, despite of all of the teeth-gnashing and wailing (that I’m helping to contribute to, admittedly), Google can do exactly what it likes. It’s their search engine and it’s the biggest one out there. All I would like to know is whether they will move to an entirely paid model?

To people in the search industry, this might be a big problem, an admission that they can’t actually create an algorithm clever enough to determine user intent and therefore, are willing to let big companies pay their way to the top of all listings, but at the moment all the evidence suggests that is exactly what they are going to do. They’re just not going to tell anyone about it until after they’ve strangled off all natural search results and the final internal study confirms that people no longer click on natural search results any more.

It’s all about user intent, after all…

Editor's Note: An SEW Reader posted a rebuttal to this column: Keep Calm & Carry On Despite Google SSL Search Term Encryption.

About the author

Gareth Owen, Head of Natural Search, Steak, began his career in SEO at ChoiceQuote Insurance based in Liverpool in 2004. Responsible for the full marketing function for insurance products in motorcycle, taxi, van and haulage, he oversaw sizeable increases in ROI from online marketing spend.

He then moved to The Search Works where, as European Account Director, he worked on a range of large client brands, pioneered studies into the measurable effects of TV advertising on search volumes, and generated over £1 million in revenue through integrated search offerings in 2009. While in this role he also successfully created an integrated PPC/SEO/Affiliate offering for the parent company.

As well as being responsible for the SEO offering at Steak, Gareth also sits on IAB and IPA Search Councils and has spoken at IAB, IMRG and Econsultancy conferences.