What can we learn from the winners and losers of organic search in 2016?

A pie chart showing the SEO winners of 2016 in Search Metrics winners and losers report.

Who were the winners and losers of organic search in 2016?

For the third year in a row, Searchmetrics has published its annual Winners and Losers Report, which reveals how certain sites fared in organic search visibility on Google.com over the course of 2016.

Searchmetrics’ analysis is based on the ‘SEO Visibility’ of each website, an indicator developed by Searchmetrics to measure a webpage’s performance in organic search.

This is not the same as organic search ranking, but aims to give an overview of how often a website shows up in search results, based on “search volume and the position of ranking keywords” (as set out in the Searchmetrics FAQ).

Based on this metric, Searchmetrics then analysed the change in websites’ SEO Visibility during the course of the year, and sorted the top 100 winners and losers by absolute change in visibility.

While the results are limited to Google.com – and thus are mostly applicable to websites from the U.S. – they are an interesting insight into how the trends and algorithm changes that we cover throughout the course of the year affect sites in real terms.

So who did well out of 2016, and what was the secret to their success? What caused the downfall of the poor performers?

A line graph plotting the winners and losers of SEO visibility in 2016 against the various Google updates throughout the year.

The winners: social media and shopping

Among the biggest winners, although only making up 10% of the ‘winner’ sites overall, was social media. Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook all ranked in the top 10 in terms of absolute gains, with Pinterest the surprise leader of the back – it came in at #2 in terms of overall visibility (Google, surprise surprise, was #1) and had a whopping 80% gain in overall visibility during the year.

We’ve already covered Pinterest’s prowess as a platform for visual search, which goes a long way towards helping keep users on its site by finding Pins which are visually similar to what they’re looking for. Searchmetrics attributes Pinterest’s success in SEO visibility to its forays into deep learning, which “generate more relevant results that evolve based on user behavior.

Like Apple, Google (and even Searchmetrics), Pinterest’s application of deep-learning techniques is a key step in helping software understand the ultimate intent of a user, thereby generating more loyalty and stickiness online.”

While not every site has the resources or the technology to experiment with deep learning, the idea of generating “stickiness” and giving users an incentive to come back to the site again and again is something all site owners/SEOs can aim for (and many already do). Improving a site’s internal search to help users find what they’re looking for more easily is another way to achieve this.

A pie chart showing the winners of Google.com SEO visibility in 2016. Media and Events is the largest segment with 38%, followed by Sopping on 19%, Social Media on 10%, Encyclopedia on 6%, Search/Portal on 4% and Travel on 2%. 21% of sites fall into the Other category.

Shopping was another significant category of website that did well over the year 2016, with nearly a fifth (19%) of sites that ‘won’ falling into this category. Searchmetrics attributed this trend to “relatively steady economies” and “strong economic recovery”.

Among the successful ecommerce sites in 2016 were ebay.com, target.com, retailmenot.com and walmart.com. Two of the retail sites which saw the biggest percentage gains in visibility were theblackfriday.com (217%) and blackfriday.com (212%), which illustrates the SEO power of exact-match domains – when used carefully.

Media: the ups and downs

Media and publishing was the largest category of ‘winners’ in 2016, with nearly two-fifths (38%) of sites who gained SEO visibility falling into this category. However, a large number of media sites also lost visibility in the same period, with the likes of Wired, USAToday, NYMag, Time and BuzzFeed all appearing in the ‘losers’ category. So why the discrepancy?

Searchmetrics’ analysis pointed to the ‘Google News-Wave‘ update of 2015 as one possible cause. The ‘News-Wave’ update, as dubbed by Searchmetrics, was a mysterious update to Google’s core algorithm which caused a lot of media, magazines and news websites to rise in search visibility.

It’s possible that this bump in visibility has now been reset by other adjustments, causing the affected publishers to sink back down in the rankings, or that the algorithm change introduced more volatility in general for media publishers in search.

A line graph showing the SEO visibility of the atlantic.com throughout 2016, with a huge drop in visibility in April 2016 which slowly climbs back upwards, though to about half of the site's previous height.

Searchmetrics’ graph plotting SEO visibility for theatlantic.com in 2016 – and showcasing a huge drop in visibility midway through April

Google’s Panda algorithm update also rewards quality, in-depth content above thinner, more short-form content, which may be the reason behind a rankings drop for some publishers.

However, not all publishers lost out. Among the ‘winners’ in publishing were the New York Times, The Huffington Post and the LA Times, as well as more niche publications like GameSpot, Livescience, Rolling Stone and Women’s Health Mag.

The bigger news titles will likely have benefited from the huge flurry of political events which dominated the headlines in 2016, but for smaller publications, it seems as though focusing on a specific interest area is the way to go for better SEO visibility.

Lyrics out, music in?

One or two other notable trends to be observed from the data are that dictionary and encyclopaedia websites frequently numbered among the losers in 2016. Not exclusively – four or five dictionary or encyclopaedia sites were still found among the winners, including Oxford Dictionaries and Macmillan Dictionary.

However, online encyclopaedias were far more likely to lose out in SEO visibility than to succeed, with major sites like Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Urban Dictionary and Thesaurus.com all suffering a loss in visibility.

This trend is probably attributable to Google’s increasing inclusion of encyclopaedia-style information on the front page of search in the form of Quick Answers, featured snippets and Google Knowledge Graph, reducing the need for users to click through to a reference site for more information.

If Google makes user ratings for films and TV shows a permanent feature in search, we might start to see a decline in the visibility of film and TV ratings websites like Rotten Tomatoes as well.

A graph showing the overall decline in SEO visibility for the free dictionary.com.

A downward trend in visibility for thefreedictionary.com

Meanwhile, another type of reference site suffered a drop in visibility in 2016: lyrics sites. Metrolyrics.com and Lyricsmode.com both saw big drops in visibility of 43% and 54% respectively, although A-Z Lyrics saw a small rise of visibility of 7%. Meanwhile, music providers like Apple, Spotify and Deezer all saw big gains.

The fall in lyrics sites doesn’t mean that lyrics are no longer in demand, but rather that users are getting them from elsewhere. The likes of Amazon Music and Apple Music are increasingly including lyrics with the products they sell, while music publication Genius (which rose in visibility by 34%) also provides lyrics on its site.

While it’s probably too early to declare the death of the lyrics site, sites which only provide one thing will inevitably become obsolete as soon as people start being able to get that thing elsewhere.

What can we learn from the winners and losers of 2016?

Some of the ups and downs of the Searchmetrics Winners and Losers Report are reflective of general online trends, and not necessarily anything that SEOs need to account for (although if you run a lyrics website, take note!). But from the rest, there are a few things we can learn:

  • The ‘stickier’ your website and the more people like to return to it, the better. It also helps if you have put thought into user intent in navigation and internal search
  • Well thought-out, high quality content continues to be a winner with Google’s algorithms
  • When it comes to publishing, targeting a specific niche – rather than trying to spread your coverage over too wide a ground – will also help you rank in search
  • For reference sites, Google’s Quick Answers and featured snippets can be a real blow. But for the rest of us, they can be a huge boost in visibility if you know how to cater to them properly.

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