Is Google drawing up the traffic drawbridge?
With the steady demise of organic results within social channels over the years and budgets coming under strain in many quarters post-COVID, organisations are increasingly pivoting towards Search Engine Optimisation (SEO).
However, while SEO typically runs rings around social channels for driving organic traffic, and conversions, the latest data from SparkToro and SimilarWeb shows cause for concern with an increasing percentage of searchers never leaving Google.
Zero-click Google searches are on the rise, according to new research fronted by SEO talisman Rand Fishkin.
SparkToro used data from SimilarWeb and looked at 5.1 trillion searches in 2020 across more than 100 million devices, of which only 33.59% of searches resulted in a click on an organic Search result.
From January to December 2020, 64.82% of Google searches across desktop and mobile ended without the user clicking through to another web property, increasing the 50% reported for 2019.
Big discrepancy between mobile and desktop
Mobile searches were more likely to end up as a zero-click (77.2%) than desktop (46.5%), while the ad click-through rate was measured at 1.59%.
Desktops also showed a higher CTR for paid ads (2.76%) versus 0.79% CTR for mobile ads.
SparkToro looked back to 2018 and found several interesting evolutions in Search habits:
- Search volume is growing (yay)
- Paid Search share is increasing across mobile and desktop (boo)
- Organic clicks were up in 2020 – this could be linked with the rise of desktop use as more people were confined to their homes (yay)
- The last few months of 2020 recorded the highest share of zero-click searches (boo)
Now, there is some context required. A different company conducted the 2019 study with Sparktoro, the now-defunct JumpShot, which used less data (one billion vs over five trillion) and only calculated searched from desktop and Android devices.
SimilarWeb counted results from iOS and Android, while the 2020 report contained worldwide data while the 2019 one only focused on US searches.
Despite these discrepancies, SparkToro is confident that the two can be favourably compared.
"Nonetheless, it seems probable that if the previous panel were still available, it would show a similar trend of increasing click cannibalisation by Google."
What is a zero-click Search?
A zero-click Search is when the Search answer is displayed at the top of the page, which means that a user doesn't need to click on any results to find out the information they requested.
These are more common on mobile because users are often looking for quick or practical answers to their questions. As we know, these are on the rise.
The rise matters because zero-click searches contribute to Google's market dominance by allowing the giants to show off their products or adverts. Something much maligned by the likes of Expedia and others with Google Flights, etc.
Websites can then miss out on organic Search traffic, but there are methods marketers can use to try and negate the zero-click phenomenon, such as:
Both can help your content be displayed better within Search results and should grant it some exposure even if users don't click on the link.
"Rich information appearing in Google's results may be, like billboard ads or press mentions, harder to track than website traffic, but it's still exposing your brand name to an audience.
"The brands that find ways to benefit from that type of SERP (Edit: Search Engine Results Page) exposure, even without a click, will be the ones who win at this new form of on-SERP SEO."
Google's not happy, Rand
Given the rising anti-trust tide that Google is working to stem and the fact that Sparktoro research has been featured in congressional hearings on the matter, Google has unsurprisingly moved to pour cold water on the study.
Danny Sullivan, Google Public Liaison for Search
"When it comes to local businesses, we provide many ways for consumers to connect directly with businesses through Google Search, many of which don't require a traditional click.
As an example, people might search for business hours, then drive to the store after confirming a location is open. Or they find restaurants on Google and call for information or to place an order, using phone numbers we list.
On average, local results in Search drive more than 4 billion connections for businesses every month. This includes more than 2 billion visits to websites as well as connections like phone calls, directions, ordering food and making reservations."
According to the academic Scott Galloway, Big Tech is now the biggest spender on lobbying in history followed by tobacco and big oil. Therefore, naturally, Google has moved quickly to discredit the Sparktoro findings.
However, while it is possible to nitpick on the study's methodology, the underlying themes ring true for many. Whether the rise of zero-click searches is an anti-competitive or monopolistic move from Google is more something for regulators to consider.
For businesses on the coalface, perhaps the more significant takeaway on a macro-level is Search becoming ever more of a branding and awareness play over direct response.
While SEO traffic may not be as good as old, there is still vast scope for organisations to engage and convert audiences at the Search results level.