If you ask any search professional about what an average Google SERP (search engine results page) might look like in the future—say, 10 or 20 years from now—he or she is bound to have a strong opinion, especially given that this information is vital to his or her job security! Google updates its SERP frequently, and certain recurring trends in the way it displays information are becoming too significant to ignore. For many SEOs (search engine optimizers), these observations are proving to be somewhat ominous, and have sparked numerous debates about whether organic search marketing will survive the test of time. As more and more paid results infiltrate the SERP, as well as “authoritative” information coming directly from Google’s Knowledge Graph, fewer and fewer organic results will be accessible to searchers. Could these patterns signal the ultimate death of the SEO industry?
Many prominent SEOs have already addressed this question, positing that the outlook is not looking so bright for organic search. Daniel Cristo, in the reputable online publication Marketing Land, published “5 Trends That Signal the Extinction of Organic Search Results,” which details many of the trends causing SEO professionals to fear for their jobs. Cristo explains two important concepts: firstly, how the rise of super-intelligent Google products will provide searchers with answers to all the questions they are looking for; and secondly, the fact that Google will display advertisements more and more prominently, using more aggressive techniques to maintain profitability.
However, it is overly simplistic to assume that an overabundance of advertisements in conjunction with additional Google Knowledge Graph results will be sufficient for users to ignore or miss out on organic search results entirely. There are many other important observations about how users interact with search engines, and the internet in general, that may prove to counteract Google’s efforts to make paid search the only effective search marketing channel. Searchers’ desire for authenticity, honesty, and truth is precisely why search engines came into existence in the first place, and Google’s sophisticated methods of consistently providing this information is what has made the engine so successful. Users are hungry for authoritative, objective information, and this hunger will stand the test of time, even if they have to dig a little harder for that information.Users Prefer Organic Results to Paid Advertisements*
One important fact is that searchers fundamentally prefer clicking on organic results over paid ads. A popular study of this issue made waves in 2012, when Danny Goodwin published an article on Search Engine Land declaring that “Organic Wins 94% of the Time” compared to paid search. Philip Petrescu revisited the question in 2014, determining that “on average, 71.33% of searches result in a page one organic click.” While the SERP evolving to display more ads above-the-fold is a clear reason for the ~23% decrease in clicks to organic results, the fact remains that the vast majority of searchers prefer organic results over paid advertisements. Numerous heatmap studies show how it has become hardwired into users’ brains to seek out the organic results, even despite more aggressive and inconspicuous advertising tactics.Customers Tend to Ignore Advertisements*
Aside from just preferring organic results to paid results, another key trend has affected both on and off-line advertisers alike: “92% of Americans ignore at least one type of ad seen every day across six different types of media” (Source). According to the same study, the most ignored type of ad is online ads, which are ignored 82% of the time! This has been proven to be the case across many types of internet ads: paid search ads, banner ads, video pre-rolls, social media ads, and retargeting ads. There has even been a rise of free programs, such as the hugely popular Adblock, that exist to facilitate your ignoring of ads by ensuring that you won’t see them in the first place.
Furthermore, retargeting has become a go-to method for paid search advertisers who buy ads on Google. However, a 2014 study by Ronan Shields at ExchangeWire found that the majority of users presented with retargeted ads found them to be a nuisance, further supporting the notion that users are simply fed up with being overwhelmed with ads while browsing the internet. The distaste for advertisements doesn’t seem to disappear when more sophisticated methods of displaying advertisements are introduced.
Changing Demographics of Searchers Will Negatively Impact PPC Click-Through-Rates
While it’s easy to assume that paid ads usurping organic real estate over time will have the effect of proportionally decreasing the amount of clicks received by organic listings, there is another variable that must be considered: the shifting demographics of search engine users. Many studies have been done to try to understand who the average paid search user is, including a popular infographic created by GroupM. The data found in this study supports a common observation about searcher demographics: the younger you are, the less likely you are to click on a paid search advertisement. Younger users are internet savvy – they are less likely to be fooled by the fact that paid search ads look almost exactly like organic ads. They still know how to find what they are looking for and where to find the ads. They still want organic results. And as these users grow older, this “internet-savviness” will continue into their old age, as they are replaced by younger and even more savvy searchers. When the world population is comprised primarily of people who have been exposed to the internet at an early age, we will see quite different statistics in terms of who really clicks on paid ads.
As Google’s Algorithm Evolves, So Does the Quality of Organic Results
Google updates its algorithm 500-600 times a year (source). This is ostensibly done with the goal of continuously providing users with a list of the best pages on the internet, and by adjusting the search algorithm to consider all the new and evolving ways a page can be considered “high-quality.” If Google is successful, users who click on organic listings will be satisfied with their result, and will continue to come back to the search engine. Consequently, users will continuously feel rewarded when they click on organic results, and this cycle will ensure that users are satisfied by clicking on organic listings for many years to come.
The Knowledge Graph Might be Smart, but It Will Always be a Robot
Many SEOs fear that the rise in Knowledge Graph results will signal a corresponding decrease in users clicking on organic results, since Google already gave them the answer they are looking for. This may be true to an extent, but we might observe another outcome: users will become more and more tuned into the fact that Google’s information is coming from a machine. The Knowledge Graph is inherently faulty, and aside from that, searchers will question the authenticity of information that comes from the proverbial “horse’s mouth.” It is human nature to research various perspectives and alternative explanations for things, and this is why search engines are such handy, widely used machines.
Organic Search Will Prevail
Although Google and other major engines might restructure their interface to try to entice users into clicking on results that make them money, there are certain trends that indicate that their efforts might always be somewhat futile. Users like being in control of the information they find online. They do not want to continually be marketed to or sold something. In time, the vast-majority of searchers will be internet savvy and able to spot an advertisement, which have been proven time and time again to be widely disliked by most internet users. Organic search gives users the opportunity to actively seek out what they feel is the best information on the internet, which is inherent to human nature and won’t be going away any time soon.
*Sidenote about the Effectiveness of Paid Advertising
This opinion speaks specifically to the fact that paid advertising faces a challenge when it comes to earning impressions when users have the alternative of viewing organic information or earned media. It does not imply that paid advertising is not an effective marketing channel. In fact, a study by Ayaz Nanji at Marketing Profs found that paid search visits have a 35% higher conversion rate for ecommerce websites compared with visits from organic search.” Furthermore, most paid search advertising uses a pay-per-click model, meaning that advertisers are only charged when a click occurs. Therefore, so long as the ads are converting well, investing in paid search is effective even if the overall number of clicks the ads receive ebbs and flows over time.