Is Google Changing Search Forever?

Search engine marketers monitor the movements of Google like stock brokers monitor the Fed. As a result, when anything happens with the global search behemoth, people take notice. That’s why I was interested to detect a significant change on a search engine results page the other day, as the change could represent a seismic shift in the very nature of Google from purely content brokers to, essentially, simple content providers.

First, let me define my terms.

I refer to Google as a content ‘broker’ because, (at least up until now), Google’s singular focus as a search engine was to serve users the most relevant possible results. ‘Relevance’–writ large–is the coin of the realm over at Google, if my interactions are indicative. It’s the one thing they always return to; Google changes constantly, but their stated reasoning has to do with providing relevant results that satisfy a search.

Due to their unmatched success at this, (Google has now become–not unlike Xerox or Kleenex–a corporate entity so culturally dominant its name has become interchangeable with the product or service it provides; in the case of Google, including as a verb), millions of users allow Google to act as the middleman for virtually all of their interaction with the web. Google’s ability to present relevant content that answers peoples’ queries has enabled them to gain better than two-thirds of the total U.S. search market in 2014.

Is Google Stealing My Content?

So, when Google goes from semi-passively serving up other people’s content to (in an increasing number of cases) actively providing the search content themselves, as shown in this sample search below…

Screen Shot 2014-07-21 at 3.53.25 PM

…naturally, it gets my attention.

What you’re looking at is, basically, a blurb from an already-published piece of content, provided by a top-positioned website that Google finds to be both credible and authoritative on the subject. The excerpted section would answer a basic query at a high conceptual level, such as, ‘what are money market funds’…and just possibly end your curiosity right then and there.

While certainly being time- and labor-saving for a great many Google users in many and varied instances, (how many times have you simply wanted to know the number of Super Bowls the Miami Dolphins have played in, or how old is William Shatner?, etc.) the implications of this could be far-reaching in the digital marketplace.

So Who Gets It In the Neck?

Whenever Google changes their fabled search algorithm or tweaks how they present content, there are often losers. Usually these losers are the grey- and black-hat SEO types trying to cut corners and game the system for temporary advantage, (think keyword-stuffed articles or ubiquitous ‘Top 10 Whatevers’ posts). Sometimes, Google makes changes specifically to make those ‘bad actors’ into losers, as they’re trying to outsmart Google and hurt their users’ experiences.

However, this change isn’t merely to check the malefactors in the search world, but to fundamentally alter consumer behavior.

One area directly impacted will likely be the kinds of websites that exist to provide educational content–either for altruistic purposes (such as the donation-funded, ad-free Wikipedia), or in order to service search clientele that may eventually transact business after learning about a topic via proprietary blogs and websites that furnish them with educational or editorial content that satisfies curiosity, builds trust, and finally generates leads or sales.

Is Google Creating a Clickless Search?

These sites, in my calculus, stand to lose a large quantity of clicks by becoming, in many cases, second-class search citizens; losing out on people’s primary searches. After all, people are seeing the answer right there on the Google SERP; why would they need to waste their time and click anything else?

It’s a little like giving the milk away for free–why would users buy the cow with an extra click and waste of their time if Google can just answer them directly? Think of the paradigm inversion this creates — these sites were all competing to answer the term the user searched for, and Google just made that competition, to some degree, academic.

Strangely, in this new search model, the original content producers themselves become de facto middlemen, larding up the process merely by being there.

You might ask: but wait, doesn’t Google sell ad space through AdWords as a major revenue stream? Don’t they want, speaking reductively, more and more clicks, to display the viability of Google as a dynamic and potentially highly lucrative ad market businesses should pay to play in?

Google Now Optimizing for Advertisers?

Ironically, one potential reason for this experiment might actually be designed to appeal directly to those pay-per-click advertisers. I handle a number of PPC clients at Kaleidico and I can attest that it’s a daily battle to fend off a glut of unwanted clicks that drain budgets; users looking for purely academic reasons of research with no real intention of buying anything, now or in the near future.

With Google just answering those people themselves, user clicks on ads or content may be fewer, but may also be, more or less, pre-screened, increasingly monetized, and motivated to buy.

That prospect makes PPC guys like me wide-eyed with possibilities.

We live in a PPC World where a two-percent clickthrough rate is a triumph and conversion rates of 1-in-10 can be massive success. What happens when the market is reduced to fewer people with more inherent value to advertisers? By pre-screening this traffic–satisfying less lucrative searches and winnowing out “less serious” searchers, one could imagine an increase in the average cost-per-click (CPC) for desirable terms.

If Google Constricts Traffic, Who Benefits?

Well, not to be a cynic, but who is paid when an AdWords CPC goes up? Ah, as the plot thickens the clarity improves.

Now, before anyone starts panicking or even accusing me of belonging to the tinfoil hat crowd, I should point out: circled in green on that screenshot above is the word ‘feedback’ — so this is in a Beta stage and it’s possible I may be putting the cart before the horse. Google may simply be doing their typical mad scientists thing, experimenting with more and better ways to achieve perfect relevance.

The only problem is, those who used to provide the most relevance with the least monetary interest may feel the squeeze.

If this is the shape of things to come, PPC managers and content producers better have an adaptable strategy to live in a hugely changed world of search.

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