The organic search landscape has changed quite a bit since the early days of Google, and it continues to evolve, stretching the definitions of what SEO and organic search constitute.
The many changes Google has made to its search engine results pages (SERPs) serve as an effective guide for marketers trying to cope with the new world of SEO.
The Rise of Paid Ads
Paid search results have been a part of Google since 1999, but in recent years ads have started taking up more and more real estate. Now as screens get smaller, the majority of organic search results actually fall below the fold. Not only that, but there are fewer of them. There used to be 7-10 organic results per page but now there are often fewer.
For highly competitive search queries paid ads in the main column of results now take up most of the space above the fold. Ads even have extensions now, which makes them more prominent. In some cases individual paid ads actually take up more space than individual organic results.
Paid results have also spilled over into the sidebar on the right that extends halfway down the page. Plus, in many cases they now appear at the very bottom of the results, right above the option to navigate to further pages of results.
From a business perspective this makes sense for Google. They makes a ton of money in ad revenue and want to force businesses into playing the AdWords game. And while it’s true that success in search engine marketing will probably include PCP in some capacity, the rise of paid ads also reinforces the importance of being one of those top few organic results.
People certainly do click on paid ads, but it’s estimated that they click on organic results over 90% of the time. Organic is still hugely important, and because the number of spots available has decreased, competition is now fiercer than ever.
Sitelinks and Rich Snippets
Another innovation introduced into the SERPs is the inclusion of sitelinks. These are the links that appear below the main result, taking users directly to pages deeper within the site. Beneath the title and the meta description of the Google result for “Zappos,” for example, are sitelinks that take the searcher to specific sections of the site such as “Women’s Shoes” or “Bags & Handbags.” These sitelinks make the results easier for the searcher to navigate and are usually awarded to sites with a strong brand.
Google has also introduced rich snippets, which provide even more information than the normal meta descriptions. Rich snippets can feature reviews and prices for a restaurant or a list of songs on an album, to take but two examples.
Both sitelinks and rich snippets mean that individual organic results have gotten larger, which is great for the sites at the top of the page, but it also means that fewer sites can fit on page one.
Pictures and Video
Since Google started out in the ’90s the web has become a much more visual place. For certain queries, images and videos show up right on the first page of results. These multimedia entries are pushing normal organic entries off the bottom of page one.
This means that the most successful sites will be full of great visual content that is appropriately optimized.
Google’s Expanded Web Presence
As a business Google now has a finger in many different pots and its various ventures now show up in the search results.
Many local queries return a map full of local results in the sidebar or even a list of local results that take up space in the main column. Or search for a major brand and their recent posts on Google+ will show up on the sidebar. A search for a product often yields Google Shopping results above the first result.
Sites need to make sure that they have a diverse web presence. It’s not enough to rely on the website alone anymore. In this day and age it should go without saying that every brand needs a social media presence, including Google+. Local businesses should make sure they are registered in Google’s Places for Business and ecommerce sites should consider paying for inclusion in Google shopping.
What Do These Changes Mean for SEO?
These changes to the landscape of organic search mean that though SEO is still important, it has to adapt. The days when it was possible to place a site on the first page with a nothing more than a well-written keyword-heavy title tag are gone. Not only is it more difficult to place a site on the first page, but there are fewer spots available.
The biggest takeaway for sites looking to cope with this altered landscape is to invest in branding. Google is more likely to reward great brands with those top organic spots and expanded entries.
The definition of SEO has broadened to include brand-building across the entire internet. A good brand means lots of fresh quality content, it excellent customer service, a well-designed site and great user experience, an active social media presence, and much more. It’s a lot of work, but ultimately it means better companies and happier customers.