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Relying on Google is a risky game. It always has been, but ever-increasingly over the last two years it’s becoming clear that relying heavily on Google traffic can hold an uncertain future.
I’ve seen a huge amount of brands who are performing extremely well via organic search, some are great at PPC, others social media.
Within their own specific channels they’re killing it, or perhaps more importantly making an absolute killing! But it’s getting more difficult and with more competition, comes bigger budgets and tighter margins.
Everyone seems to be squeezed somewhere, and I’m not saying the good old days have completely gone, but you certainly need to be more creative now in order to stand out from the crowd.
Traditionally if you ranked number one for your top performing keywords, you would expect to see a clickthrough rate of 50-60% (56.36% to be exact, study from 2006).
However, now this has dropped (please bear in mind this varies for each query based on search intent, with branded search obviously generating a higher CTR), but on average this was recently reported at 33% on average.
Interestingly, your biggest competitor is ultimately Google. It has your mindshare and when you want to find something, or buy a product, it’s all too easy to turn to a search engine.
How do you outrank Google?
It’s not about outranking Google at all, that’s the wrong question. It’s about providing the best experience possible within your vertical, so that you make Google irrelevant.
If you’re in competitive spaces such as finance or travel right now, Google is making it more difficult and wants to control as much of those vertical searches as possible with its own comparison engine.
As an example, Confused.com currently ranks number one out of 499,000,000 (yes, 499m!) results organically for 'credit cards' in Google UK .
This is a great achievement, yet this is what the Google SERPs look like:
It’s an increasingly competitive space, and Google’s compare listings give it a bigger slice of the pie, at the expense of pushing down organic results.
Personally I see the price-comparison sites as having two choices in this scenario:
- Embrace it. That means they will need to launch their own products, in this particular case that means credit cards and look to secure a listing in Google Compare results in its own right.
- Provide a better user experience than Google for price comparison.
Number one may be an option they need to consider in the future, but right now it’s not their business. But to really win, it’s not just about how you can optimise yourself to maximise the amount of traffic you are generating through Google.
It’s about how you can build a brand that stops people thinking about Google, and start thinking about you. This is the ideal scenario as it completely by-passes Google altogether.
I’m not saying that Google traffic isn’t important, it quite clearly is, but your brand is more important.
This means you really need to optimise the whole experience so that a) people remember your brand, and b) they want to come back.
MoneySuperMarket is another great example of this, within the same space. Google has now even started to place its comparison blocks between ads and organic listings for brand search terms.
Try searching for “confused.com”, “Go Compare”, “Moneysupermarket” etc - and you’ll see listings like this one:
I’m sure that none of these brands are happy with this, and there’s a much stronger argument in this case that Google is providing a weaker experience to searchers, in favour of pushing its own products.
Google+ on the right-hand-side is another one, where a more balanced result would surely include Twitter, Facebook and YouTube (which is of course its own too).
But if you are searching for a brand, it’s a navigational search where you know the exact destination where you want to go and that should be made as straightforward as possible by Google.
Obviously this is one example of a query Google is trying to monetize, as well as appearing to be more lenient on brand bidding in AdWords once the M&S vs Interflora case settled down.
That said, again MoneySuperMarket has the choice. Embrace it (after all it’s Google’s search engine!) or build a brand that provides a better experience within the finance sector than Google.
And that’s exactly the way it has gone:
This is an example of MoneySuperMarket’s Facebook page. You’ll quite clearly see a consistent brand experience throughout, this spreads from offline print advertising, TV campaigns to the website, content and social channels.
But ultimately it is providing a brand experience. The company uses marketing as an acquisition channel to get people in the first time, but it’s much cheaper to get them back if they remember you.
That means you look to get people hooked in as many ways as you can, making that journey back less reliant on Google.
In order to achieve this, the type of action you want visitors to take includes:
- Signing up to a newsletter. 44% of email recipients admit they made at least one purchase last year as a result of a commercial newsletter, so provide them with content they can get their teeth into, as it’s unlikely they’ll be ready to buy straight away on the first visit.
- Become a social fan. Following on Twitter, liking on Facebook, subscribing to the YouTube channel is a great way of allowing you to push content to people and continue to get your brand in-front of a targeted audience.
- Subscribe to blog content. Once you know more about your customers and their demographics/interests, it’s much easier to target publications with your content strategy and to publish branded content to subscribers.
- Download an app. Mobile usage is huge, the year of the mobile is no longer here - it’s been, but definitely not gone. 50% of emails are now opened on mobile - so consider making it even easier for them with an app, and a direct way back to you.
- SEO. Optimising for brand terms to make sure you’re easy to find, and competitive terms if they are still considering their options.
- AdWords/social remarketing. Both via display, but also using AdWords remarketing for search, so that your PPC is more targeted and acquisition costs can be higher based upon users who have engaged with your brand before and are therefore more likely to convert. Likewise you can specifically re-target people via social media, advertising using Twitter, Facebook or YouTube to keep your brand presence prominent.
These are all different routes for a potential customer to re-find you again, both direct or indirectly. Google plays a key role in this too, but it’s no longer just about search. In fact, all of the above is retargeting in one form or another.
Basic sales advice will tell you that you’re unlikely to convert a customer on a single point of contact. It takes a while for that brand trust to sink in, on average it’s between five and eight touch points. So to speed that process up, you need to be everywhere!
An anti-Google attitude rarely gets you anywhere
I’ve been asked for opinions by Econsultancy on Google’s latest changes in search for the last five years, and my answers have always been pretty similar:
- Google wants to provide the best user experience possible, so that it retains/improves market share.
- Google is a huge growth company which wants to continue providing a similar rate of return to shareholders.
It’s a business, a very big one at that, and one that has to make business decisions like anyone else. If it annoys too many people, it works against Google, as brands will cut spend and searchers will turn away.
So it’s always been about finding that balance between providing the best user experience and driving revenue through ad clicks or additional streams/products.
The additional revenue streams is something that Google will be under more pressure to push, because let’s face it, Google is doing a pretty good job already in market share!
It’s only natural that efforts would be placed in:
- Retention of high market share territories.
- Underachieving markets where they feel that they can succeed (and there’s a market opportunity behind it).
- New products and additional revenue streams.
Vertical search falls into that new products/revenue stream category, and it makes sense. That’s why it appears to be taking this one market at a time, it’s prioritised by value.
Vertical search in travel
Take a look at travel, as another example. SkyScanner currently ranks number one organically for “flights to New York”, with CheapFlights second.
Yet these are the results returned above the fold:
Again, these sites are facing the challenge of how can they compete with this to capture traffic, when they don’t run an airline. The answer again, in my opinion, is to be better than Google in travel.
In my opinion, that is what TripAdvisor are doing. If I want to book travel - I wouldn’t start at Google - I’d research travel reviews, view photos, find some videos, ask questions via social media. This is a much more personal experience and gives you far greater insight into a destination at the research phase.
In comparison, if I do a search in Google for “Beach in Dubai”, as an example, I don’t want to see ads and web listings. I want to see images and maybe some videos.
Interestingly in Google’s new SERP layout, it has been interchanging the web, images, maps, videos and news links. This suggests there is more user intent analysis going on here, so it can match this to the type of results you are hoping to see at a query level.
But you do need to remember that Google is an algorithm, a very clever and fast evolving one (with huge data) at that - but people trust people, so the brands that can provide the most personalised experience are more likely to be more trusted and credible.
The brands are winning
Funnily enough, by having the realisation that Google is slowly starting to compete in the same space as yourself and becoming a competitor, you’re aligning your goals exactly with what it wants to reward more of in search. You’re building a brand.
So as a result of no longer being as reliant on Google and having a more integrated strategy across channels, you’re sending a wider range of brands signals which strengthens your position in search.
As you can see from the SearchMetrics graph above with Confused.com and MoneySuperMarket.com both having greater organic visibility than the more traditional finance brands Barclays and HSBC.
Of course acquiring traffic is still hugely important, everyone always wants to attract new potential customers.
But it’s really about taking that next step in making them remember your brand, and giving them a way back, that can take things to the next level.
Google listings across verticals are only going to be rolled out more heavily this year, in my opinion, as the huge Knowledge Graph data is put to use.
We’ve already seen this roll out to music, just search for any “[Band Name] Songs” query and you’re presented with something that looks like this which then links through to YouTube video content:
I would consider this a very good user experience and this is just one example of many, but if you’re a business that is a vertical specific comparison/portal site - in the sense that you don’t sell your own products - you need to be thinking about how you be market leaders vs Google too.
The goal is to be the Amazon of books, Rightmove of property, AutoTrader of cars, eBay of auctions - these are all sites where you would likely go directly to in order to make a purchase, rather than relying on search engine results, the reason being they’re all more trusted within their own individual spaces.
With brands being pushed down by vertical search result listings, the best option left is to compete with Google.
And then, rather than losing market share, you gain, and as a result your might even get rewarded in the search engines as part of the process for being a more recognised brand!