Since it became the world’s dominant search engine, ranking well on Google has been a make-or-break proposition for many businesses. Countless companies adept at SEO can thank Google for their success.

But times are changing. According to clickstream data firm Jumpshot, which collects data from a global panel of over 100m devices, in June, for the first time ever, over half of Google searches didn’t lead to clicks. What’s more, a significant and growing number of searches that do lead to clicks drive
traffic to properties that Google owns.

Specifically, Jumpshot says that in June, 50.33% of Google searches produced no clicks. 45.25% resulted in organic clicks, and 4.42% led to clicks on ads. Looking at data for all of Q2 2019, nearly 6% of searches produced clicks for Google-owned properties such as YouTube, Google Maps and Google Images.

Jumpshop’s data highlights several important trends:

  • Google’s increased use of snippets in search results is encouraging fewer clicks on search results. Obviously, when consumers can obtain the information they’re looking for directly in search results, they’re less likely to click on search results.
  • Changes Google has made to ads have led to an increase in the number of searches that result in clicks on ads. While 4.42% of searches producing ad clicks might seem low, for comparison, this figure stood at just over 2% in Q1 2016 and remained under 3% until Q3 2017.
  • Google-owned properties have a significant and growing presence in the SERPs. Incidentally, this is a focal point in the intensifying antitrust scrutiny Google faces.

These trends are especially pronounced on mobile. In June, nearly 62% of mobile searches were zeroclick and just over 38% of searches produced clicks on organic results. Over 11% of searches resulted in clicks on an ad, the highest percentage Jumpshot has ever recorded and up from under 4% three years ago.

As SparkToro’s Rand Fishkin notes, over half of searches now take place on mobile, so the amount of organic traffic that can be generated from Google on mobile has declined and continues to decline considerably.

SEO is dead, long live SEO

Jumpshot’s data makes it clear that SEO isn’t the same game that it was even just a couple of years ago.

The rise of mobile searches coupled with changes Google has made to its SERPs effectively means that companies engaged in SEO are, in many cases, fighting for a piece of a smaller pie.

So how should they respond?

Fishkin suggests that companies have a number of options:

  • Attempting to find ways to capitalize on zero-click searches
  • Submitting and optimizing content for Google-owned properties like Google Maps, Google Images and Youtube
  • Identifying keywords that have higher CTR opportunity
  • Praying that antitrust regulators force Google to change its ways

The first option could prove tricky. One of the biggest reasons is that even if companies can theoretically find ways to benefit from zero-click searches, doing so will in most cases require them to effectively provide Google with their content. Google has even been accused of taking content for snippets without permission, so companies might be concerned about voluntarily giving the world’s most powerful search engine their content without a guarantee that it will be used to benefit them as much as it benefits Google.

Many companies are already buying into the second and third options. For instance, The North Face and its Brazilian agency ran a campaign specifically targeting Google Images. The campaign was widely-criticized, and for good reason, but it demonstrated the degree to which companies are aware of the growing prominence of Google-owned properties in the SERPs.

In addition to the options Fishkin lays out, there are other approaches companies can consider:

  • Reducing investment in SEO and/or increasing investment in paid ads. While this might not appeal to some on principle, ROI is ROI, and if companies are able to maintain or improve their search marketing performance by shifting budget from organic to paid efforts, it’s arguably very sensible to do so.
  • Diversifying. Companies that have more limited allocations to non-search digital channels, such as social and influencer marketing, might find that this is the right time to shake up their digital marketing mix. They might also consider opportunities in non-digital channels, a big trend among DTC brands.

Whatever path companies take in responding to the fact that SEO as we knew it is basically dying, waiting for regulators to step in and force Google to change its ways seems to be the least sensible approach. While the odds of Google being hit with significant regulatory actions seem to be higher than
ever, there is no guarantee that such actions would restore the search environment to a past state.

Just as companies have been forced to deal with the effects of Google’s algorithm changes, they should embrace the reality that numerous forces are fundamentally changing the search market and find ways to adapt.