Grappling with Clickless Searches from a Portalized Google

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Oosoom at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]
Oosoom at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Remember “portals?” Back in the 1990s, becoming a “portal” was what web-based media companies did to resist losing users to 3rd-party sites whose advertising revenues were not under their own control. So you had sites such as Yahoo loading up on all kinds of (sometimes) useful features such as email, chat, forums, internal search, etc., so that — ideally — users could find everything they wanted on that domain without having to wander (or as was often said in the 90s, “surf”) elsewhere (where ad revenue couldn’t be captured).

Back in the ’90s I was a very famous Portal Star…*

Google — along with the social networks — pretty much killed the portal fad by in the early 00’s. Its management realized that its users cared less about the provenance of a particular piece of information (e.g. whether it came from AP, CNN, Reuters, Yahoo, or some random blog) than its relevance to their own intent at any particular moment. Google spidered the portals, made their content easily accessible, and rendered their all-things-in-one-place approach (often executed within quaint, ugly UIs) obsolete. (Yahoo hung on, of course, but that sad story is beyond the scope of this short article).

What’s new — and deliciously ironic — is that Google has lately been showing many overt signs of “portal syndrome.” As reported in Search Engine Land, Moz’ Rand Fishkin reports that in June, 2019, more than 50 percent of Google searches don’t even result in clicks anymore. This appears to be the logical outcome of Google’s long-term efforts (through the Hummingbird-driven Answer Box, Featured Snippets, and the Knowledge Vault-based sidebar panels) to integrate all “relevant” information on a single, personalized SERP. Like the portals, Google wants nothing more than for users to go to Google, find what they’re looking for, and either keep on clicking through Google or go to an Alphabet-owned property (such as Maps, YouTube, and its Play Store).

What Can Marketers Do?

Clickless-searches are a troubling trend to marketers for several reasons. Clickless searches deny them a chance to track users once they’ve arrived on their sites, deny them any opportunity to surround the user with their own branding, and — for publishers — deny them ad revenue. For example, if I’m searching for the best way to cook London Broil, and this question is answered right on the Google SERP (which it is), there’s no reason for me to visit a cooking site. There’s also no way for the cooking site to know I was ever interested in London Broil (a fact its marketing department might find interesting), and there’s certainly no way to retarget me with interesting offers for the Complete London Broil Cookbook. Sure — Google might someday decide to provide the cooking site, via Analytics or Search Console — a way to know more about this search behavior, but right now, the cooking site is in the dark — at least about how 50 percent of people are interacting with its content on Google.

So what exactly are the options for our hypothetical cooking site?

  1. Paid Search. Yes, paying for clicks (and impressions) is a way to muscle yourself into the search-stream and harvest some useful data about search behavior. But unless our cooking site is selling lots of books, subscriptions, or other goods and services with healthy profit margins, Paid Search isn’t much of an option.
  2. Featured Snippets. Yes – the cooking site could mark up its content better, but what would that get it? More exposure on the SERP via the Answer Box, and perhaps a shot at some actual clickable organic listings (if the competition isn’t too intense). This approach works well when topics are somewhat obscure. For example, the query “how to wire a DCC layout” surfaces a lot fewer Answer Box entries than “how to cook a London Broil” because there are a lot more people doing the latter than the former.
  3. YouTube. If the cooking site’s competitors aren’t active on YouTube, our hypothetical cooking site might be able to leap ahead of its competition by creating a vibrant YouTube channel. But video content is expensive to create, and in highly competitve niches, it’s difficult to get traction unless you pay YouTube for exposure. Still, for many marketers — especially for those whose competitors are video-less, it’s a way in.
  4. Shopping. Google Shopping is another way into the clickstream. While many marketers already create XML feeds for this channel, participation is by no means universal. Marketers whose competitors aren’t already active in this channel should consider jumping in.
  5. Maps. Marketers need to populate their Google My Business entries accurately, completely, and attractively. Google Posts (formerly “Podium”) give marketers an ability to post periodic content to this channel (although many seem to have not discovered this feature yet).

Keep Calm and Optimize On

The increase in clickless searches doesn’t do marketers any favors, but it’s not the end of the world. If a majority of searchers are destined to have their informational needs met on Google without expending a single click, marketers will just have to get used to it (barring some kind of radical restructuring of this environment due to governmental information). If you’re concerned about how your own marketing plans will be disrupted by clickless searches, you still have some tools available (see items 1-5 above) to flow your content through the appropriate (Google-run) channels. With any any luck at all– you’ll manage to do so before your competition does.. So keep calm and optimize on!

* If you don’t understand this admittedly obscure reference, I would humbly suggest that you renew your Netflix subscription.