Since Google introduced “infoboxes” to their search results pages (SERPs) in 2012, they have continued to expand the types of knowledge that they display, as well as the depth of information that they provide. This has especially held true in recent years, as they have added answer cards to the top of SERPs, essentially telling the searcher that they have determined what the correct answer to their query is. This development is fantastic for the user experience of the searcher, but it can hurt website owners, publishers, and content creators.
A recent study from Rand Fishkin of SparkToro and Jumpshot shows that organic click-through-rates (CTR) have dropped significantly over the past two years, while paid clicks and no-click searches have both grown. What this indicates is that:
- the paid advertising spots at the top of the SERP are the place to be if you want clicks, and
- more people are searching and finding the information that they need directly in the SERP, with no need to go any further.
The paid advertising spots will be the best option for garnering clicks on a SERP as Google continues to expand its advertising platform, adding new types of ads, and allowing more space to display ads in the page. There are now up to 4 ad slots at the top of a SERP, and if it is a localized search, those could be followed by a Local Pack, with another ad spot at the top of that. This means that the first organic result could be below 5 ads, a map, and 3 local results, greatly decreasing the chance that the searcher ever even sees an organic result.
Answer Cards May Be Killing CTR
Google’s use of the answer card raises some questions about the ethics and legality of their platform’s content scraping abilities and application. Because the intent of answer cards is to give the searcher exactly what they need without ever leaving the SERP, it is inherent in its purpose to reduce traffic to the sites from which they are taking the answer information.
For content creators, this can mean a major blow to their website’s traffic. They have spent the time and effort to write a good FAQ page, how-to, or blog post, then Google scrapes that content and puts it up on their own platform, neutering most of the benefit to the original creator.
Use Answer Cards to Your Advantage
There is not much data out there currently on the CTR of answer cards, however, my experience and intuition tell me that it should be higher than a regular organic result, but not as high as an ad slot.
CTR will vary on the type of answer that is given; for instance, “how tall is the Empire State Building” will give a number, with no need to go any deeper, but a query such as “can I drive to work after a DUI in Illinois” may have an answer card that tries to summarize a longer post. The searcher cannot truly understand the process of a DUI case from a couple of sentences, so they may click into that page to read further.
With this in mind, content creators should focus on creating content that is long-form, and while it has a definitive answer, that short answer should leave the reader wanting more. The screenshot below shows the answer card from my example search around DUI penalties, which gives enough information to be considered the “correct” answer by Google, but not so much that a reader can stop there. The reader needs to click into the page to actually find out what that process is, and how it affects them personally.
Having an online presence in the legal industry can mean navigating a minefield of ethical issues while trying to stay on top of one of the most competitive spaces, but answer cards can be an effective tool if you can get Google to pick up your answer over another law firm’s. Most topics in legal are not cut-and-dry and cannot be summarized into one word or one sentence, which provides a unique opportunity to capitalize on the limitations of the answer cards’ brevity.
So, no, organic search is not dead.
But it’s certainly not going to be paying out the dividends that it once did, and certainly, the methods have to change.
The most important thing that you can do to maintain your presence online and in Google is to diversify your holdings. Invest in on-site SEO, paid advertising, directory building, print advertising, etc. What works for you may not work for another attorney and vice versa. You should test multiple avenues of marketing and track your ROI on each one individually to see what works best for you.
To read another Search Expert’s opinion about how this especially affects mobile results, check out this post by Greg Sterling of Search Engine Land.