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The Death of Organic Search (As We Know It)

Columnist Dave Davies discusses the death of SEO (as we know it) at the hands of machine learning, shrinking organic space and personal assistants.

The Death of Organic Search (As We Know It)

It would be easier to count all the stars in the night sky than the number of articles written about the death of SEO.  I’ve never written one personally but I was having a discussion with the author of a great piece here on Search Engine Journal on AI and its impact on search and the question came up:

Between machine learning and the limited space available for organic search, is it on its death spiral?

The most interesting thing about this question may not be the answer but the journey in understanding the question itself, as it’s therein that we understand the strategies that will make it either true or false. During my time pondering this article, I decided to actually change the question a bit to become more accurate to the scenario we find ourselves in:

Between machine learning, the limited space available for organic search, and the growth of both voice search and personal assistants, is it on its death spiral?

To explore this question, we’re going to look at each of these three areas individually, what they mean together, and finally (and what you likely most want to know), what you need to do about it. So without further ado … let’s dive in:

Machine Learning’s Impact on Organic Search

Let’s start with machine learning.  I mentioned the article by Jeremy Knauff above. If you haven’t read it already, I highly recommend doing so. In the article, he describes how machine learning and AI work to impact rankings and what it means for SEOs. Essentially there are two main areas of interest in this regard, and they are:

Machine learning as it relates to SEO and present device usage needs the Hummingbird algorithm to fulfill its potential. Hummingbird, for those who may not have been around prior to its introduction, created the foundation for Google to understand conversational speech. Its core purpose was to enable Google to understand entities and ideas rather than words, and also the relationships between those entities and ideas. To give you an idea of the power Google saw in this addition, former SVP of Search Amit Singhal said at the time:

“Google will keep reinventing itself to give you all you need for a simple and intuitive experience. At some point, pulling out a smartphone to do a search will feel as archaic as a dial-up modem.”

The question you may be asking is why machine learning is part of this tale. After all, it’s there to adjust signals and help determine which signals to adjust for specific types of queries — not something that would kill SEO (as we know it). I could give some mamby-pamby answer like it will simply create an environment where the best, most engaging content will win and so SEO in the traditional sense will be unnecessary.

However, I’m not a fan of answers that come in the form of, “I have a crystal ball and can see the future.” The reason machine learning is one of the core factors that will bring about the changes we have coming has nothing to do with that.

The truth is, machine learning itself will have little to do directly with it BUT it will be necessary for the change in SEO to take place. If that sounds confusing, that’s because it is, but all will come to light shortly. As we’re discussing the third of the areas listed above, we’ll be able to connect the dots.

What’s important to understand presently is: AI and machine learning combined with the ability to understand and interpret conversational language allows for information to be collected, understood, and presented to the searcher in very different ways. These ways vary by searcher, by device, and by subject. Basically, the limitations of constants in search result calculations are all but eliminated.

Before we return to why this matters apart from the obvious, let’s move on to the second part of the question Jeremy and I were discussing, and that was …

The Erosion of Organic Space

The question we were pondering included the dramatic changes in the space being made available to organic search results on Google’s front page. To paint the picture of where this is going, let’s look at just some of the changes over the past little while:

  • Four Ads on Top: In February 2016, Google took out of testing their move to put four AdWords ads on top of the search results for commercial queries. This obviously pushed the organic rankings down the page.
  • Number of Organic Rankings Drops From 10 to 8.5: According to Searchmetrics data released in October of 2016, the number of traditional organic search results dropped from 10 on both mobile and desktop to 8.5 on mobile and 8.59 on desktop.
  • Local 3-Pack Includes Paid Listings: As Matt Southern reported right here on Search Engine Journal back in June, Google was spotted including a paid result along with two organic results in the local 3-pack. In August, a switch was made on mobile and a paid result was listed at the top of the local pack in the general results.
  • More and More Carousels: Keeping his fingers on the pulse of things, Matt Southern has covered a lot of news around the ever-expanding carousels. From the testing around the “shop the look” experience to the trending news and related stories both appearing in queries via the Google app, we’re seeing the ever-expanding integration of carousels on mobile. Now, one can reasonably argue that carousels are in large part organic results but here’s the thing — the organic ones tend to be publishers as opposed to retailers. So while space is still being taken by organic results, the results themselves will not satisfy a commercial intent. The searcher may head off to visit the site and read more about the Nintendo Switch or whatever their query is related to, but they’ll have to come back for the purchase giving Google another chance to get the AdWords click they’re looking for.

I’m sure you can see the trend: Google is crafting the results layout in a way that minimizes the impact of organic results on commercially intent searchers. It further appears they’re even trying to distract searchers from their commercial intent when they’re passed the paid listing in the likely hope that they’ll return and click a paid ad after they’re done with an informational page. Additionally, they are pulling more of the shopping experience right into Google results pages.

In short, Google is doing everything they can to provide all the information a searcher may want access to while minimizing the impact the organic search has on paid clickthroughs. We’ll discuss this further below but before we get to that let’s move on to pondering the impact of …

The Growth in Voice Search and Personal Assistants

The times, they are a changin’ and so are the devices we’re all using to access the Internet. Let’s revisit once more the quote by Amit Singhal from when Hummingbird was announced:

“Google will keep reinventing itself to give you all you need for a simple and intuitive experience. At some point, pulling out a smartphone to do a search will feel as archaic as a dial-up modem.”

Let’s review some facts:

Mobile Has Surpassed Desktop

StatCounter revealed in a press release back in November of 2016 that mobile Internet usage had surpassed desktop for the first time.

Mobile Internet Use Surpasses Desktop

We can add to this the announcement last fall that Google was moving to a mobile-first index and the writing is on the wall — we’re going mobile and mobile will be the device of choice for both users and Google. Now that alone isn’t the biggest news as it relates to this story but as anyone who’s ever run a search on a phone knows, there are rarely organic results “above the fold.” But the tale gets worse for the poor organic result …

Voice Search Is Taking Off

The folks at Stone Temple Consulting compiled some very interesting data related to voice search. You can read their full study here but here’s the takeaways:

  • Those under 24 are 33% more likely to use voice search in public (51.6% will).
  • 70% of people say they use voice search because it’s fast and less than 20% don’t use it.
  • Another 70% of people (likely some serious overlap) use voice search to avoid typing.
  • Over 60% of people want more results available via voice search and to avoid having to visit a web page.

There are a lot of other interesting findings in the study but those above relate to what we’re talking about here.  Voice search is becoming easier, more common, and more intuitive, and perhaps most importantly — more effective. As searchers find that their questions can be answered well with a voice search and arguably easier than typing (certainly for someone like me with fat thumbs and a tiny little Android keyboard), its use is destined to continue its climb. This is not to suggest it will replace keyboards altogether; there are environments where it’s socially unacceptable to speak your query but even that will change as it continues to gain in popularity and becomes more common.

Personal Assistants Are Here

The biggest change I see on the horizon, however, comes in the form of personal assistants and the growth of voice-first devices. For those who don’t yet have one, voice-first devices like Google Home and Amazon Echo receive voice-based commands and provide audio responses. From telling you the weather or news to listening to music or even ordering a pizza, there is a ton of information and functions that can be served with simple voice requests.  Can you see (or rather — not see) the problem here for SEOs? If we thought adding an AdWords result pushed organic further down the page and made position three that much less visible, imagine when there is no visible top ten at all.

VoiceLabs studied the subject and based on current trends estimate that by the end of 2017 there will be 33 million voice-first devices in circulation. Let’s look at the year-over-year growth this represents:

Voice-First Device Growth

The expectation is that Google will excel at providing intelligent responses to questions as well as providing access to email, calendars, etc. while Amazon will win in the commerce space. Which one wins the overall battle for voice-first devices is yet to be seen, but interestingly, that almost doesn’t matter for how it’ll impact SEO as much as the battle going on to begin with.

In reality, voice-first devices in this format are likely a bump on the road to where the technology is heading. I won’t pretend to be able to predict exactly how interaction between man and machine will evolve. However, I don’t believe it will be in the form of a cylindrical speaker occupying space that could be better used to house a bobblehead of Captain Kirk.

What’s truly important about this growth, however, is the rapid adjustment to these devices and the personal assistant format of communication. Not coincidentally, Google announced their personal assistant being released on all phones running Android 6.0 and above, taking us beyond running simple queries on our phone and onto more complicated communications and interactions with other systems — all in a conversational manner.

Once again, there is no top ten in this format.  In fact, there isn’t even really a top one … there is simply a response.

So What Changes?

Now it’s time to tie this all together. What do machine learning, limited organic space, and changes in voice search and devices have to do with the death of organic search (as we know it)?

Here’s what we’ve covered across these three areas:

  • The Hummingbird algorithm added the ability for Google to understand conversational language.
  • Machine learning allows Google to more quickly react to broad ranges of conditions including device, location, personal preferences, etc. All these things could be addressed without machine learning but never as effectively and never as quickly.
  • Machine learning allows Google to more quickly learn how the real world functions and communicates.
  • The space available for organic search results in the traditional desktop and mobile formats is shrinking and that which remains is being made less visible.
  • Paid listings are occupying more of the prime locations in the search results.
  • Google appears to be trying to distract searchers where a paid listing has not been selected for a query with articles and news as opposed to commercial results.
  • Mobile internet use has surpassed desktop and continues to climb.
  • Voice search use is climbing quickly.
  • Voice-first devices look to more than triple their footprint in 2017.
  • Personal assistants will be added to all modern Android devices.

So, let’s summarize quickly what’s happening: Google is getting better and faster at understanding the data it encounters on the web and how the pieces of it all combine and relate to each other. Further, their understanding of conversational language is improving daily and is already excellent. Machine learning will aid them in making rapid and very personalized adjustments, in identifying which signals determine which information best suits the query and the user, and we end up in a scenario where Google will have a high confidence in the data they are providing.

On top of this, we have continually marginalized organic space, and a move by users towards devices and solutions that involve no selection on their part of the information sent back to them as a result of their request.

Is anyone left wondering why I believe we’re seeing the death of organic search (as we know it)?

So Now What?

What’s extremely important to understand is that there are major changes coming not just in algorithms (that we’re all used to) but in the very way people interact with their devices. We need to assume that for many queries, we won’t have access to the users’ eyes and they may never end up at our site.

Further, we need to discard the notion that the way users view our products now is at all similar to what will be in the near future. Imagine if you will the following interaction:

Searcher: OK Google. Let’s shop for some shoes.
Google Home: Would you like to shop for men’s or women’s shoes?
Searcher: Men’s.
Google Home: Where would you like to see them?
Searcher: Cast them to my TV.
Google Home: Men’s shoes displaying on your TV.
Searcher: OK Google. Just show me the black ones.
Google Home: Filter applied to just display black men’s shoes. Is there a type of shoe you are looking for?
Searcher: Dress shoes for a wedding.
Google Home: Filter applied to just display men’s black dress shoes.  ould you like me to add the date of the wedding to your calendar?
Searcher: Yes. It’s May 20th.
Google Home : Wedding on May 20th added to calendar.
Searcher: I like the black pair on the top right. Where is it available cheapest?
Google Home: That pair is offered from 13 retailers and is cheapest at Steve Madden. They have free shipping on that order.
Searcher: OK Google. Order that shoe in a size 11 to my house.
Google Home: Order confirmed.

This is a likely direction that queries will head. Voice-based search will almost certainly change the way we interact with our devices even for daily commercial searches. Display devices will certainly be necessary but there’s no reason they’ll be limited to computer monitors or mobile displays. The entire interface will be dedicated to only results and the results will likely be drawn from around the web with a high preference being given to those paying for that space.

The key for organic then is to jump in at two specific points:

  1. Q&A points: Google will always want to have answers to questions. Providing content that answers questions or provides tips and information will get you found. Of course, the user may never actually see your site if they’re using voice search. However, some branding is better than being invisible.
  2. Commercial interactions: Of course, you’ll always want to get in front of people at the buy point (especially if you weren’t able to pitch them during the Q&A stage). Obviously, there’s the option to go in through AdWords but we’re talking about organic. Google won’t be able to go 100% paid so the road to commercial terms will be to truly be best in class. The battle will be fierce and the one with the best images, best reviews/reputation, best pricing, and best information will win.

So, in the end, SEO is not dead but it’ll look nothing like it does now. The battleground won’t be for the top ten and in fact, for many queries, there may be no visual result. For others, the device may be highly variable and the result structure fluid based on what’s being displayed, the users receiving the information, and the environment or intent.

I would love to be able to paint a solid portrait of what you need to do now to rank, but that would assume we don’t need to watch the environment carefully and react quickly. That said, a couple things are very clear:

  • You’re going to need content that will rank for Q&A and informational queries.
  • The battle for the searchers’ eyes is going to change dramatically and the quality indicators will change with it. Providing the best possible product images, information, videos, guides, etc. will be what separates the results. There will likely be result sets closer to an image search result than a typical SERP now for e-commerce queries, and other query types will likely also change. Staying on top of these changes will be more critical than ever.

We’re heading into a brave new world where the sites that win will be those that provide something that truly differentiates them from others and can be conveyed not just on multiple device screens but on devices without them. There’s a lot to do so this is a great time to stop reading this article and start thinking about how your site will be judged and what you can do to improve on it.

Image Credits

Featured Image: Adobe Stock
Internet Usage Chart: StatCounter
Voice-First Device Footprint Chart: VoiceLabs

Category SEO Mobile SEO

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Dave Davies

Dave Davies co-founded Beanstalk Internet Marketing with his wife Mary in 2004. He is the Lead SEO for Weights & ... [Read full bio]

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