It sounds like Google’s algorithm is going to change again, and while I don’t believe in chasing the algorithm, I do find the impacts on our industry interesting, but even more so the impact it has on user behavior. The Wall Street Journal’s coverage of changes to Google to get people to stay on site longer to compete against Facebook may actually be a bad strategy for Google and more importantly bad for people. The article implies Google is slowly moving to an answer engine to compete against Siri, and becoming more semantic in nature. While I think for the end user this may be a great idea, it may actually hurt Google financially and it will be interesting to see how this evolves.
So how might this impact Google’s wallet? In the simplest terms Google’s revenue comes from clicks. The way the WSJ talks about these changes to the user experience, Google will provide more content that requires less clicking. Surfacing content to searches, if clicks decrease revenue decreases.
A Primary Source of Revenue
Google’s revenue stream today comes from the hunt and peck approach of clicking links and then validating if the page or content is relevant by the user. The argument in favor of this working out in the long run is that most searches are not actually transactional in nature, and therefore probably don’t have relevant ads showing up on them. While Google says they want to be able to push more relevant ads, the truth is they still make money on non-relevant ones as well, but they only get money if they get clicks.
So what does this mean to you the search strategist? This means from a paid perspective you may see an increase in CPC. Why? Because the competition for clicks will still be as high as before, but the number of available clicks will likely be decreasing. This also means that anyone that employs a top of the funnel strategy where they try and win customers in the discovery or research phase of their purchase cycle are likely to see some drops in traffic. Even more challenging is that Google will now control the message to the consumer instead of leaving it the variety of sites to earn the trust of the user that may actually offer more diversification than Google’s classifications will.
Here’s an example scenario. Say I searched for “things to do in Toronto”. Google’s results may include:
- A list of recommended hotels.
- The top 5 attractions
- The population
- The geographic size
- Other facts about the city.
The hotel list doesn’t really change from local results, but the top 5 attractions, what impact does this have on tourism? Instead of getting a link to a page that may be able to cover a great variety of events, and attractions, we’re now stuck with Google’s Top 5 list. Whether we realize it or not Google is slowly turning our lives into lists, and if you’re not on the list you’re not relevant.
This is why there was a boom in local search when this was introduced. There will be a boom again as it becomes clearer what types of lists Google will focus on. How about entertainment? Or restaurants? Or events? How much of a coincidence that most of these things also have clear schema’s developed?
The Impact to Your World
We know changes to the algorithm also have real world impact as there are countless stories of complaints every time the algorithm changes. Users trust Google so implicitly they don’t question if Google still deserves that trust. As Google gets better at recommending answers and things to do, will users actually get dumber? Will users become more homogeneous? Google already starts to suggest what you should search for as you type, and now they display the results.
Even if Google says they see 20% of searches as new and unique, what volume actually makes up the short head? Further is the head growing? Or are there specific categories of searches that are growing and easily classified? I assume we’ll know as we start to see these search results show up.
Why is it a Bad Thing for Google to Keep Users on Their Site?
It means users aren’t exploring the bigger world. Today a search and a click through can result in a new set of questions, or you can be delighted by clicking a link and not getting what you thought you wanted; but reading about something unexpected that triggers a different search instead. While I don’t think Google is going to impact what users do over night and society as a whole, the fact is Google and more importantly search and the way it impacts our lives can dramatically change what and how we think and learn. If you spend time on Facebook it’s because you want to read about friends, play games or share things about yourself. If I spend more time on Google it’s because I need answers, and while I want them to be as relevant as possible, I don’t mind when Google’s wrong at times, that’s part of the fun of Googling, but I do look forward to the next round of complaints from our industry as Google changes the rules again.