Google has always claimed to be a search engine driven by the user with integrity, organic impartiality, and one that resents paid inclusion. But as they continue to push out new algorithmic and interface changes to suit mobile, voice search and the user experience year on year, the tables are turning.

Click through rates for organic search listings, whilst retaining rankings, are decreasing for a number of businesses in competitive verticals as paid search ads have recently taken greater real estate ‘above the fold’. The cannibalisation of organic real-estate within Google search results has been a consistent over the last few years.

Change is a constant in the SEO world though, so the industry is no stranger to adjusting their efforts to meet with the seemingly constant stream of updates that head their way.

But as Google begins to become more comfortable with paid inclusion, dropping organic blue links from 10 to 8.5 per search query, compounded by the explosive growth in featured snippets & ‘direct answers', potential concerns are arising about what the future will hold for organic search. Should businesses start ‘paying to play’ more? Or continue their efforts with organic?

As we witness an increase in organic listings being pushed below the fold, marketers need to take note that there’s still currently, and may always be, a demand for ‘organic’ from Google’s users.

There’s no doubt that Google favours paid search results as it’s core revenue driver, allowing the organisation to take risky ‘moonshot’ ventures and are slowly structuring their SERPs (search engine results pages) to accommodate more of these. But there’s no need to change anything as of yet. There’s a dependency for search engines to meet user’s queries, particularly around voice search, that paid search just couldn’t meet alone. The fact that users place a higher amount of trust in organic results ahead of paid, still ensures that the search engine values organic. As a clear indicator of Google’s understanding of this need, engineering efforts on their side remain unabated to tackling web content and link spam.

Having said that there will always be a need for organic results in the future, there is still an uncertainty around what that will entail. SERPs will continue to develop and change as Google tries to think of innovative ways to make their desktop experience similar to mobile and provide the most relevant results for the end user. It may be that we’ll see further erosion around organic results for highly commercial queries which Google has already segmented as deserving special treatment.

If Google continues to give special treatment to commercial queries and paid ads, the SEO landscape will become more and more unrecognisable. It could be as soon as half a decade that we’ll see the end of organic listings for those kind of queries. The core driver of this increased and accelerated squeeze on organic may be voice search as Google seek to maintain revenues whilst losing users from traditional SERPs.

But what will an inorganic landscape look like and how will it affect marketers?

Google’s original ‘Don’t be evil’, cited paid inclusion as an original sin, but it clearly no longer views paid inclusion as evil but helpful in the search process having verticalised many of the high ticket elements of search. Flights, hotels, credit cards and more recently local search are all now in direct contravention of that clear business commitment to never play into paid inclusion. Only recently have Google felt compelled to scale back some of that aggressive paid inclusion with investigations from the FTC, FCA and EU antitrust charges.

Google’s ever increasing amount of paid ads replacing organic positioning and the chameleon like colour changing of ad labelling itself is causing a stir within the marketing industry about the ways in which to adjust to an SEO landscape that could potentially be organic-less in the future. However, the threat of an inorganic landscape certainly does create an opportunity to disrupt the incumbent Google, either from current competition or from a new entrant.

Businesses with larger marketing budgets and more sophisticated campaigns will dominate search rankings. Not only will this have a negative impact on smaller businesses with lower budgets and rankings within SERPs but it also could negatively impact startups trying to break out into the space, with increased costs to market entry. We’re already seeing startups struggling to be seen as serious if their core acquisition channel is solely organic by VCs. Paid search acquisition is seen as more of an acid test of the ability of a startup to scale.
A lack of support from VCs could have a detrimental impact on the success of a new business who’m are already competing with long established businesses in their industry for attention. And with more and more businesses already paying now to try and ensure they are positioned at the top of the SERPs, particularly in queries deemed to have high commercial intent, many will have no choice but to follow in order to gain visibility. Which could lead to the failure of many small businesses, unable to compete due to their lack of budget, compared to those who can.

It’s becoming apparent that marketers, who don’t already, need to start introducing paid search as part of their digital marketing mix as paid ads are what Google deem to best suit the user experience. As competition for real estate in paid search is already at boiling point, marketers should start assessing how the threat of a non organic future will affect them and explore the opportunities where they can still see ROI from other acquisition channels, in order to prepare.

Ultimately, to get the most out of search, marketers need to create integrated organic and paid search strategies into their campaigns in order to remain visible in front of their audiences. If the future of search is to be an inorganic one, gaining visibility won’t be the challenge for marketers. It will be the increased cost of that visibility, the runway required and whether it’s even feasible for many businesses that don’t have modelled and highly finessed maturity in order to pay to play.

 

By Simon Schnieders, founder and CEO of Blue Array

 

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