print edition of Globe and Mail newspaper with article by Avery Swartz

Small businesses grapple with the decline of Google’s organic search

by Avery Swartz,
Published in The Globe and Mail, October 21, 2019
Click to read on The Globe and Mail's website

Years ago, Google search-result pages were simple. Web searchers would type in a query and their results would include a few ads at the top of the page, followed by 10 unpaid links to websites that Google believed to be most relevant to what they were searching for.

Google’s algorithm steadily improved, making better matches between search queries and results. This attracted more searchers, which in turn attracted more advertisers. It was a win-win-win scenario. Searchers found what they wanted, website owners received quality traffic to their websites and Google got paid (upon ad clicks).

Google search is now a complex landscape, with many more potential sections appearing in a search-engine result page (SERP). Besides the ads at the top and the 10 organic results at the bottom, a Google search could return results from Google Images, Google Maps, YouTube, Google News, Google Travel, weather, sports, social media and Q&A boxes, all competing for space inside the SERP. This has led to the rise of two things: more clicks going to Google-related properties and more web searches resulting in no clicks at all.

It’s clear who’s winning in this scenario: website searchers and Alphabet, Google’s parent company.

Searchers, particularly those on mobile devices, can now get faster results to what they’re looking for. They no longer have to click through to websites to go hunting for information – they can find answers right inside Google. An estimated 49 per cent of Google searches in the United States in the first quarter of 2019 resulted in no clicks at all.

Google itself is also winning, with an estimated 6 per cent of search results in the same time going to Alphabet-owned properties. It’s one of the reasons 50 U.S. states have launched a joint antitrust probe into Google.

But website owners are no longer winning. It’s estimated that Google sent 20 per cent fewer organic clicks from web-browser searches to websites in 2019 than 2016. How can a small business be seen, found and get clicks to their website in this new ecosystem, short of buying Google Ads?

Toronto-based search-engine optimization consultant Paul Teitelman says the answer lies in the content structure of a business’s website. “It’s about understanding what type of formatting that Google is showcasing,” Mr. Teitelman says. "Once you understand what they’re looking for, you can restructure your own content to respond to that.”

One area that small businesses can appear in Google SERPs is inside Google Maps and Google Business listings. Businesses can create a free listing and submit a company description, location, interior and exterior photos, hours of operation and other details. Having a complete Google Business listing will increase the visibility of an organization in local search results and in Google Maps.

Another prominent piece of Google SERP real estate that a small business may be able to claim is the "featured snippet” box, also known as an “answer box." It’s the area of a Google search that sometimes appears before the 10 organic search results, when a search takes the form of a question.

The featured snippet box displays the question and an excerpt from a website that Google believes best answers the question. These Q&A boxes include a link to the source website. An experiment performed by marketing software company HubSpot suggests that the likelihood of receiving a click is two times higher in a featured snippet box than in organic search results. That could make a big difference to a small business.

To try to appear in featured snippet boxes, website owners should present website content in structured sections. Headings, subheadings and lists are key. Include questions in headings, followed by the answer to that question in a paragraph or a list. That way, Google is more likely to display an excerpt from the website in a featured snippet box when a searcher makes a similar query.

Optimizing website content for featured snippet boxes doesn’t mean website owners need to overhaul their sites. Existing content can be repurposed to be more search friendly, as long as it’s quality content that provides value to website visitors.

“The opportunity to refresh existing content has never been stronger,” Mr. Teitelman says.

Revamping website content for featured snippet boxes has another possible benefit: It can improve the likelihood of appearing in voice search results, which often take a Q&A format.

Consistent change within Google is all but guaranteed, and it can be difficult for a small business to keep up. While organic search will never disappear, it will likely continue to change in format. As search evolves, businesses that adapt their digital content strategy to take advantage of every opportunity for visibility will thrive.