When Page 1 Just Isn’t What It Used To Be

A Cactus By The Window

In 2005, I was still a Yahoo user. Yahoo Mail was my jam. I was also one of the roughly 30% of search engine users who used Yahoo to search online. I even used Yahoo for domain purchases and web hosting. Things would soon change. As it turned out, my entry into the world of SEO was also the beginning of the end of my relationship with Yahoo products.

Search Engine Market Share in 2005

I look back at 2005 as an interesting year in the world of search marketing because it represented the last time that Yahoo and Microsoft (combined) had more market share than Google. In a press release from Aug. 19, 2005, comScore reported the the following market share data:

  • Google – 36.5%
  • Yahoo – 30.5%
  • MSN – 15.5%
  • AOL – 9.9%
  • Ask Jeeves – 6.1%
  • All Other – 1.5%
Search Engine Market Share (comScore, July 2005)
Search Engine Market Share (comScore, July 2005)

It’s funny to think about those days. I can still remember calls with clients where I discussed unique SEO recommendations for each of the big 3 search engines. I can’t remember the exact details, but it was something like “You’ll rank better on Yahoo if you have two H1 tags, and you’ll rank better on MSN if you have more internal links with the target keywords in the anchor.” Lol. That was a fun time.

For a while there, gaming Yahoo and MSN was almost like shooting fish in a barrel. Because Google’s spam filters were so much better than anyone else’s, a lot of SEOs made a ton of money by driving organic traffic solely from Yahoo and MSN, whose spam filters/defenses were less sophisticated and whose 45% market share was still large enough to make the effort worthwhile. But I digest…

Search Engine Market Share in 2018/19

Today, comScore reports that Google has ~63% of the desktop search engine market share. I have also seen some reports that estimate Google’s market share in the range of 70%. While that might seem like a massive market share, it’s not even close to the market share percentages I see in my data.

For the last couple of years, I have been seeing 80%-90% of my clients’ organic search sessions originating from Google. During certain months, I have even seen a few clients get 93-94% of their search traffic from Google. This is why I always get confused when I see Google’s market share reported in the 60-70% range.

What Is Google’s True Market Share?

A few months ago, I finally saw someone address the discrepancies in the coverage of Google’s market share. And he had real data. And it wasn’t just anyone. It was Rand Fishkin. Rand is someone with a big enough influence and reach to actually make this a talking point in industries beyond the world of search marketing.

My favorite part of Rand’s post was that he was able to distinguish the market share between Google and Google Images. Combined, these two sources represent 90% of the searches in the data set he got from JumpShot. Furthermore, Rand also cited corroborating statistics from longtime analytics giant, StatCounter:

This data is backed up by StatCounter’s numbers, so it’s not just Jumpshot saying this is true. 

Rand Fishkin (SparkToro.com, October 16, 2018)

Living by Google’s Rules – Or Not

With Google’s market share at 90%, it forces us into a spot where we have to live by their rules and optimize websites with their TOS and guidelines in the forefront of every consideration and decision. With that size market share, we can’t ignore them. In fact, we are effectively required to focus only on them.

Alternatively, I have read about some SEOs — who are so fed up with Google — they have created eCommerce websites and blocked Googlebot. These SEOs would rather not start an eCommerce business and be at the mercy of Google’s algorithm updates, in which there are often false positives where websites are moved to page 3 and beyond for falsely being identified as websites that have violated Google’s TOS. This happens, and those companies sometimes die because of it.

By focusing on building traffic from sources other Google, some SEOs believe they can create a much more consistent and predictable revenue stream while at the same time not have to worry about the carpet being pulled out from under them by an algorithmic update or algorithmic error. That is not my bag, but I understand the mindset, especially when you read about people who lost their income and had no recourse.

When the One Who Gives…

Google has changed the world. I don’t even think it’s possible to imagine the number of industries, careers, and jobs that have arisen because of Google and the technology it has created in the last 20+ years.

On a much more personal level, Google is the reason I have a job and a career in digital marketing. I’m grateful for that. And, yes, while I have a job because I’m providing a service where there is a demand, Google really helped solidify the need for SEOs in the marketing industry. Additionally, Google’s branding and popularity sped up the entry of thousands of brands into the digital world.

Google's Mission Statement
Google’s Mission Statement

Google’s mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” was such a bold undertaking. Twenty years after they started pursuing that mission, we are much more accustomed to a world where data is everywhere. We see headlines in our feeds telling us how pretty much every company is capturing our data, buying our data, and selling our data. It’s just part of the world we live in now. The idea of finding and organizing guhzillions of data points doesn’t seem so wild now, but back in 1998 the idea of finding all of that data and making it retrievable was downright inspirational.

[On a side note: It is Google’s mission statement that makes me believe SEO will never die. As long as information needs to be indexed, organized, and retrieved, SEO will exist in one form or another, as there will always be companies, brands, systems, and people who want certain information indexed or not indexed, found or not found, and placed higher or lower in the results. It might have a different name, but the concept will be around for a long, long time.]

…Is Also the One Who Takes Away

Earlier this year, I was in a meeting where a VP of Digital asked us, “In your opinion, what is our biggest threat?” My answer: Google. I elaborated to say that Google is now essentially an Online Travel Agency (OTA) , which is clearly a threat to other OTAs, aggregators, travel sites, and hospitality sites. It’s not that Google is selling the products, but they are clearly inserting their own search products into the research path and then basically forcing brands to pay for placements in those products (see: Google Flights).

In July 2010, Google bought ITA Software in order to acquire their QPX software, which provided the data for Google Flights. A lot of people had questions about whether or not this indicated Google was moving into the travel industry and/or whether or not Google would begin ranking its own content over competitors. Here are Google’s responses:

Doesn’t this mean that Google’s long-term plan is to enter the travel search business?
Searches for travel-related information are among the highest-volume queries we receive at Google. We are innovating in a number of ways to make it easier for users to search for travel information and to deliver more useful results to them. It’s also important to note that our goal will be to refer people quickly to a site where they can actually purchase flights, and that we have no plans to sell flights ourselves.

Whatever form it takes, how can Google do something like this without unfairly ranking its own content over competitors?
Our goal has always been to provide users with what we think is the best and most useful information possible. We see opportunities to improve the search experience for users searching for flight information on Google. It’s important to note that our goal will be to refer people quickly to a site where they can actually purchase flights, and that we have no plans to sell flights ourselves.

Source: Google.com, July 1, 2010

Those responses are about as clear as mud. To me, those are straightforward yes/no questions that Google does not answer with a yes or no.

Google Rankings: Now vs Then

I have been exceedingly dubious of Google ever since I realized that in some cases organic search traffic to my sites was declining because Google was appropriating more and more of the real estate in the search results to show additional paid ads.

Here is a real example of this. Below are two Google search results pages for the same keyword – hotels. On the left is a screenshot from June 20, 2012. On the right is a screenshot from today. Take a look:

Google Search Results for 'hotels' (2012 vs 2019)
Google Search Results for ‘hotels’ (2012 vs 2019)

No one can look at this picture and tell me that ranking on Page 1 in the organic listings – for any result (1-10) – means the same thing today as it did back in 2012. The SERPS were much more geared to generating organic clicks. That is not the case today. It’s not like this for every keyword, but this is something that presents problems to marketers who are judging their organic growth based on year-over-year trends. The takeaway: For brands who count on organic search rankings to drive sessions and revenue, don’t believe that a top ranking today will generate as much traffic and revenue as it did yesterday.

For those of us who have seen this play out over the last decade, it’s kinda deflating. What does it mean to achieve or maintain a #1 ranking for a competitive keyword if a mobile user has to scroll past paid ads, map listings, a knowledge panel, and god knows what other widget Google recently created before seeing your hard-earned #1 ranking? In reference to the famous philosophical question about the tree falling in the woods, please allow me to ask one of my own: If I have to scroll down 2-3 screens to see your first position organic listing, is it really even there?

But don’t worry. Despite the seemingly impending doom of being relegated to search results oblivion, I can argue that SEO is even more important now because, if you are able to get into the Top 3 positions and be seen, you can still drive free organic sessions. That is a certainly a competitive advantage that allows you to spend more money on content and other marketing channels. 😉

Bring It Home, Kerry.

On one hand, Google gives us life via organic search referrals. On the other hand, Google ever so slowly takes it away by squeezing the real estate for organic listings. This is nothing new. Organic real estate has always been shrinking, and mobile organic listings change shape and placement all of the time. These slow changes lead to innovations and new ways of doing SEO, and that is exciting.

In the meantime, don’t be surprised if Google’s updates to the layout of the search results continue to cause you some headaches. I have seen several cases where my clients are maintaining current rankings while also earning new rankings, yet seeing a year-over-year decline in organic traffic for the landing pages associated with those keywords. Because Google has such a large market share, the only thing we can really do is go back to the drawing board and continue to find new ways drive visits in the world they are creating. It’s been that way all along. In fact, I probably didn’t even need to write this post. Oh well.

tl;dr

Google is moving further and further away from the concept of giving you leads for free, and because they have 90% market share, this will continue to force marketers to 1) come up with new ideas to get the top organic placements and 2) spend (even more) money with Google’s paid programs to get visibility in search.

A Lesson on Working with Data & People

In the Shade

When I started building digital marketing reports in 2005, I was given what felt like the equivalent of a master’s degree in Microsoft Excel. The person who taught me was a spreadsheet wizard. Within six months, I was already working with large data sets from one of the biggest travel websites at the time.

I will never forget my frustration with Excel’s row limit of 65,536. It makes me laugh to think of the crazy workarounds we came up with to work with and analyze large data sets prior to Office 2007. In fact, I’d go out on a limb and say I was working with “big data” before it had a name (or a hashtag).

Over the next decade plus, I would dedicate over half of my time to answering data requests from clients. The concept of the data-driven marketer was taking over, and there was no going back. I always thought all marketers were data-driven by definition, but digital marketing took that concept to a whole new level.

‘Let Me Get Back To You On That’

“Digging into the data” became a mandatory part of my daily routine, primarily because I worked with enterprise level-websites. I can’t even tell you how many times I have uttered that phrase over the last umpteen years. There is something about large websites that makes it astronomically tougher to diagnose data fluctuations, which is why nearly every data platform attempts to make that process easier and more efficient.

I initially trusted the data. I’m talking about a Truth-with-a-capital-T level of trust. I was young and naive. I did not yet know about the limitations of tracking software, and it’s not like anyone at those companies was going to tell me about their software’s blind spots. Within eighteen months of working as an SEO, I noticed a rising level of distrust within myself about the data and reporting I was creating.

I was enamored by Omniture, Webtrends, Coremetrics, Google Analytics, and any other third party tracking software that let me pull data. Everyone else was, too. However, there was something in the data that just didn’t add up. As a former mathematics teacher–who loves when things add up–I started questioning the data in my clients’ reports, especially when I had evidence.

Losing My Religion

Data is my True North. Metrics are my compass. These things lay the foundation of everything that I do for my clients, so you can probably imagine what it might be like for a person like me when I start to see cracks in that foundation.

While it started slowly, every few months I would see something in my reporting that just didn’t sit right with me. Fast forward to 2014, and I was increasingly skeptical with every report that I saw because I was not sure if the underlying data was 100% accurate. This is when a case study from Groupon confirmed all of my suspicions.

Groupon ran a test where they purposefully de-indexed their website for six hours. When you block search engines from your website for six hours, you expect to see your organic search sessions drop to zero during that timeframe. That is what Groupon saw during those six hours. However, Groupon also saw a 60% decline in “Direct” sessions during that exact timeframe. When the six hour test was over, the “Direct” sessions recovered to their typical levels.

Groupon’s conclusion:

“Our testing shows that, for a site getting in the ballpark of 50% mobile web traffic, the 60% of the traffic to long URLs reported as Direct is probably Organic traffic from Google.

Source: Gene McKenna, SearchEngineLand.com (July 8, 2014)

When I read that sentence for the first time, I swear a part of me died. I had been creating SEO strategies for years based on data that was wrong. Furthermore, my clients and I were not able to see all of the organic search traffic we were driving, as most of it was being tracked as “Direct.” Also, I was in the midst of a months-long quest to find which browsers and operating systems were hiding referrers or perhaps not sending them at all. Now, I realized it was all of the browsers and operating systems–and they all did it differently. There was no way to know!

Regardless, my innate optimism looked ahead to the future, thinking that surely all of these massive companies will figure out how to track things more accurately. I was wrong.

If You Think Fake News Is The Only Fake Thing On The Internet, Think Again.

In a recent article in New York Magazine, author Max Read provides a fascinating look at the world of website metrics. He essentially describes an internet where everything from web metrics to content to businesses to people are fake. For example:

“Take something as seemingly simple as how we measure web traffic. Metrics should be the most real thing on the internet: They are countable, trackable, and verifiable, and their existence undergirds the advertising business that drives our biggest social and search platforms. Yet not even Facebook, the world’s greatest data–gathering organization, seems able to produce genuine figures.”

Source: Max Read, NYMag.com (Dec. 26, 2018)

This article generated an eye-opening response from former Reddit CEO, Ellen K. Pao:

Data validation is something that greatly concerns me. I have worked with dozens of companies that have the most modern and advanced analytics software enabled on their websites. Some companies spend millions of dollars for each years for analytics software. And let me tell you – modern analytics software is highly sophisticated. It’s wildly impressive. However, if I ask to speak to the client-side person who responsible for managing, testing, and monitoring the tracking software on their websites, I often hear crickets.

Here’s a quick challenge: Find someone who knows the complex intricacies of exactly how visitors are tracked on the web, how KPIs are defined in each tracking software, which visitors are most likely to not be tracked or those who get incorrectly dropped in the “Direct” bucket, and how to find and isolate those visitors in each tracking software. Go ahead. Find that person. [Hint: This person is not only a unicorn. This person is a mythical, cycloptic unicorn that breathes fire while doing the latest viral dance from Fortnite.]

Over the last few years, I have started to see more and more companies hire in-house analytics managers, as more and more websites are beginning to truly focus on their data’s accuracy. After all, because data is the foundation of nearly all digital strategies, all steps should be taken to ensure that it is correct.

But why did it take so long to get to this point? I think I have some pertinent insight into that question.

Nobody Wants To Know That Their Data Is Wrong

I am not a quick learner. I’m even slower when it comes to interpersonal social skills. Case in point: It took me at least five years to figure out that people don’t want to know about the quality of their data. Wait. That can’t be true, can it? Maybe it is just my personal experience. But I have a hunch that many digital marketers have come to the exact same conclusion based on real-life situations.

I can’t tell you how many times I ruined an otherwise perfectly good meeting or phone call by bringing up evidence of problems in my clients’ data. In fact, early in my career after I brought up data discrepancies in a meeting, a chief officer sat me down and said: “Don’t bring problems to meetings. Bring solutions. Don’t do that again.”

To this day I have an internal struggle when I discover data discrepancies. Should I bring it up? If so, when? To whom? Is it most effective to do in a meeting or on a phone call? Everything inside me tells me that I should bring it up in an environment where everyone can be informed about it, but I have learned that is hardly ever the best option.

‘Winning solves everything.’ – Tiger Woods

Here’s another nugget I noticed very early in my marketing career: The only time anyone will listen to a data validity issue is when their numbers are down. If the numbers are up, everything must be fine, right? I can’t remember ever being asked about potential data problems when the numbers are trending the right way.

I see this scenario play out in sports quite often. During post-game press conferences, reporters hardly ever throw hardball questions at the winning coach. Only the losing coach gets those type of questions. Because clearly the winning team has no issues.

Sports analogies are fun, but let’s bring this back to our world. You walk in to an important meeting to review and recap a three-month project that involved several teams and a wild new strategy. The results are great. The numbers are amazing. Everyone is happy. The mood is congratulatory. And then you raise your hand and ruin everything.

If there was ever a gif that best described me–there it is.

I am Josh’s complete lack of situational social skills.

This classic scene is, of course, from the Tom Hanks movie, Big, where 12-year-old Josh Baskin wakes up in the body of a 30-year-old man and is forced to navigate the real world as kid trapped in an adult’s body. I can relate to Josh Baskin in so many ways.

Let’s Wrap This Up Already

Today, I know that no one has 100% accurate data. Nothing is perfect. We just have to roll with the data we’ve got. And if we can get better data, let’s do our best to make that happen. Additionally, I have learned that it is (probably) best to not ruin the mood of an otherwise congenial meeting by addressing an issue that brings up more questions than answers and/or brings into question the success of the project. There is something powerful about a team accomplishing a goal and getting together to high five about the amazing results.

Whenever I have questions about anything these days, I do my best to avoid bringing it up in project review meetings. I usually find another time to approach the person who might be able to help me verify the issue before I bring it up to anyone else. I still believe there are times where these things need to be addressed, but I think a lot more about when and where and how to do it.

tl;dr I don’t 100% trust any of the data I see on a daily basis, and I have learned to be very careful about how and when I bring up data issues with clients.

Tell Me About Your Experiences

I’d love to hear your stories about working with data and people, so please leave a comment below – even if it is just to reminisce about the 1988 blockbuster, Big, starring Tom Hanks.