Google’s War on Free Clicks

Over the past couple of years–or more specifically, in the last 12 months–it seems as though the organic search results have gotten worse. Google, the leader in search with about 65% of the market share, is constantly changing things. It used to be that if you were in the top results (assuming you weren’t doing any black hat stuff), you could generally expect to stay there.

This doesn’t seem to be the case in mid-2012. After the “Panda” and “Penguin” updates–code names for major changes to Google’s algorithm–everything seems to be awry. We’re seeing customers’ rankings slip–even though they had held those spots for months at a time with only minor fluctuations. We were once rewarded for things like adding new and interesting content, optimizing (but not over-optimizing) pages, and getting some reasonable, related links pointing to the site.

Prior to 2012, this was considered “good SEO.” It was an effort that could take 1 or 2 years, but you would be handsomely rewarded by the search engines for sticking with it and doing it right.

However, in July of 2012, it seems as though Google is stretching for anything to help grow their cash cow–Adwords–even if it means altering the results page to gently force those enjoying free clicks to consider paying for ads.

It’s really not that hard to imagine. Consider the fact that this past quarter, Google reported an 11% increase in revenue as investors cheered for the better-than-expected earnings report. A study from Wordstream reports that for the first time ever, paid ads are getting more clicks than organic listings for keywords with high commercial intent. They also produced an interesting infographic about this issue, and we thought we should share it.

Also consider the fact of some other changes Google has “quietly” been making:

1) With the ongoing battle for “privacy,” Google is forcing users to a secure search page, which reduces the keyword query data available for marketers. Now, Adwords is the only place you can get this data reliably in full.

2) Google is reducing the domain diversity in organic search results now. Previously, you could get 8-10 different domains in a result, but now it’s being reduced to 4 or 5. The reason? Google thought it would be better to show 3 or 4 listings from the same website (Read the study that was done on this here).

In the past 12 months, we’ve found ourselves offering customers a hybrid solution that combines both SEO and PPC to get maximum results. The bottom line is that you want to use PPC for short-term lead generation by capturing the visitors who have high intent to purchase, and use SEO to attract buyers in the “early stages” by targeting easier, long-tail searches. In either case, you want to be sure that your website has a way to capture and nurture leads. We’ll write more on that in a future post.

Google Ads and the War on Free Clicks.

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