Digital Marketing

Is Google Driving Small Brands Away With the Rise of Rich Search?

The TL; DR summary

The SERPs are now different. The millions of smaller businesses who depend on search engines for their
traffic may see significant consequences as a result of the dominance of search features on the results
pages of the large search engines, notably Google.

In both organic and sponsored search, Google has always offered a very equal playing field for smaller
businesses. However, the adjustments run the danger of severing Google's long-standing partnership
with these smaller businesses and shifting the scales decisively in favor of the bigger brands.

What have changed, how have they affected things, and most importantly, what can you do about it?

A Seismic Movement

Marketers often refer to "the year of." There are already 3.6 million Google results for the phrase "the
year of mobile," so I've lost track of how many years have passed since then. Soon, there will
undoubtedly be a frenzy of articles discussing what 2019 will be "the year of."

I'll shamelessly hop on the bandwagon and announce retroactively that 2018 was the year of the
expanded search function even if such claims are of dubious value and make for interesting headlines.

In previous years, Google has been quietly enhancing the SERPs, gradually adding more and more
characteristics that go beyond the conventional "ten blue links," but starting at the end of 2017 and
throughout 2018, they really outdid themselves.

These Changes

Many of the improved in-search experiences that we are now experiencing aren't really brand-new, or
at least they have been in some capacity for some time. The following is a partial list:

Graph Knowledge (and derivatives like Knowledge Cards etc.)
• Actual Results (weather, sport and more)
• Cartwheels (everything from songs to products)
• Issues and Solutions (including featured snippets)
• Improved results from standard searches (rich snippets)
• Films and videos (which makes heavy and exclusive use of YouTube videos)
• Local outcomes (again, only available via Google Maps
Search Engine My Business

• A range of tools (including a mortgage calculator)
• Individualized search portals (including among many others Google for Jobs, which rolled out in the UK
earlier this year)

But what is brand-new is how much weight Google has given these findings over the last year or two.
This (and the accompanying significant declines in organic CTRs and click share) actually began, in Spark
Toro's opinion, around the end of Q4 2016.
However, 2018 has shown that this change in the SERPs is not a one-time occurrence, a blip, or a test.
It's not uncommon for Google to test something for a while before changing their views (remember 300
character Meta descriptions?). It's a significant change in direction, and for the time being, it's here to

In addition to organic results, Google has been experimenting with new enhanced features in its
sponsored search advertisements (more on that later). Currently, this is happening to a much lower
scale, but I wouldn't be shocked if it increased over the next months.

The justification thus makes logical, but is it helpful?

The Philosophical

All of this is consistent with Google's evolving philosophy, which is the "answers, not just links" strategy,
as it strives to transition from a search engine to an answer engine.

This is partially caused by the voice search industry's rapid expansion. The expanded search tools enable
Google to quickly and authoritatively offer single* responses since the conventional 10 blue link style
doesn't function well with voice queries.

* Google began offering numerous response alternatives to unclear questions or on contentious issues
more recently, but the overall result is still rather similar.

Google is attempting to respond to user questions directly from the SERPs rather than diverting them to
other websites. While Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMPs) have received widespread support in certain
circles, they have also drawn criticism for the same reasons in other circles. As Google begins to fence
consumers within the SERPs and prevent them from seeing the information that those same SERPs are
based on, this in turn is a component of a more worrying "walled garden" strategy.

On a distinct but related issue, Google's recent shift in emphasis—which includes renaming AdWords as
Advertisements and attempting to shake off the stigma that it is "simply" a search engine—is also ads ppc reflected in the improvements to sponsored search ads the company is testing.

The Effect

In the world of digital marketing, change is inevitable, and if you don't like it, you're definitely in the
wrong position. However, sometimes change isn't just disruptive; it's downright harmful.

Rand Fishkin and Dr. Peter J. Myers, to name just two, have both made great arguments about the
possible negative repercussions of these changes to organic marketers. I'm not the first to voice worries
about these changes to the SERPs.

You should look at both of them, in my opinion. The effect this will have (and is already having) on the
smaller enterprises, however, has received less attention.

• Organic Effects

By search query length and industrial sector, the size of the organic influence does vary greatly. While
other categories are mostly unaffected, weather and sports searches have witnessed dramatic
decreases in organic CTR.

What is certain is that, even while a small number of users may gain greatly from appearing in one of the
improved search features, total organic traffic to the links that are listed far down may suffer, especially
on mobile devices where screen space is already at a premium.

Of fact, this has always been somewhat true: Google is unable to treat every single result for a search
phrase equally. Those on the first page have consistently had a far greater click-through rate (CTR) than
links buried in the pages below, and links performed better the further up on the page they were.

But these new adjustments vary in three crucial ways.

They start by significantly reducing prime positioning. Features on SERPs are simply… huge. It's more of
a squeeze than ever since screens haven't really gotten any larger (in fact, with the development of
smartphones, they've become smaller).

The first organic link for certain queries now requires scrolling through five or six mobile screens of
highlighted snippets, structured snippets, knowledge cards, and (ever larger) advertising; this is more
than most users, it would appear, are willing to accomplish. The competition for premium search space
has never been more intense. Check out our post on the top SERP checkers as well.

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