August 2nd, 2019

There has been great outcry from industries that are seemingly under attack from the Big G. The search engine is constantly improving their service for searchers, offering flight comparison, job boards, books and more. This is all well and good for the users that make up 3.5 billion searches a day. However, it can be detrimental for platforms that have built their businesses on providing this service. But are Google really stealing traffic from publishers?

As we discussed in our post on featured snippets, Google claim to be conscious of their potential to alienate publishers…..in relation to their featured snippets. They were open that they need to work with publishers, so that Google are able to provide information within the SERPs whilst also encouraging click throughs to the publisher’s website. The theory being that if featured snippets result in lower traffic to publishers, eventually publishers will get disillusioned with publishing content (because they receive limited value from it). In turn, without the publishing of valuable content for the user, Google has no content to scrape and include directly in the SERPs. A vicious theoretical cycle. Therefore it makes sense that Google (and Bing) would want to work with their ecosystem rather than against it.

That argument is believable for featured snippets, but we’re not quite sure how they’ll spin it with regards to portal functionality such as Google Flights and Google Jobs.

How is google stealing traffic?

There are considerable variations in the way in which Google are supposedly stealing traffic from websites. These come in the form of information being displayed directly in the SERPS, such as instant answers and featured snippets. According to Jumpshot and Sparktoro, these are increasing the percentage of no-click searches to as much as 50%. Google have also moved into a number of industries, most notably travel and recruitment. They have incorporated aggregator functionality directly into the SERPs, allowing searchers to refine their search and see prices, availability and jobs through Google.

Add to this the “people also asked” accordion which features only a single result, as well as voice search, Google-owned websites and the Knowledge Graph, and you can start to see why some webmasters are getting the wiggles.

In short, in around 12.5% of queries, Google is scraping content from websites and providing it directly to searchers within their results pages. In other situations they have developed marketplace comparison functionality within the results pages.

Who stands to lose out?

In my view, there are two types of losers. Those that are having image or text based content scraped from their site and displayed in featured snippets (they may also win from this), and the more directly competitive aggregator sites.

Featured Snippets

The main conversation around featured snippets is the rise in no click searches. The issue being that users no longer have to click through to the publisher’s website in order to access information. To an extent it is pretty hard to argue with this fact. Google are not soliciting the content as their own. They do add a link to the website, but it’s not really the same as traffic on your site is it?

As Jayson DeMers commented, the traffic that wants an instant answer is unlikely to be your most sought after traffic, which is a rather large mitigating factor in this conversation. We should also take into account that only around 12.5% of queries currently display a featured snippet.

Featured snippets also provide a large opportunity for SEOs and content marketers alike. As discussed previously, when targeted properly they can result in significant traffic boosts and brand awareness. Sure, the rise in no click searches will be a concern to publishers. In comparison to the following attack on aggregators, featured snippets seem like something we should just adapt to.

Google Flights

It appears that it is the aggregator sites that stand to lose the most. Jessica Bowman from In-House SEO and Search Engine Land commented that Google is becoming less of a search engine and more of a portal. This certainly appears true within the industries that they are actively expanding. Google ‘flights from London to New York’ and the effects are clear. Taking up a considerable amount of real estate at the top of the organic results is Google’s ‘Google Flights’ functionality. You can enter your basic requirements and voila, Google gives you prices from various carriers. Your menu options also change to include Google Flights:

Normal Google toolbar:

Normal Google Toolbar

Google Toolbar for Flights:

Google toolbar with flights
Google flight info in SERPs

Click on the link and you get taken to Google’s very own walled garden:

Google flights walled garden

Google flight info in SERPs

This is clearly in direct competition with the likes of SkyScanner, Expedia and Kayak. The same is true for jobs. Google jobs offers the same portal as the likes of Reed and Indeed but then are able to expand with similar job searches. These are the types of aggregator sites that are under direct threat from search engines. Whilst they may complain that Google needs not steal their revenue, the information they provide is by no means unique.

Google Hotels

It is a slightly different story for hotels. Google still offer a similar platform in terms of user experience and aggregated prices. The difference is in the amount of steps needed by the searcher. Unlike flights where you are sent directly to a booking page for an airline, with hotels it appears that the content still originates from these aggregator sites (booking.com, hotels.com, opodo.com and the likes). It’s therefore not quite a seamless experience because you often have to click multiple times to see information/book hotels.

In fact, on closer inspection, these sites are paying to advertise their prices on Google:

Ads in Google Hotels

Google also pulls hotel reviews from a number of different providers:

Hotel reviews in Google Hotels

We are confident though that these guys are next in line. As soon as Google starts pulling data from end providers, these aggregator sites will fail to be of use to those that are not already loyal to them and still use search for this type of action. Of course, these aggregators may have preferential pricing with suppliers so it isn’t quite as simple as pulling data. Google is full of clever people – they can probably figure it out. They’ll scrap the advertising and start to pull commission directly from hotels.
Google Jobs
It’s a similar story with recruitment. The SERPs have now become a marketplace…for marketplaces. I know that’s what the SERPs were doing previously but there’s something different about Google providing a portal through which the searcher can refine their requirements, especially when you can enable email notifications with a single click. Can you blame them for doing it? I guess not, it’s good for the searcher.

Update 13/8/19: According to Reuters a 23 job search sites have complained to the European Union Competition Commissioner that Google is ‘unfairly’ restricting users and therefore revenue through their tool which sits at the top of search results.

Google jobs in search

Is everyone at danger?

We’ll put ourselves out there and say no. Content publishers can utilise featured snippets to great effect. There will be winners and losers in this situation of course, but it simply puts more emphasis on providing the very best solution possible to a given query.

The ones that definitely need to worry are the aggregators. Think financial products or what in SEO terms are called ‘Your Money or Your Life pages’. In the UK you could quite easily see the likes of Compare the Market and Money Supermarket suddenly seeing Google as a direct competitor.

We should not make light of the potential downfall of aggregator sites, but there is the possibility that they will ultimately be viewed as collateral damage in a much larger problem. The scary, and very real possibility, is that Google becomes the go to platform for your day to day comparison. We already use Gmail, Google Maps, Google Home and more. There seems to be something very eerie about Google eventually providing us with everything. They’ve even started to move into food delivery. I personally don’t mind using Gmail and Maps, but there has to be some sort of variety in our digital lives.

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