The Decline of Organic Search Results

by Mark Fordice


If your business depends on Google and Bing organic (unpaid) search results to send you traffic, you likely have seen a decline in this free flow of clicks to your site over the last year.   This may be true even if you are working hard on your search engine optimization (SEO).  What’s the reason for this decline and what can you do to fight it?

In the past, you could partner with an SEO firm and they could help you optimize your site to be searched by Google and others.  They would show you how to add relevant and timely content so your site stayed fresh.  And by forthright or not-so-forthright means, they would link back to your site, improving your rankings, and driving more traffic to your business.  All was good. That traffic to your site was close to “free” and it certainly felt organic.

Times have changed.  Two vigorous forces are pushing organic search results further and further down the page and out of the click zone.  The first factor is what some are describing in a change in behavior, both between the publisher and the consumer.   As Aswini Anburajan described in 2013, search traffic itself is in decline.  In fact, Anburajan a 20-30% decline in search traffic between late 2012 and early 2013.  She argues that this may be due to the searcher looking more and more in social places for information.  Similarly, if publishers shift their marketing investment from SEO to more social methods, that could explain the shift in search traffic.

The second change is with the search engines themselves.  Google earns a tremendous profit from paid search traffic.  They are in the advertising business, not the search business, really.  So the natural inclination is to increase the number of paid search opportunities on each Search Engine Results Page (SERP).  Google began reducing the number of non-paying first-page organic results years ago.  In 2013, we saw a decline in Bing’s organic results as well.  As Randy Kohl describes, search engines have been, “shifting organic search results down the page, or in some cases reducing the number of organic links altogether”.  Consider a recent search in Google:

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Given all the real estate on my screen, there appears to be only three legitimate organic results that take me to a real chiropractor in my area.  And two of those (in blue) are location based, in this screenshot.  Paid ads, in green, dominate the space.  And this trend will likely only continue as the search engines introduce their own results up and down the right side of the page.  While Google knows that it will remain uber-popular as a search engine as long as the searcher is satisfied with the search results, the never-ending desire to increase profits will continue to squeeze out organic results.

So there is less search traffic, and more of it is paid.

Don’t be mistaken:  Organic search won’t go away.  There will always be space for organic.  But the organic clicks you want, representing real customers who are looking to purchase in the near future, are fading.  The search engines are accelerating capitalism and the survival of the fittest.

So what’s a marketer supposed to do?  At the SEM/PDX Searchfest conference in February, we heard the message clearly, again and again: digital marketers need to open their wallets and compete.  That means strategically paying for useful clicks.  Companies who aren’t advertising through paid search are surviving on referrals, direct sales, networking, and other traditional methods.  Those methods remain valid.  Yet to reach prospective customers online, SEO is fading while paid search arguably becomes more and more critical.

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