In any given week there can be dozens of articles written across the SEO industry about changes in traffic or ranking and how it might be the latest Penguin or Panda or Chupacabra update.
There are even entire tools built with the aim of tracking how much change is occurring within organic search at any given moment.
While these updates and tools sometimes lend themselves to shining a light on specific optimizations SEOs should be looking to make for their sites, more often than not the reporting surrounding potential updates seems aimed at explaining performance fluctuations SEOs might be seeing.
As a research analyst responsible for understanding how the search landscape is shifting and the impact of updates on performance for brands, I obviously understand the benefit of knowing when something out of our control is impacting our data.
Indeed, Merkle’s own Dave Coppedge wrote Monday on rising dark search traffic from the Google app and the apparent resulting declines in organic search visits just yesterday. This is an important trend to be aware of in assessing recent mobile organic traffic.
To that end, however, I would argue that SEOs should be keeping their ears to the ground for paid search updates as much, if not more, than they do for algorithm updates that more often than not impact only a small share of searches.
This has been particularly true over the past year, as Google’s ad updates have done more to impact the overall organic ecosystem than anything else.
Expanded Text Ads Primed to Increase Text Ad CTR
Formally announced by Google recently, Expanded Text Ads (ETA) radically change text ad specs from one 25 character headline and two 35 character descriptions to two 30 character headlines and an 80 character body.
The resulting ads are much wider on desktop and take up an additional row of vertical space on mobile devices.
Google itself cited as much as a 20% increase in CTR for these new ads compared to old text ads, and particularly on mobile the format seems likely to garner clicks that might otherwise go to organic links as the organic results get pushed further down the page.
As advertisers move to adopt the new format, SEOs can very likely expect organic traffic to take a hit, and performance evaluations in the months to come need to take this into consideration.
This is just the latest in a long line of Google ad updates that are impacting organic performance perhaps more than any algorithm update over the past year.
Your Mobile Organic Growth Probably Slowed Over the Past Year, and It Has Nothing to Do with Rankings
Starting in mid-2015 Google began to overhaul its search results on mobile devices, most notably:
- Doubling the size of Product Listing Ad units on phones
- Increasing the frequency with which it triggers PLAs
- Adding a third text ad above the organic links where there used to be only two.
- Increasingly featuring the Local Pack at the top of the SERP for queries which display local intent
Aside from the enhanced prominence of the Local Pack, these moves dramatically improved mobile paid search growth, and continued to drive the impressive Y/Y Google paid search trends we observed in our Q1 Digital Marketing Report, including a 33% increase in overall clicks.
However, all of the above updates pushed organic links further down the SERP on mobile devices, in turn reducing mobile organic visits - once the golden goose of organic growth.
All told, Y/Y organic visit growth on phones went from +63% in Q1 of 2015 to -1% in Q1 2016. Likewise, overall Y/Y organic visit growth fell from +12% last Q1 to -7% in Q1 2016.
Regardless of SEO efforts, these updates had a substantial impact on organic visits for most websites.
Organic Data Only Makes Sense Alongside Paid Data
If the massive swing in mobile organic visit growth over the past year has taught us anything, it’s that organic search success and failure can only be determined when taking into account paid search updates and results.
The latest episode of just such an update stands to be the rollout of Expanded Text Ads, which will likely accelerate paid search Y/Y click growth at the expense of organic search visit growth.
Paid search managers everywhere are already preparing for the impact to performance and adjusting expectations and budgets accordingly.
SEOs, as well, should be bracing for the change and ready to account for it in performance reports.