Google’s Danny Sullivan tweeted a response regarding an article written by Dr Pete Meyers. The article, published on Moz, was about an increase in search features that push down the traditional 10 blue links. Danny raised interesting issues with the article that deserve to be considered.
What is an Organic Listing?
The first point Danny Sullivan discussed was the definition of an organic listing.
The article defines an organic listing as the traditional 10 blue links that link to a webpage.
Everything else it described as “organic components” or “technically organic” as a way to single them apart from the 10 blue links, which the article regards as organic listings.
To be clear, I respect the work you do. And I appreciate some of the things you highlight in the article. It’s just difficult on the other end to see the first example shows an organic result at the top of the page but read it is 2,938x down because it’s not a web link.
“Your customers probably won’t understand that organic isn’t just web pages if you continue to use organic to mean that. Saying organic listings are “technically” that way or have a “component” — sorry, but it feels like it feeds misunderstandings and confusion.”
“My concern is people who don’t take care to read come away with the idea that organic has diminished when there is organic all over the page. It potentially keeps people thinking backward rather than forward.”
Move Forward Not Backwards
I believe that by “people thinking backwards” Danny means clinging to the idea that SERPs are 10 blue links and ignoring opportunities latent in rich search features.
“Thinking forward” may be the understanding that featured snippets, videos and so on represents opportunities to rank in a different way and get more traffic.
I know for myself that when I search for the name of a song I often look for the green Spotify icon so that I can click that and listen to the song while in the car.
That green Spotify icon isn’t a part of the 10 blue links but it is immensely useful.
Vague Search Queries
Moz’s example of the “worst-case” is a search for the phrase “lollipop.”
The report notes that a user must scroll 2,938 pixels to reach the traditional “blue links” organic listings.
But according to Danny, you don’t have to scroll nearly 3,000 pixels for organic listings.
There are multiple organic listings at the top of the page.
“…when I read something like “While featured snippets are technically considered organic” or the idea that for “Lollipop” that the first listing isn’t the big video listings at the very top of the page, there seem to be some problematic assumptions…”
“Featured snippets aren’t “technically” organic listings. They are organic listings. And ignoring things listings that appear in Top Stories, businesses in local, programs in college displays feels like a dated assessment of how search works….”
Here’s a screenshot of the search results for the search phrase, lollipop:
As you can see in the above screenshot, Google’s search result satisfies five search intents.
- An organic video listing of the song.
- Lyrics for the song
- Links to music services that offer the song
- Link to search results about the song
- Link to search results about lollipop the candy.
Search and Search Intents
Satisfying the search intent for a one-word search phrase is difficult because there is likely going to be multiple search intents.
Google has to identify the most popular intent.
In this case it appears to be the song, Lollipop.
Then Google must satisfy the related and alternate search intents (lyrics, listen on a music service, band information and lollipop the candy).
If you look at the screenshot, it’s evident that Google successfully satisfies five search intents for that one-word keyword phrase.
Search isn’t about linking to websites.
That’s the means to the ends.
The ends in search is about satisfying search intents.
Sometimes that means a link to Spotify.
Sometimes users are satisfied by a link to a video.
An Alternate Look:
The following are my thoughts about the article.
They’re not meant to be criticisms.
They are just thoughts that occurred to me as I read the article.
1. Keywords in the Article are Vague
Basing a study on keywords with vague search intent literally guarantees that the search results will show features like People Also Ask, local business listings, videos, links to music services and so on.
As was pointed out, 10 blue links are not as useful for satisfying multiple search intents for vague queries.
2. Keyword Examples in Article are Not Head Terms
This is Moz’s stated methodology:
“While the keywords in this data set are distributed across a wide range of topics and industries, the set skews toward more competitive “head” terms. “
Judging by the keyword phrases used in the article as examples, the keywords used in the study are short phrases but are not necessarily head terms.
Head terms are phrases that have a large search volume.
What constitutes a head term is defined entirely by the search volume, how often a query is searched.
Moz appears to apply the label “head term” to search phrases that are short but are not necessarily popular.
This is a common issue with how head terms are considered.
It is assumed that short phrases of one or two words have a high search volume.
The definition of a head term has nothing to do with how many words are in the search query. It’s 100% about search volume.
Because people are using more conversational search queries, it could very well be that the vague queries in Moz’s study are not head terms but simply vague terms, which will naturally skew the results toward SERPs with features designed to solve for multi-search intent.
Google Trends Evidence
I checked to see if the Moz article search queries were indeed head terms.
I compared two of Moz’s search phrases, lollipop and vacuum cleaners in Google Trends against a known popular phrase, iPhone Case.
As you can see in the Google Trends graph above, two of the search queries from the Moz article have relatively low search volume compared to the popular phrase iPhone case.
Moz’s phrases are short and vague and contain multiple search intents.
They are arguably not head terms because by definition a head term has a high search volume.
By contrast, the search query “iPhone case” is a true head term.
Below is a screenshot of a Google search results page for that head term:
As can be seen in the above screenshot, Google shows ads followed by the 10 blue links.
The reason Google is showing the 10 blue links is presumably that the search phrase is unambiguous.
Some may point to Google’s search features like local boxes, videos and carousels as if those features are a bad thing because they push down the 10 blue links.
But the reason Google shows features is to satisfy search intents, to meet the needs of the user.
My suggestion is that perhaps these search features that supposedly make the search results “worse” serve a purpose and can also result in search traffic.
3. People Use Conversational Search
Google users are increasingly making search queries that are highly personalized.
Users are increasingly making conversational searches.
The conversational search uses more keywords.
Because conversational search queries contain multiple words the Moz study can arguably be said to not be representational of the state of Google search results because the methodology is “skewed” too short phrases.
Going by the examples provided by the Moz article, it appears that the research uses short and vague queries.
This results in a skewed outcome dominated by SERPs with multiple search features designed to help users with a diverse set of search intents.
It could be argued that an even-handed study would include conversational search.
Are Blue Links More Useful?
It may arguably be unreasonable to assert that search results comprised of 10 blue links is the best way to present a complex search result for a vague query consisting of multiple search intents.
The Moz article presumes that the 10 blue links are the listings that matter and that search features get in the way.
This is implied from the very first sentence:
“Being #1 on Google isn’t what it used to be.”
Moz’s definition of #1 is in the context of the 10 blue links.
The Moz article goes on to say:
“The worst case scenario, a search for “Disney stock,” pushed #1 all the way down to 976px.”
The assumption is that the blue links are important and that everything else that gets in the way of those blue links makes the search results “worse.”
The Moz article states:
“It feels like the plight of #1 is only getting worse.”
Danny Sullivan challenged that view with this tweet:
“Search is about serving info; sometimes a web page isn’t the best source.
Providing refinement options helps users narrow to better info, which helps sites….”
The purpose of the different features is to provide answers for queries that have multiple search intents in a manner that is easily navigated to. That’s useful.
The article itself acknowledges the usefulness of search features at the very end:
“…many rich features are really the evolution of vertical results, like news, videos, and images, that still have an organic component. In other words, these are results that we can potentially create content for and rank in, even if they’re not the ten blue links we traditionally think of as organic search.”
The article notes that there are organic results in the various search features.
It also acknowledges there are opportunities in those search features.
So it’s kind of puzzling that the article spends so much time making the case that search features pushing down the 10 blue links make the search results “worse.”
In my opinion, it is important to break out of the conventional thinking that the SERPs should prominently consist of 10 blue links.
It may be better to approach search marketing from the understanding that the SERPs contain numerous opportunities outside of the traditional 10 blue links.
Those who continue to exclusively focus on 10 blue links are only optimizing for a fraction of what SEO means today.