Once upon a time, the major search engines offered website owners a simple deal: let us display some of your data and we'll direct users to your site. That's the way it was for many years, but everything eventually changes. There are those who believe the enhancements that Google (and subsequently some of the less popular search engines) has implemented in recent years does more to keep users moving through their search results instead of clicking directly through to websites.
Make no mistake, it's still possible to pose a query and obtain a list of links to click. There's also now other options to explore more before moving on to that list. Does this significantly change the amount of traffic your pages receive or does it only delay the arrival of those users to your site?
A simple yes or no answer isn't possible. There are too many variables. One thing you can do is understand more about Google's evolution and consider how this different approach to providing search results may be impacting your traffic. Let's take a look at how Google has evolved over the last five to seven years.
Back in 2012, Google implemented what is known as a Knowledge Graph. Basically, the graph is displayed before the links returned as part of a search. A graph has detailed information that may be plenty to provide the user with an answer. That's great for the user, but it also means there is no need to click on a link and actually visit your site.
Two schools of thought exist about the Knowledge Graph. One is that any search engine's ultimate purpose is to help users find answers. If it's possible to do this with a graph, so be it.
The other concept is that the graph actually helps increase traffic. Assuming the information provided answers the question but brings another one to mind, the user will go ahead and click through to your site. Proponents say this happens a lot more than people realize.
The thing is that some of those links actually redirect users back to other Google results. You may be looking for a specific image, but end up with 40 or so to peruse. Click on one and you could find yourself now searching for a related but different type of image. Through it all, you have not left Google's search engine results, but you are definitely not where you started.
Savvy users get around this by changing their browser settings to open a new tab when they click on something. If that click leads them to somewhere they don't want to go, they simply close the most recent tab and go back to the original results. Not everyone likes having to do that and may abandon the search before ever getting around to clicking on your link. That's true, even if it's the first result just below the Knowledge Graph.
Knowledge Graphs beget Knowledge Cards. Sometimes known as answer boxes, they provide a quick and easy answer to a question. If you wanted to know how high a certain song from 1967 charted, you would see a box with a snippet from a website that would likely tell you the name of the artist, the highest chart position, and how many weeks that song was on the chart. It's up to you to click on the link provided and check out other information provided on the website where that snipped was harvested. If you are like most people, you've gotten your answer and won't click on anything else.
Knowledge panels now cover all sorts of topics. You can type in a query about the health benefits of cayenne pepper, signs that you have a certain disease, or when a specific broadcast television show airs. In each case, users get what they are looking for quickly and without having to come to your site.
A specialized type of answer box is known as Live Results. This allows you to get real-time information without having to leave the search engine. For example, if you want to know what the weather's like in Chicago right this minute, a live result box will provide that data. Is there enough snow in Aspen to ski right now? The answer is only a quick query away. What are the latest scores for a sporting event? Live Results will tell you.
If you do click on the results, you could end up at a website, or you could find yourself viewing more content provided specifically by Google. That content may be what is known as a collection of more cards known as a carousel.
As people increasingly rely on mobile devices for Internet browsing and searches, Google tends to display results with the smaller screen in mind. That's led to the development of carousels. An older version displays horizontal results that you can scroll through from left to right. Another approach is a vertical display of cards that you can scroll up and down. Click on any card on your mobile device and it will fill the screen.
There are more changes that keep coming. Many of them provide the information users seek without ever taking them to a website. Users also see images, videos, and related questions that they can click on if they like. While that counts as more traffic for Google, it may not be doing much for hits to your site.
What's the Point?
Google keeps looking for ways to enhance the search experience for more than one reason. An obvious one is revenue. Providing pass-throughs to specific products or information is a more efficient way of making money. It's a lot like clicking on ads, only more subtle. If you happen to sell products and what you have to offer is displayed as the first card on the carousel, you end up with a visit, a sale, and Google makes a little money.
Even if a user is asking a question and yours happens to be the Knowledge graph that is displayed first, clicking through might mean getting more ad revenue. That's true if your site is monetized with Google Ads. That's another way to earn more money and still provide relevant answers to the user.
Other than money, there's the matter of maintaining market share. These days, Google competes with more than other search engines. It also competes with the information a user can find by conducting a search on a social media site. If you are already logged into Facebook to see what your friends are up to, and suddenly want to know if a certain restaurant is open tonight, why leave and go to Google? You can type the restaurant name into the Facebook search bar, find the business page, and find an answer faster.
These newer innovations motivate users to leave a social media site and use Google instead. That keeps the engine viable for more users.
Fair or Not?
Are these changes fair to marketers? It does make the job of driving traffic to sites more complex. Being favored with a card or some type of snippet from a site plus a link could drive more traffic. It could also eliminate any need to visit your pages.
The reality is that these innovations are here to stay, at least until Google comes up with another way to keep users engaged. Your best bet is to work with an industry expert who can analyze your site, come up with ways to harness the potential of the changes, and turn them to your advantage.