- July 4, 2013
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The demise of organic search has been widely documented and while it is not in search engines financial interest to give organic search prominence, a recent US directive means that organic search and SEO will be given a resurgence in the coming months.
Current Search Landscape
The introduction of site link extensions by Google which are the quick links underneath top ranked ads as well as map extensions, phone extensions, offer extensions and now in beta; image extensions mean that with all the extra bells and whistles to the standard text ad users eyes just cannot escape paid search. Ads on mobile can take over 100% above the fold real estate and on desktops for competitive terms such as “car insurance” only one organic result can often be seen on a typical screen resolution of 1024×768 above the fold. In many cases as noted in this article only 13% of real estate is organic web results above the fold.
But it is not just the increased space assigned to paid ads that have resulted in an increase in paid search clicks it’s the fact that even for search specialists organic and paid search has become indistinguishable and so indistinguishable in many cases the third ad position is the most sought after ad position as it is the position where searchers believe they are clicking on an organic result but are actually clicking on a paid search.
Action by US Fed Trade Commission
It is this confusion amongst searchers that prompted the recent action by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) which was set up to protect consumers rights in the US on the 24th of June 2012. The FTC wrote to Google, Yahoo and Bing in a warning that could change the trajectory of the increased clicks on paid search ads on Google and all other search engines.
The letter stated: ”Consumers ordinarily expect that natural search results are included and ranked based on relevance to a search query, not based on payment from a third party. Including or ranking a search result in whole or in part based on payment is a form of advertising. To avoid the potential for deception, consumers should be able to easily distinguish a natural search result from advertising that a search engine delivers."
The lack of visual cues and text labelling has been criticised by The Federal Commission as it states in the past year, the tendency for search engines to put adverts immediately above "natural" results – as Google and others do – has led to more than half of users not being able to recognise them as adverts. In a survey by the FTC, nearly half of searchers said the background shading for adverts was white – exactly the opposite of the correct answer, where paid ads above "natural" results are differentiated on almost all search engines by having a contrasting non white background to organic search results. Paid adverts on the right of natural search results have a white background on Google, Bing and Yahoo.
This isn’t the first enforcement notice issued by the FTC. Google has been under pressure to change their presentation of search engine results based on the Federal Trade Commission legally binding ruling in January of this year. This new letter by the FTC further heightens the pressure on them to clear any ambiguity in their presentation of search engine results and as we all know what is ruled in the US reverberates around the world.
Will this mean a decline in paid search? Well, Google has maintained high standards of relevancy on its paid search ads and there has become an increased trust amongst users for paid ads especially when people realise how frequently they were actually clicking on paid adverts. So it doesn’t automatically mean that paid search ads will be shunned and since ad extensions have become prominent since 2009 it doesn’t automatically mean that CTRs on paid search ads will drop significantly.
What it can mean for paid search is that branding becomes more important than ever online and those brands that are not recognisable or appear honourable will receive less clicks than brands and websites that prompt brand recognition. This will mean that more than ever search will not exist in a silo and an integrated approach across all advertising mediums will be required.
Further if organic search will see a resurgence it will bring to the forefront the importance of content marketing and as search engines seek social signals to determine webpages and websites authority rather than websites actively endorsing each other, it will generate a more creative approach to search engine optimisation than before with the emergence of social and search. Also for brand related searches it might also mean that as the organic search result is more prominent it will reduce the CTR on brand search terms which can be in excess of 60% for paid ads, thus reducing the cost of clicks that are being cannibalised from the organic result.
For mobile and tablet the implications may not be as significant unless search engines are forced to have some organic search results above the fold, however Google will still be forced to clearly label that even if organic results don't appear above the fold that they are paid ads that are being presented.
So while it seemed like organic search was in terminal decline, with this legal ruling, SEO has now been revitalised.
Read the two Federal Trade Commission letters here: