Doing business online has become more challenging these days. In the past, getting a first page ranking on Google for your website was not too difficult if you had decent content, used effective online marketing techniques and good white hat SEO. These days however it is not so easy, partly due to Google’s increasingly complex algorithms that ‘change the goalposts’ and make online visibility that much more challenging, as well as making paid ads look like part of the organic results; and partly due to other factors, like increased competition, and the fact that Google itself has transitioned from a search engine to more of a portal, providing a range of services and solutions themselves, and giving people the answers they seek before they even click on a website. All is not lost however, there are other ways of increasing your online visibility, like using an online business directory like the Yellow Pages, investing in Mobile Apps, or using paid ads or social media. Not being reliant on a single channel for your online presence and diversifying is the key.

Google

Google is and has been the dominant search engine for a long time, and it does not look like that is going to change anytime soon. If you talk to some marketers about why it is harder to get a good page ranking on Google these days, many will say that it’s due to Google’s increasingly complex algorithm. As Google rolled out and expanded their advertising (Adwords), their algorithm changed to push and facilitate their advertising revenue, and organic traffic and a good ranking became more challenging. Google’s Core Algorithm Update of March 2019 had a significant effect on search results, particularly for health related websites. There are many that lost half of their SEO visibility in the weeks that followed that update, while other health websites actually made significant gains. Analysis has indicated that Google’s algorithm are favouring websites with a higher level of trust and stronger brand, meaning that niche websites are losing out, but known brands like the Yellow Pages are more visible following the March Google update. With Google’s updates having such a significant impact on search results, when Google announced another update to their algorithm in June 2019, many SEO experts panicked, envisioning another obstacle in their path to online visibility.

This was not the only issue however, at the same time more and more big businesses created an online presence, and blogs, blog networks, online media, and agencies pushing their sites and content drowned out SMEs and professionals. In 2012 there were approximately 644 million websites worldwide and that has tripled over the last six years to 1.8 billion websites. As the world wide web evolved, additional players/stakeholders entered the stage such as knowledge sites (i.e. Wikipedia), comparison sites (i.e. PriceGrabber), guides (i.e. TripAdvisor) and many others with large amounts of content and big budgets, but there is also the myriad personal sites, NGOs, organisations and governmental sites, and let’s not forget the dubious dummy sites, #### sites, spam sites and similar.  All in all, it adds up to a lot of competition for consumer attention for the average online business.

Google encourages sites to publish unique content as part of good SEO practice and ranking, and with increased competition, the job of marketers has become harder. But the reason SEO is now tougher is only partially related to Google’s algorithm change. Google has made some strategic changes to their layout that has affected most online businesses. 

Google SERPs (Search Engine Results Page) has always been a combination of paid results and organic listings, but the positioning of the number 1 organic result has certainly changed over the years. Back in 2013, the first organic result would have appeared after around 2 or 3 paid results, but conduct a random search now, and with more paid results appearing and other layout changes (more on those in a moment) the first organic listing is much further down, drastically so. You may also notice that paid results blend in more on the SERP than they used to, and whereas research shows that consumers prefer clicking on organic links, if they cannot tell the difference it makes it harder to gain traffic organically. Another change hampering the efforts of SEO specialists is the number of organic search results that appear on the first page. Traditionally there would be around 10 organic listings on the first page, but recent analysis shows that increasingly that number is a lot less. Not that long ago, only 2% of first page SERPs had less than 10 organic listings, now that figure has risen to over 18%!

For mobile search, Google has also made changes by removing the green line (link address display) between the title and description, which was a clear indication of the organic search results. They also added the little favicon. These small changes ensure that the paid adverts blend in with the organic, especially as their advert indication is a small black and white “ad” icon that is displayed in the same place as the favicon icon.

Now we come to the layout changes that are the some of the biggest threats to online businesses: the Google Knowledge Graph and ‘Featured Snippets’ also known as ‘Answer Boxes’. Google launched their Knowledge Graph in 2012 using data from trusted sources, which at the start benefited some platforms/sites such as Wikipedia. However, the Google Knowledge Graph/Panels marked two very important shifts. Firstly, searchers have access to rich information and answers without ever visiting an external site. Secondly, Google started to aggressively link back to its own resources/Google properties, such as Google Images and Maps. Featured Snippets are a more recent innovation where selected search results are featured above the organic results, but below the ads, in a box, in the form of a paragraph, list or table. The aim of Featured snippets is to answer the user's question right away. It is no surprise then, that since consumers can get a lot of information from Knowledge Graphs/Panels and Featured Snippets,  a recent analysis of Google clickstream data in the US (on 10 million desktop and Android devices) found that 49% of all Google searches are no-click! 

So, with Google’s aggressive internal linking and self-contained in-search experiences, we can conclude that Google no longer views SERPs as a path to a destination, the search results now are the destination. This represents a radical shift in the nature of search engines; their previous algorithm and warning to website owners/administrators against using duplicate content, copyrighted content, over optimisation or use of black hat SEO techniques, would seem to not apply to Google itself. In fact, some analysts say that Google is more Portal than Search Engine now. This shift is expected to continue and expand over the coming years, making it a monumental struggle for any business, especially SMEs and professionals, to obtain a good ranking, and even if they did, they would constantly be in the shadow of Google Adwords or other Google properties. 

When you consider all of the above, conducting business online has become complicated and challenging for most companies and professionals; and even if they make a concerted effort to build an online business through a website using the latest applications, unique content, white hat SEO in combination with social media and apps and other marketing tools, they are not guaranteed good online visibility. Businesses could spend thousands if not millions and still not be assured that their target consumers would be reached or their ROI.

The Challenge

Despite all of that, it does not mean SEO is redundant, but it does mean you should not rely on it to make your business a success. Primarily you will need to adapt your SEO strategy to deal with the new and changing algorithms, and optimise your pages for Featured Snippets. For organic SEO to be effective, make sure that your writers are creating great content that is authoritative and comprehensive enough to compete for organic visibility. For those despairing at the extra effort it will take to craft an effective SEO strategy, just remember that nearly 44% of the world’s population is not online yet; that is a significant number of people who will likely be using Google as a search engine in the future, and more people that could be clicking on your organic listings!

Ultimately though, the best approach to deal with the constantly evolving online landscape is to develop a long-term strategy that encompasses a multi-channel approach. You shouldn’t be relying just on organic SEO to get traffic to your website and gain customers. Consider using online business directories like the Yellow Pages to reach more customers. The Mauritius Yellow Pages does not use algorithms to favour or penalise any particular business, your business page can be as effective as you want it to be, and the more content you include, the more potential customers are likely to find you. Using Mobile Apps is another solution for avoiding the Google quandary, an effective app can help you build a stronger brand and connect more easily with customers. The most successful businesses have diversified their marketing and use a combination of business directories, mobile apps, paid ads, social media, and other mediums to increase their brand exposure, so, the trick is to not be reliant on a single channel, but diversify.