If you attract visitors with content, Google is eating your traffic

At some point, Google’s basic mission changed. It started by making the web easily searchable, so you could find the website with the information you wanted as quickly and smoothly as possible. That was a mission that suited those of us with the patience to create great content to attract an audience. Google was our friend.

Of course, that was always an illusion. Google is a highly efficient and hungry business. 

Eventually it decided that other website owners were really just the middle man between them and their user. They could cut the middle man out simply by directly answering people’s questions.

It started with certain easily answered queries. If I typed into Google “what’s $100 USD in GBP?” it would just tell me the answer. It would also give me links to websites that do conversions. But I wouldn’t need to go there, because it had already told me the answer.

There’s no doubt, that is very useful and convenient for the searcher. None of them are searching for your website, they’re searching for the answer to a question. At least most of the time.

Now Google has gone further along this road, and it is starting to impact content-driven website. You will have noticed when you have used Google recently that, for many queries, there will be a specially highlighted summary answer at the top of the query. This is a Google snippet. Google has selected what it believes to be the most authoritative source and highlighted it right at the top as being the answer to your question. For many questions, the Google snippet gives you the information you need and you don’t even need to click through to the website it’s drawn from. Either way, it is the snippet that draws the attention.

The evidence is that queries that now create a snippet pass smaller amounts of traffic through to content pages than they did pre-snippet. For instance, one page on the mallenbaker.net website that has for 15 years ranked well for searches on ‘definitions of CSR’ or ‘what is corporate social responsibility’. This search now has a snippet, drawn from the Financial Times. As a result, there has been a full 50% decline in traffic to that page as a landing page over the last 12 months. 

At the same time, searches on ‘arguments against CSR’ which has, for the same time period, brought people to an appropriate landing page on the same site now also has a snippet (to add insult to injury, the snippet is drawn from a page that features a copy of the diagram created by the author of the page it’s diverting traffic from - the diagram features on the snippet!). That has seen a drop of 45% over the same timeframe - only slightly less than the first one, even though the page continues to hold top slot for the organic search result.

For the search on ‘skills you need to work in corporate social responsibility’ traffic has remained steady over the last year. When you carry out that search, you find that mallenbaker.net has captured the Google snippet for that topic, as well as being the number one organic result.

The search ‘Nike and child labour’ has also held steady - in that case, there is no Google snippet and the mallenbaker.net site remains at number one position in the organic search.

So what are the implications for content-driven sites that rely on Google prominence for their traffic? Principally that the world has changed, and you’ll have to adapt your strategy to continue to do well.

If you have content that fits in with the classic question-type queries “what is x?”, “how do I x?” etc. - and you were previously seen as authoritative enough to rank highly in organic search - then you will want to optimise your content to be in line to capture the Google snippet. This is a subtle art, as Google gives no information on how snippets are selected, and it demonstrably doesn’t come down to data structures or common SEO features such as backlinks. It’s also the case that featuring as the top organic result for a search doesn’t guarantee selection - although being in the top five gives you the best chance. It does, however, respond well to pages where the content is structured very logically as an answer to the question - particularly when there is a concise summary.

To test this out, we redrafted the ‘arguments against CSR’ post - leaving all the text the same but posting a short summary of key arguments at the top of the post. After two weeks we checked back - and the page had successfully captured the snippet for that search. It just shows that structuring your information carefully can now make a big difference to your results.

Obviously, capturing the Google snippet is akin to chasing the number one slot. Only one is going to be successful. The additional strategy is to target other related long-tail searches where there may be less competition for selection or, quite simply, where there is unlikely to be a snippet at all.

That implies careful analysis of your keyword strategy, reviewing Google’s current behaviour around it, and adapting your strategy accordingly.


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