ICYMI: In respect to SEO, Google has no chill, especially in the Hospitality and Travel industries. It’s undeniable and the proof is in the SERPs. In this post, we’ll be looking at five major experiments, tests, and updates to the SERPS that are impacting organic search trends:
- Four text ads above the Local 3-Pack; with organic listings below the fold
- Hotel ads moving from the Knowledge Panel to above the organic listings
- The Google Flights box getting more and more real estate
- The Adwords Local 4-Pack
- A Paid Ad spot located in the Local 3-Pack
But first, let’s take a look at the vanishing organic ‘above-the-fold- real estate for this ‘dallas hotels’ search (see below).
Additionally, here’s a Google experiment that Koddi first noticed in September. In this screenshot, the Hotel Ads have been moved from the right-side Knowledge Panel to an area above the organic listings (see below).
This change gets even better (read: worse) with flight-related searches, like this ‘flights to nyc’ search,
Subsequently, the recent change to the SERPs for local related searches on mobile devices has changed dramatically as Google now shows an Adwords 4-Pack above the map listing and organic Local 3-Pack (see below).
The final change is a paid spot appearing at the top of the Local 3-Pack (see below)(source).
How It’s Changing Things for SEO
These experiments, tests, and updates have all been launched in 2016, and are having a substantial impact on organic visibility, visits, and revenue. With these 2016 additions added to the SERP changes we experienced in 2015, we are seeing noticeable changes in our clients’ organic search data. In many cases, the organic visits are still coming from search engines but when only Google data is considered, we’ve seen a shift in the digital channels that are driving those visits.
In fact, several clients are seeing an interesting trend where their rankings are up, but site visits are down. This isn’t normal, or the way it’s supposed to work, right? Our SEO efforts are still having a positive impact on rankings, but the area of the SERPs allocated for organic listings has gotten smaller, and in some cases, moved below the fold. This often leads to declines in year-over-year and month-over-month organic search visits.
Google is squeezing the organic search results into a smaller and smaller area within the search results by placing more ads above the organic listings. With respect to those changes, we were certain that more and more searchers would begin to click on paid ads and local listings instead of organic results; and surprise — that is exactly what happened! The visits are still coming in, but many of those clicks are now coming through local or paid channels.
What Does It All Mean to Brands?
Unfortunately, this has been a long time coming for local businesses and businesses with brick-and-mortar locations, but it doesn’t come as a surprise that Google would ask those businesses to pay for the traffic coming from Google; it’s just the nature of search. There was always a good chance that (eventually), a business would need to pay for the visits it was getting for free.
I think that the effects will be different for the travel and hospitality industries. It’s obvious that Google is now viewing the travel and hospitality verticals (industries) as an even bigger revenue source. In order to drive increased revenue through paid ads in these verticals, Google has made several changes to the SERPS and has added features like Google Flights, Hotel Ads, Google Travel Planner, and the Google Trips app. So, not only is Google asking brands to pay for traffic they once received for free but also building content, functionality, widgets, and an app that (in some cases) can compete with those same brands for the same searchers.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Even though this is the new normal, it doesn’t change our approach to SEO. There’s nothing we can do to optimize our sites to appear in the real estate that Google has now allocated for paid placements; whether they are paid search, paid local ads, or HA listings/widgets. Put simply, we can’t fight our way back into the areas that are now designated for paid products. All we can do is what we’ve always done — optimize our sites to be ranked as high as possible in the areas of the search results pages that are allocated for organic listings.
As Google continues to make the organic listings area smaller by pushing them further down the page, there is a strong possibility that the organic channel will see a decline in visits as a percentage of total site visits, as an increasing percentage of that traffic will click on paid listings. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen. It will depend on the overall trend in global search volume as well as several other factors.
Regardless of those trends and any additional changes that Google decides to roll out, our strategy remains consistent: Optimize our sites for accessibility, performance, value, and experience, so that the right searchers can find our clients’ products, services, properties, locations, etc.
SEO: Now More Important Than Ever
In many ways, the ongoing updates to the Google SERPs layout only makes SEO more important. Oftentimes, and in terms of placement on the page, organic positions 1-3 are in the same area often in the same area that previously contained rankings in positions 5-7. Since the organic real estate is continuously being moved down the page, ranking at the top of the organic listings is more important than ever. All brands still consider organic search a vital channel. The recent changes to the SERPs — along with all of the other updates Google has made (and will make) — should only reinforce the importance of SEO as a part of the overall digital marketing strategy.
Moving forward, SEOs will have to fight for everything. When it comes to rankings and traffic from organic search, SEO’s and brands will have to really want it and will have to earn it by providing fast, reliable, secure sites (that perform well on all devices), quality content, and a speedy checkout/booking process to visitors.
On a more personal note: I’m an SEO lifer. SEO is what I love to do. It’s one of my biggest passions, and I can guarantee you one thing — as long as Google gives me even one organic result in the SERPs, I will continue to fight for it.