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How To Fight Google’s Grab for Above The Fold Screen Space

John Doherty —  June 27, 2013
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I don’t often write blog posts blasting Google, nor do I often reference local SEO, but I am going to do both in this post. In fact, I’ve been blogging a lot less this year (for many different reasons), but I felt compelled to write this post. In my work at Distilled, I am lucky to work with thought leaders and brands in their spaces. Because of this, we’re able to target competitive terms.

The reality of the situation, though, is that Google has slowly, for the past 6-9 months especially, been slowly making changes to their SERP layout that are effectively (very effectively, mind you) stealing non-branded searches (which as we all know have a higher cost per click, or CPC, than branded searches) from everyone, small businesses and big brands alike.

What I want to do is lay out the landscape for you, specifically in the travel niche, of what we are seeing and then make some recommendations for how specifically to target organic traffic for your website, both small business and large brand.

The Situation

First, let’s take a look at what you can really see on a 15″ laptop screen, which for now is a relatively normal screen size (I use a Samsung Series 7 15″ screen), though according to this:

High resolution 21 to 24-inch widescreen monitors are now both commonplace and relatively cheap to pick up. Laptop displays range from 10 to 17-inches, and tablets 7 to 10-inches for the most part.

london-hotels-nonbranded-search

Other than an OLED TV, LCD TV, and Desktop monitor, a laptop is a typical size that most people use, with over 60% using a laptop or PC at home:

npd-display-search-display-size

As you can see (I’ve highlighted in pink what is Google and in yellow what is organic), everything about the fold is links to Google or a click that makes Google money on my laptop:

london-hotels-nonbranded-search-google

When I click on the Premier Inn link, it takes me to a branded search for Premier Inn that has 1 (count them), 1 organic link above the fold (which is PremierInn.com, luckily for them):

premier-inn-branded-london-search

With the pink and yellow again, we see this:

premier-inn-branded-london-search-google

Even without the organic listings being above the fold, this study recently came out with a CTR study on the local carousel showing where people are clicking, which is predominately on the local carousel and the map:

Screen-Shot-2013-06-25-at-9.53.57-AM-580x619

Of course, this isn’t a surprise since a study that came out recently (thanks Dennis)says that the first position gets 33% of clicks, while the Slingshot study from 2011 said 18%. So we can imagine that if Google puts a box up higher on the page, it’s going to be clicked more (and hence they’ll make more money).

And finally, AutoRevo came out with a post yesterday showing that the local carousel is actually further obfuscating non-branded search traffic, and essentially that sites in niches where the carousel is showing need to kiss a lot of their non-branded organic traffic goodbye:

impression-data

What’s A Company To Do?

Hopefully you are seeing now that this is a big deal for sites in niches where the carousel appears (mostly travel and restaurants right now). In fact, Conductor came out with a study recently (at the time of writing this post) that shows that while organic traffic accounts for anywhere between 53-56% of total visits, for travel it’s only 31% of total traffic (and that’s going to tank soon):

web-visit-channel-distribution-2

So what do you do? Google’s taking away non-branded organic traffic and making you pay for more traffic to make up for the difference (at a higher CPC than needed), so what can you do to gain back some traffic?

Well, here are some ideas:

  • Content to gain longtail traffic that converts to microtransactions that converts later;
  • Ensure that you rank for all your branded terms;
  • Drive branded searches through paid search, offline advertising, and social

At the end of the day, Google became tired of ranking crap affiliate websites for non-branded searches. It seems like now they are targeting spam from a couple of different directions:

  • Encouraging branded searches
  • Moving towards authorship
  • Ranking sites more off domain authority rather than individual page authority

In verticals like travel, especially hotels, your choice now is to go for longtail traffic or accept that your overall natural search traffic will be down. Google’s squeezing you out, so act accordingly.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

John Doherty

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I'm the new (as of October 2013) Online Marketing Manager of Hotpads.com, soon to be based in San Francisco. Previous to Hotpads I worked at Distilled for 2 years as an online marketing consultant. In my spare time I shoot lifestyle photography, explore new and interesting food in New York, ski, rock climb, and update my Twitter and Google+ accounts.

8 responses to How To Fight Google’s Grab for Above The Fold Screen Space

  1. John-

    Thanks for the quick response to the sweeping changes recently. To me the delivery and portability of content has got to be a focus for anyone serious about ranking in Google anymore. If you data is not visually stimulating and easily digestible, then it’s dead in the water.

    As far as getting ranked in local search, the branded search terms seem to be the best way moving forward. We recently increased search traffic by +400% to a shopping center in the Chicago area by simply focusing on branded terms.

    Non-branded terms started to go way-side when (not provided) became the majority of search results in analytics. Micro-conversions seem to be the best way measure success in long-term any more.

    Summary for me is:
    Address ready to purchase searchers through branded keywords
    Address sales funnel searchers through non-branded keywords
    Address tire kickers with blogs about cats and TMZ stories ;)

  2. Hi John, thanks for this article. i did some research last year on commercial keyword searches where the massive blinged-out ads took up 85% of the above-the-fold space and found that they soaked up 2/3rds of the clicks. http://www.wordstream.com/articles/google-ads

    I don’t see this trend changing any time soon.

  3. Another stellar post John. Frankly, I don’t think it will last though. Nothing with Google seems to hang on very long. Besides, astute marketers such as yourself (and *ahem* your readers) are creative enough to still fight and have an impact.

  4. Hi,
    Really useful. I’m working with the hotel industry ( small hotels in Portugal) and your post really helps. What you refer on google as not yet totally arrived to google.pt but for sure long tail and social have to be more and more part of our daily work.

    many thanks

  5. Hi John,

    Great post but as George says above, Google seem to change their minds like the British weather. Very frequently.

    cheers
    George

  6. Great post, Jon. I agree and believe that this is the reasoning on why we are seeing more and more people look at the second page for results.
    You can only get so many results on the first page, because of the ads. It seems that the old logic that no one goes to the second page is more and more inferior.

  7. “Drive branded searches through paid search, offline advertising, and social”. That’s old but good (until now :) .
    Thank you for your great post, keep it up John!

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