Last week, Google instituted a change to the rendering of search results on desktop which makes ads indistinguishable from organic results. This change brings the appearance of desktop search results to parity with those on mobile, where this design change was implemented last May.
A few days later, on Friday, January 24th, the company announced that it would roll back some of the changes after users complained about the lack of distinction between ads and organic results:
But it’s clear that Google is ultimately intent on obfuscating visual boundaries between ads and organic results in order to divert clicks to paid advertisements. And indeed, DigiDay has surfaced data to suggest that this is exactly what happened after the initial rollout last week:
For all four clients (a local health care company, two business-to-business companies and an e-commerce company), the desktop click-through rates increased and ranged from 4% to 10.5%. All clients had slight declines in the click-through rates on mobile devices.
Last May for three of those four companies, after Google made its mobile search changes, mobile click-through rates increased 17% to 18% for two companies during the May 24 to 30 stretch, as compared with the May 17 to 23 period.
And data from Jumpshot, a measurement company, also supports this thesis: CTRs for paid ads on mobile have steadily crept up since 2016.
The above chart picks up where the visualization below leaves off in terms of chronicling Google’s persistent march towards a unified design for ads and organic results:
Of course, there are consequences to these changes: the businesses that established themselves around a perceived endless fount of organic traffic are now facing famine. One example of an industry that is feeling this particular pain is travel, which has consistently been hammered by Google’s policies of de-emphasizing organic search results and inserting more and more ad units into the results real estate. This week, TripAdvisor, whose shares dropped by more than 20% in one day after announcing third quarter results in November, announced that it will lay off about 200 people — or roughly 5% of its workforce — as a result of declining organic traffic.
That companies should not yoke themselves to platforms they don’t control is a start-up platitude, yet an entire ASO industry exists to convince mobile-first companies to do just that. And while ASO is certainly something that every developer should invest at least some time into, it shouldn’t be seen as a growth strategy (more background on this idea here, here, here, and here). Benefiting from dynamics that are not under a company’s control is not strategy; it’s chance. A mobile-first company relying exclusively on ASO for growth is like a beach umbrella salesperson relying on the weather staying sunny.
Google is capricious and self-interested, and it will always bias search results against organic distribution. The risks of relying on Google to dispense organic traffic at a consistent rate over time are real: when Google changes its search algorithm, ad design, or search results ad load, companies get punished. The same pain being felt by mobile and desktop SEO dependents can very easily be doled out to ASO junkies that haven’t developed genuine growth strategies.