When you're working on your organic growth strategy, you will get some quick wins right away but you do need to have a bit of patience as well. While Google indexing has gotten pretty quick, there are so many different ranking factors in play that you often have to wait a few weeks to see the impact start to happen. With any luck, your SEO efforts will be rewarded with a nice steady chart of growth - even after you've completed your project.
This is what we're used to. It's how we measure our success and how we show value to clients.
We expect month/month, quarter/quarter growth. It's what we've always had and it's how we know that things are working.
SEO and online marketing is still a relatively young industry, but we've matured. As the industry and landscape has come of age, we've undergone some changes:
- Competition has increased. "You need a website" is no longer a challenge. It's quite easy for almost anyone to slap up a site within a few hours and many of these websites will be your competition for search rankings and clicks, even if they're not actually a direct competitor for your business model.
- The audience is educated. In previous years, we've seen incredible adoption of internet use and more people using the internet contributes to more potential for website traffic. While those numbers continue to grow, the pace has slowed only because we've hit a pretty impressive adoption rate for internet use and there isn't too much more room here to grow (side note: even our children now have internet access when they yell at Google or Alexa to play their favourite songs or tell them jokes).
- Google has a monopoly and controls where searchers end up (or not). This is an important one and is one that we're going to dig into a bit further below.
Google has a monopoly and when their platform changes, we all feel it.
We work with a lot of clients and look at a lot of traffic source reports. I can tell you that when we look at the organic traffic sources for our clients, organic traffic is primarily coming from Google.
Having Google send almost 90% of your organic traffic isn't a concern when you have that up-and-up traffic pattern. But Google operates on it's own agenda and can make changes to it's platform at any time, and when those changes happen, your traffic will be affected.
Google is sending less organic traffic to websites.
If you've seen a traffic plateau, you're not alone. Merkle’s Q2 2019 digital marketing report shows that organic search traffic from Google has dropped 8% year/year from Q2 2018 to Q2 2019.
Yahoo and Bing are also sending less traffic to websites, but for most websites this isn't a big deal for your overall website traffic. The only search engine that is sending more traffic to sites is DuckDuckGo.
Where is the Google search traffic going?
Google's search volume increased in Q2 2019. Google organic search CTR decreased in Q2 2019. Where are people going if they're not clicking on the search results?
For some searchers, they're not going anywhere. Google's use of in-result answers, knowledge panels and other SERP features make it easy for people to get what they wanted without clicking.
Zero-click search results: Google answers your questions in the search results page so you don't have to click anywhere.
Google will also give you shopping results that go to Google Shopping, flight details on Google Flights, local listings on Google Maps... you get where I'm going with this. Google has it's own platforms that competes with loads of websites and it should really be no surprise that Google would eventually want to get that traffic.
Let's also call it as it is: Google makes money from ads and they want people to click ads. So showing a bunch of ads above the search results is a great way to shift clicks from organic results. On a desktop, these ads took the entire space above the fold.
Paid search was a big share gainer in Q2 2019.
What about desktop vs mobile?
On mobile devices where search real estate is even more precious, Google Ads, Google Answers and other content is making a big impact on organic clicks. A joint study by jumpshot & SparkToro found that organic results get clicked on in less than 30% of searches. In the US, over 61% of mobile searches are not sending traffic anywhere. Zero-click searches have been dominating mobile results and paid search clicks have more than doubled from 2016-2018.
Paid search traffic on phones could be cutting into organic traffic. When we compare paid & organic traffic by mobile devices, mobile devices send 65% of all paid search traffic to websites whereas mobile devices send only 59% of all organic traffic to websites, indicating that paid traffic is over represented on mobile vs desktop.
How can you tell if you've capped out or just suck at SEO?
Plateauing or decreasing organic traffic is a huge concern when you're an SEO and organic traffic generation is your job. To assess what's happening with your traffic you'll want to look at a few different KPIs.
- SERP Features
When you have amazing content that ranks really well and gets a featured snippet, you celebrate and panic at the same time. Google decided your content was the best of them all - but now your CTR and traffic to your site is going to drop.
Your SERP Feature is a GOOD thing. SEO is and always has been about your competitive advantage. You are going to miss out from some clicks here but so are your competitors. Your listing has pushed them down even further and you are far more likely to get a click to your site than they are, even if you don't get as many clicks as you used to.
You can track your SERP Feature placements with ahrefs, SEMrush and most other SEO rank tracking tools. Here's what it looks like in ahrefs, the SERP features you have are in blue and the ones that are showing that you aren't in are in grey.
- Check your leads/sales/other conversion markers.
Decreasing traffic isn't so bad if you're still getting leads and sales. At the end of the day, isn't this a more important metric? For many search results, Google is not sending traffic to your site but they're still facilitating the conversion. Click to call, getting directions, showing your business hours and other contact-type questions can skip the step of coming to your site but still converting with you. This can also happen with things like Google Flights where someone will do their research on Google Flights and then get sent to the main airline to book - it's good for the main airlines but not for the middle-men like Expedia.
- Check Google Search Console
Check to see if your search impressions are increasing. If you're getting more visibility, you're doing something right for SEO. This isn't a great metric to measure 'success' but it is a good way to identify whether or not you have decreasing clicks due to visibility (poor SEO) or due to changes in user behavior or SERP features/ads.
AMP traffic doesn't always show up nice and neat in your Google Analytics account. Decreasing organic traffic is sometimes a symptom of increasing AMP visibility and more people going to non-tracked AMP pages vs your main site pages.
But what if you've capped out? Market maturity and saturation.
If everything has checked out and it looks like you have good visibility, you're outranking the competition, you have strong desktop and mobile presence and you're still seeing a drop in traffic, it's hard not to panic. It's even harder to explain it to your bosses and stakeholders. At a certain point, the best optimized sites are going to hit their market cap. If this is you, congratulations. You've leveled up and have to overcome some new challenges.
- Conversion rate optimization - how can you improve your site to convert more of the people who are coming to it?
- New audience development - what audiences are you missing out on? How can you effectively expand your reach?
- Audience engagement & evangelism - what can you do to get your existing audience to be your hype and sell for you?
SEO is about SO much more than just month over month traffic growth. Working with your teams, clients and stakeholders to help clearly identify the main business goals and how you can help the team achieve them is key. Taking the initiative to talk to your team and clients now about how the search landscape is shifting and how KPIs should be adjusted to align with business objectives will help you continue to be a valued asset, and can avoid difficult questions about organic traffic levels down the road.
Note: Not all websites are going to experience a drop in organic traffic and many will continue to see strong month-over-month increases. This is very dependent on your vertical, your competition, and the SERPs for the search phrases that are key to your business.