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Why Does Google Want to Limit Organic Results?


Organic is old news. If I would have said something like that five years ago, you might be looking at me all cross-eyed. However, in today's SEO world, one in which SERP features dominate, such a statement actually contains an air of viability. I mean, for crying out loud, Google has tested zero organic result SERPs. Why? Why does it feel as if Google is increasingly giving more weight to its own SERP properties? Why would Google even test a SERP with no results? 

I have a theory.   


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Death to Organic Results! Voice Search is the Future!



Everything I'm about to share with you hinges on voice search. That's right, Google's SERP strategy and its "odd" behavior when organic results are concerned hinges on voice search. But how and why does voice search dictate organic result policy at the Googleplex? How do we get from an interest in advancing voice search to a serious Google test that showed no initial organic results on the SERP? (For those of you who aren't familiar with what I am referring to, in March 2018 Google ran a test that showed only a Direct Answer Box on the SERP for specific queries. Users had to specifically click on a button to see actual organic results.)   

Here's how. 


What We Know About How Google Sees Voice Search  




Google Home


Let's start off with what Google has said and done vis a vis voice search with the intention of gaining insight into how the search giant relates to the search format.

In fact, Google CEO Sundar Pichai has said some interesting and perhaps out of character things about voice search. Contrary to the mobile-first craze within the SEO world, Google has left mobile behind. Back in May 2017, Pichai declared "an important shift from a mobile-first world to an AI first world." Meaning, that despite the immediate implications of mobile, Google is looking beyond the device when considering the future. The future, for Google, is synonymous with AI. 

It's important to understand what this means. Yes, AI opens new doors within search in so far as user intent and search algorithms are concerned. At the same time, forget new doors, AI opens entirely new vistas to Google. With the entrance of AI into the center ring, Google transcends search by becoming the king of personalization. We live in the age of personalization, from anything from ad targeting to coke bottle labels. The world is quickly moving away from being multi-faceted (which search is, as it offers a variety of results) to becoming far more idiomatic. It makes sense, with the increased demands on our time, variety is no longer a luxury we can afford. Personalization is merely an outgrowth of a desire for greater self-efficiency. 

At the center of this enormous demand and market, at least for the moment, sit home assistant devices (such as Google Home) that of course function via voice command and that aim towards offering highly personalized information (which is an entirely different paradigm than traditional search). The home device market is just the tip of the iceberg. Again, new vistas, not new doors. The market is ripe for the expansion of AI technologies aimed at helping improve and making more efficient that which is your life. 

Don't take my word for it, take Sundar's. In January 2017 Google's CEO was quoted as saying that voice search was still in its "very early days" and that he sees voice search working "from many different contexts." Specifically, Google sees the voice personalization world hitting on all aspects of a user's life, and as such is "trying to drive the ecosystem that way." 

Find me a quote or make me an argument that Google is trying to "drive the ecosystem" towards the organic results that traditional search presents. Voice search, and the AI behind it all, brings Google into a new future. 


OK Voice Search, Show Me Your Stats



There's plenty of sound evidence (i.e., data, aka "The Big D") to support the notion that voice search and the implications that come with it are where we're all heading. And now,  for effect, I shall ramble off such data: 



Actions Speak Louder Than Organic Results



I don't need stats to show you how seriously Google is taking voice search, I don't even need quotes from its CEO. All you need to do is look at how Google has behaved, since after all, and like your 2nd-grade teacher told you, actions speak louder than words. 

For starters, Google, when its voice properties are concerned, has and continues to make what seems like endless changes, upgrades, and improvements.

Here's a great example of this - On February 28th Google made it possible to connect Google Home to Bluetooth devices. Meaning, you can now use the home assistant to play music on speakers around the house. Just one month later, Google made another announcement. This time Google gave you the ability to swap an annoying alarm sound with a song of preference. That is, when you use Google Home, you can instruct the device to wake you up at 5 am to the soothing crooning of a 70-year-old Bob Dylan. 


For All the AI in China  




China Tech


You could certainly make the case that Google feels quite strongly about voice search by gauging the amount of effort the search giant puts into improving the services that employ the format, but we're going to go a bit deeper.  

Way back in forever ago (2010), Google left China so as to avoid censorship. Instead, we got the Hong Kong search engine, Google.com.hk. However, in 2015 Google's apprehensive relationship with the country began to ease up. That's when Google invested in Mobvoi. The Beijing startup was the first such investment within China made by Google, ever. Does Mobvoi help provide more accurate organic results? No. So why did Google make this investment? Because Mobvoi developed Chumenwenwen, which is a "voice-activated AI assistance app." Mobvoi also helped launch Moto 360, "the first Android wear device to carry Chinese voice search." Simply, Mobvoi is perhaps the most unique and innovative voice search tech firm in China. 

What's more telling is that this was not a one-shot deal. Since 2015 Google has been looking to China to further develop its ability to show highly relevant organic results its AI program. Google has been on the prowl for AI experts and AI investment opportunities inside of China, or as Mr. Pichai put it, "I'm committed to engaging more in China."



Where Do Limited Organic Results Fit Into All of This? 



My goal is not to provide you with a nice summary of how gushy Google gets when it comes to voice search and the AI that makes it happen. We're here to see if we can develop a plausible theory that explains why Google's zero organic results test made perfect sense and why the search engine's inertia on the SERP seems to be moving away from organic results (and more towards its SERP features).  

At this point, we know that Google has placed AI and voice search at the center of its blueprint for the future. The question is, how do organic results conflict with Google's AI and voice search game plan? 

The answer is trust. 

Voice search, or Google voice search in specific, faces trust issues on three separate fronts; fears of data collection, brand sentiment, and voice result accuracy (which goes well beyond accuracy per se). 


Voice Search and Data Collection Fears



I'm not going to spend a ton of time on this one because the fear of ambiguous data collection policies and the fears that result is a well-known and broad issue. That said, home assistant devices are like kerosene to a fire when it comes to data collection fears. The very first line in CNET's guide to deleting Google Home voice recordings is, "It should come as no surprise that an always-on connected speaker in your home comes at the cost of quite a bit of privacy." After telling you that indeed you can delete the recordings of your voice that Google Home stores, CNET goes on to say, "Still, it's unnerving knowing that everything you say is stored, be it sensitive, personal information or not."

Why so serious CNET? Because it's not your "preferences" that Google is storing here (as opposed to traditional search), but your very voice, and that's both intimate and freaky. 


Spying Eyes


Certainly, an incident in October of 2017 that revealed a bug in the newly released Google Home hasn't helped Google's "voice security image." Turns out, the bug had the device spying on users 24/7. Please don't misunderstand me. I don't think Google did this on purpose in any way, shape, or form. What I am saying is that CNN running a story on this does not bode well optically for Google's voice search aspirations.   


Do People Trust the Google Brand? 



When it comes to consumer trust in Google, the data is a bit of a mixed bag. Many studies show that consumer confidence in Google is relatively healthy. At the same time, you can find surveys where Google's trust factor falters. Without getting too lost in the ether of consumer confidence data, there are two points I want to make: 

  1. However well Google does in a given consumer trust survey, it's not enough to top Amazon.
  2. Despite whatever a particular survey says, there has been a growing sense of concern around just how reliable and trustworthy Google actually is.


In Amazon We Trust 



When it comes to trust, Amazon is prime! (That was a legitimately terrible pun. Then why did I write it? Oops, just broke the fourth wall.) I'm just going to throw some data your way: 



Who cares about Amazon? Well, Google does. Here are some stats that show you why: 

  • Estimates put Amazon's home device market share somewhere between 70% - 75%. Those same estimates give Google a home device market share of just a 15% - 25% (despite Google Home outperforming Alexa in terms of answer accuracy). 
  • A June 2017 survey showed Amazon Echo was more desirable across every single age bracket than any other home device. 
  • According to a January 2018 study, Google Home gained ground on Amazon with a market share of 31%. The same study gave Amazon the rest of the market (69%). 

Onto the second item, Google's aurora of trust. 


Google's Trust Factor Takes a Hit 


  

Getting Hit


Over the past two years or so, Google, whether correctly or incorrectly (which vis a vis perception does not matter), has faced some serious questions about its credibility. During this time Google has had to do some significant damage control after a slew of trust altering incidents. Arguably, the most pronounced of such has been Google's inability to directly deal with fake news on the SERP. There have been a series of incidents that have eroded consumer confidence when it comes to trusting Google to show accurate news on the SERP and within its Top Stories SERP feature. The result has been an undercurrent that strongly questions Google's trustworthiness

Moving on from "news" and onto advertising. Here, Google has had to deal with more than an undercurrent of murmurings, but rather a tidal wave of "trust dissent." In March 2017 the UK news outlet The Guardian found its YouTube ads were appearing next to some "undesirable" content. The result was the news giant pulling its ads from Google properties, which then resulted in a monsoon of distrust. 

Needless to say, Google showing Hitler in its carousel of "best German authors" didn't win over any critics either.  

Voice search and Google Home have seen a tad of controversy themselves. Back in March of 2017, upon asking Google Home to lay out the day ahead of them, users heard what sounded suspiciously like an ad for Disney's Beauty and the Beast, which was out in theatres. Sneaking an ad into voice search results is a big no-no for consumer confidence. It's a huge issue within organic search, it's a whopper within voice search. Google denied that the information telling users that the movie was out in theatres was an ad. However, its denial had the opposite effect and opened the floodgates for suspect and suspicion. 

Google's Featured Snippets (which supply a great many answers to Google Home) fell prey to a bit of controversy as well. March 2017 was not a good month for Google. Early in the month, now Google spokesperson and former search journalist par excellence Danny Sullivan published an article that highlighted a long series of some pretty "inaccurate" Featured Snippets over time. The problem, other than the erosion of trust these Featured Snippets created, is that Google heavily (and that's an understatement) relies on them to supply Google Home with answers.

And now we have reached the heart of the trust issue that Google must deal with. 


Can There Be Only One? Does the Voice Search Paradigm Breed Mistrust? 


 

Bad Voice Answer


Google has a problem, and it's that it can only give one answer. When responding to a voice query, Google can only give one response. When seeking out a home device, people are not looking for access to the wide world of possibilities in their quest for clarity. But is that what people want, one true answer? Yes, but perhaps not from Google. 

Here comes Google, with its fake news faux pas, with its poor ad placement predicament, with its history of what are at times faulty Featured Snippets, with Hitler being considered one of Germany's best authors for God's sake, to offer you the one true answer, no questions asked. 

Now, I am not saying that the above are necessarily legitimate issues that should make you concerned. In fact, I would say not. Most of the answers Google Home will give you are great. Except I don't care about that right now. What I care about are the optics. What do people feel, and what must Google consider if it wants to score a win with voice search?

Why did I bring up all of these different "trust issues" above? Simple, because home devices ask us to trust them with the one true answer they offer. How is that supposed to work, however, if, as I've laid out quite well I think (pat on the back to me), and much like my parent's marriage, Google has some significant trust issues?

To be fair (and clear), I am not singling out Google here. I think that people have an issue relying on the information home devices offer. I call it "passenger syndrome." When my wife drives, I often find myself clenching the door handle for dear life. It's not just because my wife is a terrible driver. I often drive like an idiot, and it doesn't faze me. Why? Because I'm in control. It's the lack of control that scares me when my wife drives. When a user goes to a search engine for information, they're in control. They can choose which information to view or not to view. Not so with a home device. Whether it's Amazon, Google, or Apple, the user is not in control of the information. 

Jacob Davis, the head of search at iCrossing, perhaps put it best when speaking with TechCrunch saying, "When you can see multiple search results on a screen, a user has options .... With voice alone, they might only be served one or two results without further prompting. Will that sit well with people? Likely not." 

Google's One True Answer Self-Awareness 



If for whatever reason, you still have any doubt that the one true answer home device paradigm is inherently problematic within the context of the extent to which users trust providers such as Google, consider this: Google themselves is quite aware of the problem. In fact, search engines, in general, are aware of the problem. That's why you have Bing using AI to offer multiple perspective answers (aka Bing's version of Featured Snippets). 

Google has also moved in the same direction, releasing Multi-faceted Featured Snippets. Here, Google offers multiple "snippets" that target the multiple ways you could possibly interpret the intent of a query. Moreover, the search engine has said it plans to offer Featured Snippets that present "diverse perspectives." Why? Because Google knows that users are not comfortable with the one true answer it uses for Google Home queries. With these "advances" Google is all but admitting that it has a "trust issue" and that voice search only exacerbates the problem. 



How Less Visible (or no) Organic Results Solves Google's Trust Problems 




Trapeze Trust


Should it be that users explicitly trust a search engine (or really anyone providing them with information), then receiving the one true answer is not only "OK," it's exactly what the user wants. As voice search guru Duane Forrester points out, "Those rich experiences we have on mobile devices, and the faith we put in a single spoken answer, come from the trust a search engine has established with us — that it has THE best answer for our needs. " But as we've established, as things stand currently, there is a trust issue both related to Google and with the voice search format per se. 

So what does Google do to solve this, to better foster trust in its answers? Why it tests not showing any organic results at all of course!

Follow me here. 

Google's Dual Identity



Google has multiple personalities. The personality that most people associate Google with, and especially those outside of the SEO industry, is that of a facilitator. Google connects users with the information they want. It's like a modern-day version of a matchmaker. 

This persona does not help Google vis a vis voice search. 

Google has yet another persona and that is of a content provider. Google, via features like the Knowledge Panel, Featured Snippets, Related Questions (aka People Also Ask), a variety of Answer Boxes, and even carousels at times, gives you the information you desire. 

This persona does help Google vis a vis voice search. 

In the context of voice search, Google is not acting as a facilitator, but as a provider. Thus, when Google, as it has, increases the proliferation of some of the SERP features mentioned-above, it also increases the association users have with the brand as a provider of content. 



More Than an Association 



It is true that a central part of Google's strategy, as I've often talked about, is to brand itself as a content provider, to expand user association beyond its role as a facilitator. However, that's only one part of the equation. Like any association, the way users relate to Google as a content provider could either be positive or negative. Google, in its quest to be a content provider, is not only worried about creating such an association but ensuring it is one that is positive. 

Simply, Google wants to tell its users, "you can trust me." 


Pushing Back on Organic - What Google Needs to Succeed in Voice Search 



When Google pushes more of its SERP features, when it upgrades them,  when it adds new elements and new tidbits of information, they are driving home the concept of their being a content provider. Succinctly put, doing so creates a certain image, one that says, "we're here to help you."

More important than anything is that the user feel Google is there to help them know more (as opposed to find more). 

Why does Google make so many noticeable changes to its content providing features? Because it creates an optic of trust. It creates the image of Google constantly looking for ways to provide you with better information. It's not only the information per se that is significant but also the appearance that Google very much seeks to help you obtain better quality information.  

Of course, doing so means pushing organic to the backburner a bit. I don't think there's any malicious intent in overshadowing organic results by way of search features. Rather, it's simply the natural result of Google focusing in on an area that demands such results be 'demoted', for lack of a better word. 

Google needs to bolster its own content in order to build and reinforce trust in the one true answer it offers users. It must do so in order to capture more of the home device market share, in order to further the possibilities that voice search brings, in order to remain the dominant figure 50 years from now, and as such it needs to move its attention away from organic results despite some backlash in the here and now. Google is in it (it being voice search and voice technology possibilities) for the long haul, and it's not going to let some immediate backlash from within the SEO industry stop it. Nor should it really, because from Google's perspective that would be penny wise, pound foolish.  


Where Zero Organic Results Come in 



Considering Google's substantial trust problems, and its very real need to overcome them, running zero organic result SERPs makes a lot of sense from the search engine's perspective. What better way to instill a sense of user confidence, to create an association of being a content provider, to build trust in its ability to serve correct answers than to run no organic results on the SERP for very direct and easy to answer queries? 

What better way to test one true answer waters than by simply taking organic results off the SERP?

I believe the purpose of the zero organic result SERP test was twofold: 

  1. To foster the association of Google as a content provider in a positive way
  2. To gauge if users felt comfortable with Google as the sole content provider 

Regarding the latter, there was a way to access organic results, you just had to click a button to get to them. Don't you think Google was tracking how often users hit the button? 

The proof is in the pudding. Upon announcing the test was over, Danny Sullivan tweeted, "...We have enough data and feedback..." 

What data could there be other than the number of times users were not satisfied with Google's one true answer and clicked to see actual organic results? (OK, there could be other metrics, but you know this is the metric of note.) 

What better way to know how much people trust or even like you offering one and only one information option than to do just that and check the CTR on that button that gave access to the organic results? 

How interesting that in the context of voice search and in consideration of Google's "trust needs" that running a SERP without organic results makes just so much sense.  

And that is why I think Google ran the zero results SERP test and why I think you will see more of the same once the industry cools down and forgets the test ever happened. 



Is Voice Search Behind Google's Organic Strategy? What do you think? 




Full Service Voice Search


When you put it all together, it all makes sense. Voice search and the AI that comes with it is the future in many ways. From giving you directions on your way out the door to turning off the kitchen lights despite you being halfway around the world, there's a lot to be said for voice being the next big thing. When you consider the uneasiness users may feel when getting that one true answer from a home assistant device, and when you consider Google's trouble with trust over the past two years, it's pretty easy to understand why the search engine would take measures to improve its image and to engender a more positive association.

It's then an easy jump to organic results. The best, and perhaps only way that Google can convince users of its one answer worthiness is by promoting itself as a content provider. The best, and perhaps the only way to do that is by promoting its content bearing SERP features, which inherently means a move away from organic results. Subsequently, the best and perhaps the only way to gauge where it stands is to run SERPs that contain absolutely no organic results and see how often users click to access those listings.   

That said, at the end of the day I don't work for Google. I'm not privy to their inner-workings. The best I have is some pretty good evidence stringed together by my own creativity. 

So what do you think? Is voice search success Google's goal for now and for the future? Is it behind Google limiting the presence of organic results on the SERP? Let me know! 





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