Zero-click search: How should businesses respond to it?

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Marketers have likely heard of the rising trend of “zero-click” searches, where users perform searches but never navigate outside of the Google ecosystem (Google Maps, Images, etc.) What you may not know is just how prevalent this trend is. As many as 57% of searches on mobile and 43% on desktop result in zero clicks, according to Semrush data. This has major implications for any business hoping to reach customers online. 

About the author

Marcus Tober, SVP Enterprise Solutions, Semrush.

The increasing frequency of zero-click searches makes it all the more imperative for marketers to capture customer attention, whether that means standing out in search results or earning clicks. To accomplish that, marketers need to optimize for how their business appears on SERPs, foster conversation outside of search, and provide rich content to stand out. 

To help marketers boost their businesses’ online visibility in the era of zero-click search, let’s review why zero-click searches are becoming more common, how businesses can boost their online visibility, and where Google, the search bellwether, is likely to go from here.

What is Zero Click Search?

Zero click searches are queries in search engines, that do not send the user onward to a third-party website directly from the organic search result. Instead, the user stays in the search ecosystem. There are plenty of reasons for this behavior; such as direct answer results, query refinements or continuing the search in other Google services like News, Images or Maps. 

Zero click searches are a controversial topic as business owners might never get in touch with or 'see' the user, as the relevant information from their website has already been directly displayed within search results. But as Google's aspiration is to answer users questions as fast as possible, zero click searches are Google's way to decrease the time for the user to get the information they wanted. 

Why zero-click searches are becoming more common

Some zero-click searches happen due to user behavior and others due to an intentional strategy on Google’s part to own a bigger slice of the customer journey.

On the first front, zero-click searches may appear due to a change to the search query from the user’s side, a translation request, or a misspelling. These queries do not reflect user intent to continue onto a property beyond the SERP. Similarly, the user may be searching for a simple answer that the SERP can provide. For example, a voice search may provide a straightforward solution that does not require further research, or a consumer may be looking for basic information like a business’ address or phone number.

But other zero-click searches reflect intentional long-term strategy on Google’s part to anticipate and meet all of a user’s needs within the Google ecosystem. Features like instant answers, featured snippets, and knowledge panels increasingly satisfy searchers’ curiosity. Local results in Google Maps plus diversified features such as Google News, Shopping, Video, and Jobs also reflect Google’s quest to be the one-stop-shop for digital information.

The enhanced search experience and related jump in zero-click searches are good business for Google, which generates more revenue with the same number of searches by keeping users in its product ecosystem and increasing ad exposure. But these changes can also benefit consumers, who can complete tasks like discovering a local store, purchasing items, or booking trips in fewer steps. 

That said, the increase in zero-click searches can make it harder for marketers and advertisers to earn qualified traffic, even if they’re ranking in the top position for their target organic keywords or forking over a ton in ad spend. In fact, paid clicks get the least amount of traffic. So, it is vital for marketers to understand the zero-click trend, figure out how to create customer connections, and boost online visibility in light of it.

How to invest in online visibility

The rise in zero-click searches shows that marketers must make increasingly strategic choices about online visibility to capture customer attention on the SERP, earn click-throughs, and strike up conversation on alternate properties. 

Organic clicks still enjoy a significant amount of traction in desktop and mobile searches. So, marketers should use search intent to identify the queries most aligned with the conversions they want and invest in content that educates and engages their customers and prospects. Marketers can bring the benefits of a content strategy based on E-A-T — expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness — to owned, earned and shared media as well as the SERP by taking a few concrete steps.

  • First, create content focused on long-tail keywords with highly specific intent inside your niche. You can target search users with this in-depth content, standing out in search results and earning clicks because you provide the rare information your customers need;
  • Second, create content specifically to address the zero-search trend, or content meant to be consumed by searchers who do not progress to your website. Target SERP features like FAQs and local queries to ensure searchers get the information they need and do not move onto a competitor;
  • Third, use videos, high-quality images, and other multimedia to increase the chances of SERP visibility and engagement. Consumers are increasingly turning to social channels for local discovery due to rich media. Do your best to supply that same value on the SERP and on owned media to help customers scratch that itch. 

Finally, don’t blame Google for trying to make the user experience more convenient. Instead, get strategic. Study your customers, develop personas, and learn how to reach them by leveraging the intelligence of your sales and customer success teams, user behavior on owned properties, and user-generated content like reviews. Contribute to earned and shared media channels to keep the conversation going on and off Google. And to fuel all of the above, focus on creating the content your target audience is looking for where they are looking for it. Build your brand and community — not only on search but also on other channels. 

Where Google and search go from here

The phenomenon of zero-click search is likely to expand. For many queries, Google will aim to own the user journey end to end, especially in ecommerce. Ecommerce queries will trigger search result pages that allow users to filter, compare prices, and in the mid-term future, purchase directly on Google using Google Pay. That might be great for the user, but it will challenge brands as they lose control of the customer experience and user data.

Search results will also become much richer. Using the Multitask Unified Model (MUM) and Rankbrain, Google will show a variety of results from different types of assets, searching content in videos or images and specifically returning these results instead of text results. Incrementally, Google will transform the search experience into an all-in-one destination for digital consumption. Google Maps especially will exemplify this, becoming the next super app in part by supplying more local results, especially for searches with commercial intent.

For marketers, the imperative now and in the long term is to prepare for a world where it is easier for customers to quickly find information but harder for marketers to own that experience. The businesses that focus on using data to understand their customers’ desires and providing rich content across channels to fulfill those desires will be best positioned to succeed in this era of search and the next one.

1. What: Zero click searches dominate search actions for desktop and mobile users.

A. As a marketer or SEO specialist, you may have heard of the rising trend of "zero click" searches. It's what happens when a user performs a Google search but doesn't click a link from those results. A zero-click search happens when the user doesn’t end up clicking on a link to another website. 

B. They can appear because of:

1) Instant answers, large featured snippets or knowledge panels that potentially answer the question of the user directly

2) Change of input query from user’s side

3) Local results/map packs where the user only wanted to know an address or phone number of a business

4) A voice search that triggers a spoken direct answer or an action like calling someone or setting a timer

5) Google as a dictionary, means user “forces” a misspelling, means user wanted to know the correct spelling

6) Google as a translator, means the user ask Google to translate any word in any language

C. But, Google captures and keeps clicks for itself using, to name a few:

i) Local results including Google maps

ii) Google News & Discover

iii) Google Shopping, especially the “popular products” integration

iv) Google Video

v) Google Jobs

2. Why: Google is no longer just about Q&A. They want to monetize as many search actions as possible.

Google wants to be more than just a search engine. They want to lock the user into their product ecosystem, generating more revenue with the same amount of searches. An increase of the time of the user spent on Google also increases the exposure to ads. Concerns about digital monopolies aside, many of these developments are in favor of the user.

A. Google sees “Search as a Journey.” Think about it—booking your next trip, buying a new pair of shoes, finding a concert to see this weekend—Google can help you do it in fewer steps (and through fewer annoying sites that would fail a CWV test)

B. The increase in zero click searches can make it harder for marketers and advertisers to earn qualified traffic, even if they’re ranking in the top position for their target organic keywords or forking over a ton in ad spend—in fact, paid clicks get the least amount of traction overall.

C. As a marketer, entrepreneurs or generally everyone who wants to acquire customers online. Think about the customer journey bottom up. What are people looking for during the journey especially early on. Try to win the user as early as possible and create a great experience to turn him into a customer. Why? Top of funnel or informational queries are less likely to be dominated by ads but have high search volume. Don’t focus purely on winning the user close to a transaction, win him much earlier. This is the best way to leverage SEO and the best way to be independent as bottom of funnel queries/traffic are more going to be monetized by Google.

3. How: Invest in your online visibility

The rise in zero-click searches shows that marketers must make increasingly strategic choices about online visibility.

A. Organic search still has a significant amount of traction in desktop and mobile searches, so:

a. Can we talk about click potential yet?

Long-tail keywords come with highly specific intent. You can target them with highly specific content that goes in-depth on a topic to serve your target audience with the info they need. 

a.               Include ‘zero click’ content specifically targeting SERP features, like an FAQ or utilize local queries to show your address or phone number 

b.               Use videos, high quality images, and other multimedia to increase chances of SERP visibility and engagement

B.               Don’t blame Google, and focus on creating the content your target audience is looking for, where they are looking for it. Build your brand and community in other ways. Focus on top and bottom of funnel.

1) Zero click searches may be difficult for advertisers and marketers, but they’re generally good for users. They can find what they need faster and in fewer steps.

2) Leverage other earned media channels to spark conversations and build momentum around your brand and products, like social media and PR

3) Develop buyer personas, learn about them through your Sales and CS teams, survey them, study their behavior on your site and engagement with your content, read their reviews—make informed decisions about how to reach them. 

Conclusion: What’s next for Google 

For many queries Google will own the user end to end, especially in ecommerce. Ecommerce queries will trigger search result pages that have nothing to do with regular results anymore. User can filter, compare prices and in the mid-term future purchase directly on Google using Google Pay. That might be great for the user, but seriously an issue for the brands as they lose the experience and valuable user data.

1. Using MUM and Rankbrain, Google will show a variety of results from different types of assets, like searching content in videos or images and specifically return these results instead of text results. Video is on the rise as we all know. 

2. Google Maps is going to be the next super app, means more and more searches will include local results, especially the ones with commercial intent.

3. Based on the knowledge graph and entity relationships models Google will enhance the SERPs much further and create experiences rather than pure search results. Google will be careful and do things slow but incrementally to not overwhelm the user. Ecommerce is focus as ad spendings here are large which is predictably more revenue for Google (next revenue growth opportunity).

We can see in our data that Google is going towards continuous algorithm updates, rather than irregular larger updates. For 3 years now, the impact of Core and other updates is decreasing, meaning the strength of the update itself on changes in search results is lower. But at the same time, there are more frequent days of high volatility without Google announcing any update. The goal for Google is to be able to quickly adopt the searchers intent and change the search results without working on major algorithm updates.

There is a clear pattern as result of the Helpful Content Update beginning of September that low quality, poorly AI written content pages were penalized. Google announced the update and gave a clear scope of what the update will target. It wasn't as big as we thought in terms of impact, but many losers are clearly in the category of low quality content. The Core Update in September which was released 2 weeks after the Helpful content update was different. The impact itself was not very big, and winners and losers don't follow a clear pattern. But some losers we could determine as not being focused enough about user intent; meaning even if the pages look nice and content was okay, in Google's opinion they still weren't giving the users what they were looking for. As a result, we have many brands have emerged as losers during the Core Update, and many other brands as winners. You cannot clearly see a pattern, but only assume this theory of searchers intent.

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