Paid Search in the Era of Zero-Click Searches

LEARN HOW CLICKLESS SEARCHES ARE IMPACTING MORE THAN ORGANIC SEARCHES

Zero-Click Search Impact on Paid Searcj

BACKGROUND

Over the past year, search marketers have observed a growing trend in search behavior – a rise in clickless or zero-click searches. As Google has taken more ownership of its search engine results page (SERP) by introducing result types that answer consumer questions directly on the page, clicks on branded organic listings have trended downward. Also trending downward? Organic traffic to brand websites. 

As the industry moves toward a clickless SERP, the impact on organic search is clear – but what about the impact on paid search? A cross-client analysis helped us to find out. 

IMPACT ON PAID SEARCH: ANALYSIS & HYPOTHESES

To understand if and how clickless search behavior affects pay-per-click advertising, Nina Hale analyzed over two million queries from 2018 and 2019. We found that across the entire portfolio of accounts managed by the agency, impressions and spend remained relatively flat year over year, but clicks and conversions increased substantially.

Hypothesis #1: The overall paid search landscape is not impacted by the clickless SERP. 

However, because Google’s result types most commonly asked questions, we know that zero-click searches tend to feature a question. Accordingly, this specific analysis focuses on queries that ask a question or contain one of the following words: how, if, what, who, why, do, can, should, would, when, is, and will. For example: what is the healthiest butter, how to make a grilled cheese, should casement windows open in or out?

Since Google Ads only generates revenue on clicks and Google’s result types generally cannibalize clicks, our first hypothesis was that Google would show fewer ads for question queries. We assumed that as a result we would see fewer impressions from these searches in 2019. However, our review of over two million question queries across several verticals disproved this hypothesis. Despite shifting SERP features, paid results actually increased in prominence for question-oriented searches, delivering a 445% increase in impressions year over year.

Next, we analyzed whether and how the increase in impressions might affect click-through rates (CTR) of paid results.

Hypothesis #2: Our second hypothesis was that clickless search features would negatively affect advertising click-through rates, regardless of an increase or decrease in impressions.

Our review proved this hypothesis correct. Despite a significant increase in paid ad impressions, clicks were relatively flat year over year, likely cannibalized by the clickless SERP. The increase in impressions and fixed volume of clicks resulted in an 80% decrease in CTR across question queries.

KEY FINDING: A DECREASE IN CLICK-THROUGH RATE DOES NOT EQUAL A DECREASE IN ACTION

The drop in CTR may seem like a cause for concern. Such a large increase in impressions with no additional clicks – wouldn’t that tell us these queries are irrelevant? But even with the decrease in average click-through rates, conversion volume from these queries actually increased by 21%. So, while Google’s unique result types may inhibit clicks on question queries, clicks on paid ads for the same queries may be more likely to convert. In other words, Google’s results are weeding out users who are just looking for a quick answer. The clicks that do come through are people who need more information or are ready to take action – evidenced by a 13% increase in conversion rate year over year across the accounts analyzed. 

The biggest advantage paid search sees from a clickless SERP? Google is only cannibalizing less qualified traffic. This means brands avoid paying for clicks from users who are highly unlikely to convert. Instead, brands can generate impressions with users who are early in the funnel – which is free – and then pay once users are ready to make a decision. 

WHAT THIS MEANS FOR MARKETERS

Going forward, advertisers need to look at all of the available data to accurately report on performance. For example, focusing only on click-through rates may paint a negative picture of the clickless SERP, while in reality conversion rates from searchers who click could be increasing. Additionally, impressions can help to tell a broader story of search behavior and advertising impact. Pin-pointing queries that deliver a large volume of impressions but have a lower CTR can help marketers understand their share of voice with users in the consideration stage of their journey. Because although these users may not be ready to convert, they are being exposed to brand messaging at no additional cost, which could encourage conversions down the road.  

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