Google Refutes Data on ‘Zero-Click’ Searches and the Role it Plays in Guiding Referral Traffic

The SEO community has been rumbling over the past few days over a new study shared by SparkToro which suggests that more than two-thirds of Google searches now result in no click-through at all.

As explained by SparkToro’s Rand Fishkin:

“From January to December, 2020, 64.82% of searches on Google (desktop and mobile combined) ended in the search results without clicking to another web property. That number is likely undercounting some mobile and nearly all voice searches, and thus it’s probable that more than 2/3rds of all Google searches are what I’ve been calling “zero-click searches.”

That figure is up from 50.33% zero-click searches in 2019, which SparkToro also shared data on at the time.

The trend is a concern for SEO practitioners, as it suggests that, increasingly, Google is looking to limit the amount of traffic it’s directing from search, with new additions like info-panels, featured snippets, videos etc. That could mean that, in order to maximize your search results, you should increasingly be focusing on these in-SERP elements, and content on Google’s own properties (like YouTube). But it also suggests that Google may be angling the tables in its own favor, which raises antitrust concerns.

The report clearly struck a nerve at Google HQ, because today, Google has published an official response to the data, noting that:

“As practitioners across the search industry have noted, this claim relies on flawed methodology that misunderstands how people use Search. In reality, Google Search sends billions of clicks to websites every day, and we’ve sent more traffic to the open web every year since Google was first created. And beyond just traffic, we also connect people with businesses in a wide variety of ways through Search, such as enabling a phone call to a business.”

Google, indeed, seems none-to-happy with the report, with the search giant arguing that the concept of ‘zero-click’ searches is not nuanced enough to provide an accurate picture of what’s really happening:

“People don’t always know how to word their queries when they begin searching. They might start with a broad search, like “sneakers” and, after reviewing results, realize that they actually wanted to find “black sneakers.” In this case, these searches would be considered a “zero-click” – because the search didn’t result immediately in a click to a website. In the case of shopping for sneakers, it may take a few “zero-click” searches to get there, but if someone ultimately ends up on a retailer site and makes a purchase, Google has delivered a qualified visitor to that site, less likely to bounce back dissatisfied.”

Google also argues that many searches take people to apps rather than websites, another flaw in the methodology, while Google searches also drive many people to businesses after they’ve gleaned relevant details from search, like business hours or contact info.

On average, local results in Search drive more than 4 billion connections for businesses every month. This includes more than 2 billion visits to websites as well as connections like phone calls, directions, ordering food and making reservations.”

Google does also acknowledge that it has added tools which essentially reduce referral clicks – like maps, videos, and flight and hotel booking options. But overall, Google remains a key driver of web traffic for many businesses, which belies the suggestion that the majority of clicks don’t provide direct business benefit.

It’s an interesting argument, and angle – and especially so considering Google will face a House Committee hearing this week. But it is difficult to ascertain the full extent of the impact of ‘zero-click’ searches, and of Google’s ongoing efforts to provide more direct results and data within the SERP.

Is Google looking to angle search results more to its own benefit over time, at the expense of referral clicks to other websites? Fishkin does note that, overall, Google search traffic is growing, so the impacts may be negated somewhat by overall use. 

But it’s an interesting consideration for SEOs either way, and could be worthy of more analysis in your traffic assessments. 

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