Lack of Clicks Does Not a Recession Make

Lots of noise in the press the last few days that the recession has officially hit the search marketing world.

ComScore recently released January stats showing flat growth in paid clicks via Google year over year. The news sent investors scurrying and Google’s stock dropped about 9% -- which translates to billions in market cap.

It seems this data reflects that consumers, armed with less discretionary income, have curtailed their online spending and thus… no, wait a minute... the comScore research says nothing about reduced spend or lower conversion rates for search marketers. It just says people clicked on less ads.

Pardon me, but what does a recession have to do with people clicking on ads? Spending less, I’d understand -- but clicking less? They’ve already performed the query. They’ve already stated they are interested in X product, Y service, or Z information. Is something happening while they’re navigating the SERP reminding them they don’t have the money so they better not click on that ad? I think not.

And it’s not like search volume is down. Per Compete, the number of queries on Google in January was up 50% year over year.

Additional ammo against the search-sky-is-falling camp comes from Hitwise. They point out that traffic from Google to retail sites is actually up year over year.

And Tech Crunch notes that Yahoo paid clicks are up 15% year over year. Surely, you can’t say that the recession is affecting Google users but not Yahoo’s?

So what’s cooking here?

Google provided rationale for lower paid clicks in its Q4 earnings call, citing weeding out of low quality advertisers and reformatting AdSense placements to reduce accidental clicks.

However, there’s one contributing factor that has not been alluded to in the press -- outside of my last Search Insider column, that is. The continual roll-out of Universal search on Google could very well be reducing the number of clicks on SERP paid listings.

With the eye drawn to images in the middle of the natural results, people no longer consume SERPs top down. Instead, they start in the middle of the page and sniff around from there. So it’s a lot more likely they’ll get diverted before making it to the sponsored listings at the top or on the right.

What does this mean for paid search marketing? For one, it means clicks on paid listings should be more qualified. If someone took the time to scan past the images and the natural results surrounding them and made it to the paid ads, they must really want that product/service/information.

At the end of the day, savvy search marketers know the click is not the end-all-be-all of campaign performance. It’s all about post-click activity that ultimately leads to revenue -- online and/or offline. Let’s hope investors pick up on this and start using the same metrics to evaluate the health of our industry.

Posted by: Aaron Goldman, VP Marketing & Strategic Partnerships


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