If an online search doesn’t result in a click, did the search ever happen? Search engine optimization is a primary area of focus for digital marketers. So what happens when a person searches for a product or service and finds the information they need in the search results? A debate around if no-click or zero-click search behavior exists has fueled business speculation around the value of referral traffic from search engines.
A Brief Introduction to the No-Click Search Debate
In 2019, SEO expert, Moz founder and current co-founder of SparkToro Rand Fishkin published a piece on Jumpshot identifying no-click search as an increasing trend in Google US search volume. Fishkin coined the term no-click search — also called zero-click search — to describe the phenomena when a person searches for a desired product or service, yet does not click through to the SERP results to the website providing the answer. In web analytics terms, it results in no referral traffic from the search.
SEO experts know result enhancements such as feature snippets are helping people find the information they want on the first search engine result page. These enhancements provide additional relevant information to — in theory — entice users to visit a site. For example, feature snippets often include questions with answers based on text from the page header, tags and content.
Instead of luring people to click through results, however, the features are suspected of being a deterrent, eliminating referral traffic for conversions instead. The business concern is if people find their information only on the SERP, they will never see the source of the answer — the white papers, the blog posts, the apps and the products on the site.
No-Click Search Returns to the Spotlight
The topic came up for debate again when Fishkin published an update of his 2019 findings earlier this year. Fishkin’s new research examined 5.1 trillion global searches. He determined that 65% of those searches did not generate referral traffic to another web property.
SEO professionals debated the research’s conclusions, asking for clarification on the sources and the segmentation of the data. While mobile search was highlighted in the piece — zero-click searches on mobile devices indexed higher at 77.22% — identifying cohorts such as consumer segments, devices and time of day would provide a more nuanced explanation for the behavior and could help validate the outcomes.
The fact that the data sources of the two reports were different have also thrown the results into question. While there is a difference in scale and location — the first being US-based and the second being global — the difference in data sources creates questions of consistency with the methodology. Fishkin has responded to concerns in exchanges with SEO practitioners on Twitter, indicating the area needed more research.
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Is There Merit to the Zero-Clicks Theory?
The concept of no-click search implies a conflict of interest for Google. While Google is not obligated to send traffic to a website, its business value lies in being the default choice of search engine, generating the largest share of queries. This in turn drives interest in Google’s online services such as Search Console, Google Analytics and Trends. Google of course wants to avoid any appearance of businesses needing its services to gain effective customer attention online. If referral traffic is not reaching the providing website, Google appears to benefit from the increased search volumes — which would cause problems given Google’s enormous market share in search.
A larger concern is the potential of snippets to spread misinformation online. People who accept the first visual piece of information are cherry picking SERP details. That’s fine in cases such as searching for a menu item or operating hours for a favorite restaurant. But cherry picking behavior encourages confirmation bias for other kinds of information that require deeper reflection to derive meaning. The elimination of that assessment leaves people making decisions on poorly crafted or manipulative information.
Google pushed back on the methodology of the studies. In a March post, Google’s public liaison Danny Sullivan explained that many people use Google Search to connect to sites through a variety of ways, such as driving to a business after seeing its operational hours in a mobile search result.
This raises a vital point. Not all referral traffic comes from someone sitting in front of a laptop. People have more mobility when accessing the internet. That mobility creates additional intentions behind a query and drives different behavior.
On top of the segmentation questions raised, nether study explored if similar no-click patterns occurred on other search engines, such as Bing. Bing has a significantly smaller market share of search engine usage, but it has introduced feature snippets and other search features similar to those on Google. Evaluating if similar no-click conditions for websites exist when another search engine is used would strengthen any research findings. The results would better confirm if the search result enhancements are truly shifting the volume of referral search traffic and search behavior. Making such test data available would allow businesses to determine if a correlation to conversion rate exist.
What Should Businesses Do?
Businesses should continue to implement search strategies that rely on the context of webpage elements against a given query. It is too early to say if a no-click phenomenon is happening. Even if proven to be real, opportunities remain available to develop a strong presence, as Fishkin said in a Search Engine Land interview. He has encouraged other professionals to conduct independent research on search behavior findings.
The key takeaway is to continue to evaluate your referral traffic and attribution for your site, expect more debate among SEO professionals and watch for changes in your referral traffic.
Pierre DeBois is the founder of Zimana, a small business digital analytics consultancy. He reviews data from web analytics and social media dashboard solutions, then provides recommendations and web development action that improves marketing strategy and business profitability.