A New Normal for Organic Search – A Retailer Trend

With the holidays looming, retailers are bustling to get ready for the most important selling season of the year. But here at iProspect, we have been seeing some interesting organic trends in the retail space that could make this holiday more profitable than ever before. With the explosive growth in the volume of content and data points, it’s no surprise that Google is finding more effective ways to send consumers to retail sites; and initial performance indicates that the outcome is mutually beneficial to both the consumer and the retailer.


Over the past six months, we have been watching the development of an ongoing trend that has the potential to affect all retail sites, but which has gone largely unnoticed by the industry media.  Analyzing the traffic and conversation data of a sample set of Fortune 500 retail sites, we saw that while organic traffic is declining, revenue is rising. While, at the surface, this trend indicates that the quality of traffic being sent to these retailer sites is more qualified, the shift was notable enough to warrant further investigation. Questions we wanted answers to included:

  • Was this in fact an industry-wide trend, or an isolated anomaly?
  • If we could recoup the traffic losses, would conversions/revenue increase?
  • Did this trend show that there had there been a search engine shift that created a “new normal” for retail queries?

As internal conversations progressed and clients began asking more questions of their own, our team dug further into the data to get to the bottom of the story.

The Data: Retail SEO Performance

Intending to use the power of numbers to unlock this irregularity, we dove into the organic performance data for six different retail sites. Each of these sites had seen traffic declines, but had also seen fairly significant increases in revenue. The graph below shows traffic and revenue numbers comparing Q2 April to June of 2016 to same months in 2015.

Changing Landscape

There have recently been some notable changes to the SERP that have affected organic rankings, and these undoubtedly played a role in the decrease of traffic to these retail sites. Some of the major contributors were the local 3-pack change, the addition of the 4th ad, and the expanded text ads.  All of these changes reduced the visibility of organic in different ways, but confirmed that Google is moving toward a more “mobile-first” experience, even on desktop.

These changes in the SERP validate the drop in traffic (especially when a large percentage of traffic is driven by localized intent to find a store), but that didn’t explain how these retailers were maintaining and growing their revenue. Looking at the universal rankings of these retail sites, we found that local 3-pack, places, and quick-answer queries had massively increased in volume starting around January of this year. In layman's terms, these brands are now present and visible in more search mediums than ever before, and – because those universal positions are more tailored to user intent  – traffic coming from them is more qualified.

What Does This Mean?

Brands now have access to more touchpoints than ever before with the ability to be present across a dynamic content landscape of blended results. And most importantly, these touchpoints are more qualified as they appear tailored and nuanced to an individual, thus conveying more authenticity. Brands are discoverable via a multitude of search mediums including local, video, quick answers, images, apps, and more. This breadth of opportunity puts the onus on retailers to consistently be visible at all the critical moments, whenever and wherever their target consumers choose to search during their digital journey. Retailers can take advantage of this by:

  • Creating unique store-locator pages that utilize content around NAP, store hours, and local schema. The more localized the content, the more useful it will be to the consumer. Since the engines and consumers are already prioritizing mobile, retailers need to follow suit by being available and optimized for those intent-driven queries.
  • Inspiring and educating their consumers by answering industry questions as a topical authority and aligning a customer problem with business issues to create urgency. This can be done by creating buying guides, blog posts, and image galleries, or even by using FAQ and how-to pages.
  • Helping consumers to identify needs and available products while differentiating their products from others. Creating product comparisons, expert guides, product reviews, and niche topic articles.
  • Validating the consumer’s decision to move forward with their brand and product. This can be as simple as creating product pages, contact form pages, testimonials, and email subscriptions.
  • Paying attention to the details of product implementation including rating and offer markups that can help differentiate your product from the rest.

In summary, the declining traffic appears to be coming from less qualified queries, a loss which does not pose a threat to our retailers. What is now apparent more than ever before is the level of granularity that search engines can display in the listings. Search engine evolutions like Hummingbird and Rank Brain have paved the way for a more custom, personalized experience that ensures all types of unique content are visible to users. Based on our findings, retailers are just now seeing the shift in organic performance.

A special thanks to Erika Karas, Yas Haque, Heather Hamrick and Andrea Zide who quickly worked together to pull some insightful data.