Google’s Next Big Search Innovation: Stealing Your Web Traffic

by | Jul 28, 2022 | Business

There are many models by which we can attempt to understand our ever-changing modern economy. Growth-based and labor-centric lenses, for example, each lead to a slightly different understanding of how and why money and other resources change hands in our increasingly online world. The idea of a content-based economy, where products and experiences are increasingly taking the form of intangible digital goods, is likely already familiar to you if you’re making a living online. Even for those who use the internet to sell physical products or traditional in-person services, good content is an ever-more valuable resource.

Zooming in on the world of digital marketing experts and search engine optimization wizards, perhaps it’s better to drop the “content economy” buzzword and say, instead, that we’re living in a click-based economy. Each click of the mouse or tap of the touchscreen that sends someone to your website has a quantifiable value. Each potential customer who scrolls by is money left on the table. It is not really a metaphor at all to frame this as an economic model. Each click from each potential source—be they paid ads, social media campaigns, direct visits, or something else—has a real-world dollar value, with analysts and algorithms working tirelessly to evaluate those prices within a fraction of a penny.

By effectively leveraging this data and combining it with good SEO and winning content management strategies, small and medium businesses have been able to thrive online to compete for clicks and customers with operations that outsize them significantly. While the advent of the commercial internet has also allowed mega corporations (like Google itself) to increase their profits and expand their reach, the democratic nature of the internet has simultaneously helped even the playing field for small and medium operators in several sectors.

That’s why it’s kind of a big deal to small online business owners when Google starts stealing their clicks.

Before we get into exactly what that means—and how you can fight back—it’s important to also consider who’s doing the stealing here. Google is not merely a huge corporation unethically helping themselves to content created by small businesses; they are practically the entire reason SEO exists as a field in the first place. With over 90% of search activity worldwide occurring on Google, SEO experts can just about ignore other search engines entirely. Content creators and website designers are all too familiar with changing up their techniques to accommodate every new update in Google’s web indexing technology. Modern SEO is essentially defined by one thing: the endless quest to stay at the top of the Google search results page. So that slap in the face stings a little extra when Google itself starts exploiting the content you carefully crafted to appease its juggernaut search engine.

What Exactly is Google “Stealing” … and Why?

The root of the problem is something that you may have already encountered without realizing it was a problem at all. In fact, you may have already been implicated in some of this theft yourself. You may have even found it convenient at the time!

It all comes down to something called “zero-click searches.” A zero-click search is just what it sounds like: a web search that ends without any of the results actually being clicked on. Today, these sorts of click-free search experiences are actually more prevalent than those involving one or more clicks.

For a real-world example of a zero-click search, you can think of one of those instances where you might turn to Google for a quick fact. Let’s try “what colors do petunias come in.” The top result is from a website called Garden Lovers Club. I can see the website URL, but I never have to click on anything or visit the Garden Lovers Club website because Google has intelligently found the information I wanted on the website and served me a snippet from the Garden Lovers Club website right there atop the search results page, which lists popular petunia colors.

Now I know exactly what I wanted to know, and I know it without ever leaving Google’s main search page. That’s a zero-click search, and it keeps web audiences scrolling and re-querying Google for answers instead of clicking through to another website for a deep dive into the search results.

It’s very convenient. It’s also probably intellectual property theft. In my example above, Google has effectively turned the content of a gardening website into its own product without directing any traffic to the gardening website or otherwise compensating them. Perhaps even more concerning, the theft was done mindlessly. The mining and re-displaying of this content is all, of course, performed automatically, with the help of your innocent search query, through behind-the-scenes applications and advanced algorithms. A computer program on a Google server will figure out exactly what information you’re looking for and then shamelessly copy/paste it to a Google search results page without anyone at Google ever having to lift a finger, much less confront the ethical quagmire inherent to every zero-click search.

Google’s unauthorized re-use of third-party content is extensive and deliberate. Specific types of content such as film casts, hotels, flight information, concert schedules, demographic data, and more all get special formatting when they’re served at the top of Google search results, and nearly all of this content is being sourced from other websites which may get no credit at all but a link in small type beneath the content. Google also liberally repurposes images from other websites in addition to the pilfered text content.

They have clearly gone to great lengths to make all of this “borrowed” content accessible, attractively presented, and usable without the visitor ever having to leave Google. This has effectively ended the age of Google as a web index that drives traffic to other websites. Now Google’s flagship search product is a sort of knowledge clearinghouse—an all-encompassing super-publisher—that actively competes with every other website on the internet instead… and does so by using their own content against them.

Businesses of all sizes have taken notice of this. The popular lyrics website, Genius, for example, has already sued Google to the tune of tens of millions of dollars over the fact that song lyrics from Genius would come up in their entirety on a Google search results page when a user Googled the lyrics to their favorite song.

Reclaiming Your Traffic

So, how can web developers and content creators fight back against a mega-corporation that feels entitled to appropriate their content at will? It’s obviously a bit of a David and Goliath proposition, but don’t despair.

First, continue creating excellent and specific content. While Google’s algorithms are becoming quite good at scraping third-party websites for the exact content web searchers want, many complex questions will require more of an answer than what can fit in a blurb at the top of a search results page. Create medium- and long-form content that includes specific, actionable advice that users won’t find elsewhere.

If you are selling a product or service (rather than merely trying to drive traffic to a website for the sake of the traffic itself), consider diverting some of your energy from SEO development to purchasing text or image ads (at least for the short term to see if your numbers improve). Despite Google’s willingness to scrape web pages and prominently repackage third-party content as if it were their own, much of the best real estate on a Google search results page is still going to paid ads.

For what it’s worth, Google is aware of the issue, as well as the growing litany of complaints surrounding it. Google Public Search Liason Danny Sullivan responded to the crisis by way of Twitter, saying the company’s top priority is “to continue supporting the ecosystem.” A positive message for sure, but at this point, small business owners who’ve had their content scraped and repurposed could be forgiven for thinking it sounds a bit like a wolf in a pasture announcing his commitment to supporting the sheep – while picking wool from his teeth.

Leo Siren

Leo Siren

Leo Siren is a freelance content creator from Michigan's Upper Peninsula drawing on his multifaceted experience as a public librarian, assistant harbormaster, financial software systems analyst, and forklift operator to deliver innovative, high performing content in a range of text and audio formats. His personal interests include the electric banjo, referencing Elder Scrolls lore in everyday conversations, attempting to identify wild mushrooms, and various other things that upset the people around him.