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2024 in Search Marketing: Buckle Up!

By February 14, 2024No Comments

[00:00]     As digital marketers, you’re already familiar with how much the job is just adapting to change as it comes at us because it never slows down. However, even by our standards, I think 2024 is gonna be a bit bonkers. First up, let’s acknowledge that some things haven’t really changed even if the work continues. For example, within SEO, professionals are used to sort of paying attention to and adapting to changes to the Google algorithm. However, it does seem like we’re seeing some macro trends now that remind me of some things that we’ve seen before.

[00:30]     Namely, we’re seeing a consolidation of authority back toward manufacturing brands and away from retailers. Now in the past, this was also used to draw traffic away from what were aggregators and comparison shopping engines, affiliate marketplaces, and things like that and bring it back to the manufacturing brands, which were probably more related to what the searcher was intending than some of those other types of sites were at the time. Now that was almost 10 years ago, but we’re seeing a similar trend now where retailers are having a little bit harder time competing with the brands that they carry, while direct to consumer brands are seeing a little less pressure on their own brand and their own niche within their their product type. Now this is a moving target. The other thing that I wanted to highlight was just how volatile everything seems to be.

[01:18]     A single site might see a year over year gain of 20% one month, and then see a 20% drop compared to the previous year the next month. There’s a lot more volatility and overall volume than I think most of us are accustomed to. And that’s just limiting ourselves to talking about the actual algorithm behind the rankings. The search engine results page (or SERP) ends up being a center point to a lot of other change too. But this time it’s a fundamental change to what the SERP is even doing.

[01:45]     Instead of just presenting “ten blue links” like ye olden days, instead, the SGE, the search generative experience, or or Google’s attempt to bake generative AI into their answers is taking up a lot more of the audience. So you’re seeing more and more of a push toward zero-click content, but it’s not the zero-click content we were talking about a year or two ago. It’s now rolled into this SGE experience. Now as spooky as all of that volatility genuinely is, some things haven’t really changed all that much. For example, Google’s job, at least within Ecommerce, continues to be helping a shopper find the product that they want to buy, and then in what vendor to buy it from.

[02:26]     That much hasn’t changed. And as a result, fundamentally, the parts of our jobs where we facilitate that also don’t really change all that much aside, from maybe the implementation details. What has changed for Google is not new tools, is not AI. Right now, what’s changing for Google is whether or not they can assume that shopper is gonna come to them to begin with.

[02:46]     Now in the past, we’ve known a lot of shopping begins on Amazon and doesn’t leave Amazon, and the rest that area with Google’s. But more and more, it isn’t. More and more of those shoppers are starting somewhere else entirely. Amazon continues to a huge player in that space and continues to have a larger and larger market share. But you also see a lot of search like behavior starting on other places like TikTok where the audience already is, and so it is a natural continuation from that audience to their other activities.

[03:16]     Search is still something special though because there’s an intent behind behind that shopper. So Google has to be very careful not to kill the golden goose. Something shoppers are going to notice in 2024 is more and more product data in search results, at least when they are clearly a shopping query. And so what we’re seeing there is the fact that Google is starting to figure out how to get better product data. Historically, they’ve made several attempts at trying to scrape that data themselves and alleviate the need for product feeds and the like, but product data is inherently harder to do than general website content, partially because it’s just fragile.

[03:51]     If you get a UPC code wrong or you get a price wrong, that product Just can’t work in a search result whether that’s a paid ad or not. So Google has sort of been chewing and biting and trying to claw their way through this problem for years, But I think they finally fought their way through this enough that it’s starting to work. I had the same kind of hesitation when it came to their automated bidding systems, which have definitely improved over the years. And I think that they finally put in the work and time to try and make this product data crawling system work, or at least work well enough. I don’t think they’re really intended to try and current advertisers more successful.

[04:26]     Rather, what they’re trying to do is lower the barrier to entry to new advertisers, period. If Google can only get so much market share, especially while they’re trying to avoid having too much scrutiny on that market share from a legislative standpoint, then we’re also looking at them trying to find other ways to make more money. You’ve seen the headlines on CPCs going up and some of the things that they’ve done to “facilitate” that increase in CPCs, but there’s there’s only so much that they can squeeze out of that particular stone. So what they’re gonna need to do is continue to find new people to put new credit cards into system. And that means trying to lower the barrier of entry farther and farther every year.

[05:03]     This year, I think they’ve got some of the pieces put together that I’ve I’ve scoffed at in years past. So what that’s going to end up doing is they’re going to end up trying to consolidate tools and try and get more and more adoption of those tools. Now if we switch to some of the things that are directly relevant to the marketers, managing campaigns for example, you’ve seen some of that in the consolidation toward Performance Max campaigns. Some of that is based on Google’s very real data superiority. Now, if they have all kinds of data from all kinds of sources and they can connect it in just the right way, they can make something valuable happen.

[05:43]     That’s true. However, it’s not very transparent or accountable. And so you can tell from the way that they’re choosing to deploy things like Performance Max. That their incentives aren’t just the benefit of marketers, but rather trying to lower the barrier to entry to marketers and get as many different kinds of their ad inventory into these campaigns as possible. Because if nobody’s buying their garbage Gmail ad space, then they’re not making any money on that space.

[06:09]     And so they’re looking for ways to add that gristle into other sausage. All that freshly scraped product data has got to go somewhere though, and that’s where another major pillar of Google’s 2024 strategy comes into play–Google Merchant Center Next. So this is a sort of alternative version of Merchant Center that is intended to be easier to use, certainly easier to get started with, and is absolutely aimed at helping new advertisers get going quickly. This is probably going to replace standard Merchant Center, but it might take a year or two depending on how quickly they can build out the tools to make it viable for larger, more complicated advertisers.

[06:47]     Now this is a perfectly reasonable point to go, “why?” Why is Google changing all this stuff on us. Like, what what possible motive would they have for moving everybody’s cheese at the same time? Surely, they are not going to benefit from all of that volatility. They might get a windfall here or there as a new advertiser burns through their savings before they realize their mistake.

[07:06]     But really, there’s a very clear reason for this and that is because Google is responding to multiple competing pressures. First, yes, they have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders and that is distinguishable from sociopathy when it comes to how they’re making decisions. But that’s not the only thing. If it were just that, we could see their greedy fingerprints all the way through this. Another factor is in play that it’s good to be aware of and that is they are afraid of regulation.

[07:31]     They are trying to avoid anti-trust scrutiny and they are trying to avoid the perception that they are the juggernaut that they really are. Realistically, one of the major factors that was behind their decision to roll out GA4 on a totally new stack and retire universal analytics. Perhaps there were some cost savings for them as well. But realistically, it was an anticipation of the cookie-pocalypse which is coming this summer. Now, I’m sure you’ve seen Cookies getting retired in headlines for a couple years now.

[08:01]     It’s happening this year. It’s it’s actually gonna happen. It’s it’s not getting pushed back again. If it does, it won’t be a material difference. So it’s happening. But what what is that? I mean, unless you’re a former programmer like me, or somebody who has been really close to the actual tracking nuts and bolts of marketing, you might not fully grok it, but we’ve seen this kind thing before. Do you remember iOS14 when Apple decided to come gouge out one of our eyes out as marketers?

[08:27]     Well, Google’s coming back around for that other eye. So this is going to fundamentally change the way that we have to measure all of our efforts and our investments and our expenses and things like that. We’re going to need to come to our attribution decisions in a fundamentally different way than we might have been if we were using Google Analytics, especially UA, as our system of record. Now if you noticed that by Google getting rid of third party cookies, it gets harder to justify spending money on Google, you’re correct. And that is Google’s two competing priorities colliding in the middle.

[08:59]     Their fear of regulation is greater than their fear of a lack of provability to advertisers. And so they are getting rid of third party cookies, accepting that as the premise for the environment in which they’re operating and doing their best to try and putty over the hole so that the rest of us us continue to spend money with some amount of confidence on their platform. Now luckily, they already had a solution built. They built it back in response to the iOS14 update, And that is called Enhanced Conversions within Google Ads. And what enhanced conversions means is they make up numbers and hope that you trust them on it.

[09:33]     Now, it’s a little bit more complicated than that but at the basic level, they know how much revenue they tracked directly. They know how much revenue there might have been overall or had a model of, and then they say whatever properties are true within this segment, imply that these These are true for the overall. They’re not just linear extrapolation out from that smaller sample necessarily, although it could be as simple as that. But ultimately, they’re they’re using what data they out to make reasonable assumptions, but they’re still just assumptions about the whole.

[10:04]     Here’s the thing. That was optional until now. Starting this year, enhanced conversions are going to be mandatory. So when you see revenue in your Google Ads account, that’s not real money. That’s supposed to correlate as closely as possible with real money–but it isn’t.

[10:20]     And that’s where we get to the final chapter of of my little 2024 preview rant here and that is accountability within this new ecosystem. If the future is no longer building toward this magic x-ray that tells us the comings and goings of every shopper on our site, And instead, we’re going to end up in a lot more of a kind of blind scenario where we can’t really directly measure everything that we’re accustomed to. How are we going to measure the efficacy of our budgets and investment decisions into these paid marketing channels like Google Ads or the budget behind an SEO effort? Well, we’re gonna have to get back to fundamentals. And by fundamentals, I mean, like, all the way back.

[10:59]     All the way back to, like, the invention of radio advertising. And the reason that we’re thinking like that is because That kind of measurement already assumed that they couldn’t track the shopper all the way from the initial familiarity with the brand to the purchase. And And so they accepted that as the reality and they built methods to measure that impact anyway. Holdback analysis, incrementality testing. These things are things that should have already been in our toolbox as marketers, but we’re gonna be relying on them a lot more heavily in 2024 as all of our tools start to diverge a little bit from reality.

[11:33]     So I mentioned that there were a lot of moving pieces this year, and obviously that’s true. But in summary, the Search results pages are going to change a lot. Google is going to keep changing them as they figure out the best way to serve shoppers’ needs using modern tools and servicing the experience that those shoppers are coming to expect. To support that, automation is going to continue to be a major factor. It’s gonna become more and more mandatory.

[11:55]     We’re We’re going to have to adapt to Google’s requirements and the requirements being placed on Google. But some of these tools may actually end up saving some effort in the long run. Just I don’t think we’re quite there yet. So do use them, but do what you can to try and maintain some sort of quality assurance over it because these things are still her sort of teenage level. Then finally measurement and attribution, our old systems are gone.

[12:18]     They’re not coming back. So we’re going to have to adapt and that’s going to involve a lot more old-school statistical scrutiny. So marketers have had a pretty easy decade or so And when it comes to measurement, it’s it’s going to be a little bit of a step backwards for us. So dust off those old statistical skills. Otherwise, you could be looking at made-up numbers because Google is happy to produce beautiful fictions for you if that’s what you’re looking Bottom line is 2024 is fundamentally different than 2023 or 2022 or 2018.

[12:49]     Too many moving pieces and they’re all changing at the same time. However, where there’s volatility, there’s opportunity because at the very least all of your competitors are going into the same maelstrom that you are, and if you have at least a little bit of an idea of what to expect, then you can be better positioned to take advantage of it.