Reality Check: Adapting to Google’s Ever-Growing Control of the Search Experience

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David: Hey, Mike. Hope October is off to a great start for you. It’s my favorite month of the year, especially in Oregon.

Mike: Well, for me it’s a transition month where I have to start cutting back my bike riding and have to relearn in-door exercise habits … or else. But this month I am motivated, as I will be heading to Vietnam on vacation and riding bikes there next month.

David: That’ll be amazing! Hope you get to un-plug from the Internet for a bit 😉

Mike: Me? Unplug? NEVER.

David: I have a feeling spotty wifi will help nudge you in that direction at least…

But before you go overseas, I thought we might discuss my friend Rand Fishkin’s BrightonSEO talk, which has been making a few waves in the SEO industry. He recently published it in video and Slideshare form, titled “The Infuriating Reality of Search’s Future.”

Mike: Everything in his talk has been the reality of Local for the past four years; none of it was revelatory to me. Google has been reducing the amount of traffic to local websites for a long time. And while it took a while to understand what was happening, it isn’t infuriating.

1) It is reality and 2) businesses can still get in front of customers and garner leads—it’s just not via their website.

But as much change as Rand has seen over the past few years, much, much more is coming.

David: Google’s evolution in this direction does seem obvious to those of us paying close attention to Local for as long as you and I have. Authoritative OneBoxes have been around for a decade now. I always point to those as the seminal moment of this trend.

Mike: But it was the Knowledge Panel, the offspring of the OneBox, that we started seeing in early 2013 where Google really began their quest to capture user engagement directly on Google. From their point of view, it’s all in the effort of providing end users with the information that they are looking for. Regardless, it’s been happening for quite some time.

David: I found Rand’s positioning of the “deal” between Google and content creators curious. There has never been any “deal” as far as I can tell.

Google has been a source of trillions of free website referrals over the years, but their goal has always been, as you said, to answer a user’s search as quickly and as successfully as possible.

“I’m Feeling Lucky” has been an option on their homepage since the beginning of Google-time. They’re finally approaching the point where luck is now Machine-Learned skill, and the best way to present those answers is no longer referring a searcher to browse a list of websites, and then the website itself, to get the answer.

Mike: I agree. Rand seems to think of Google as a two-sided market. Actually, Google has figured out how to aggregate users and simply give publishers access to them. Their goal has always been to keep users happy enough to not leave. And if they keep them happy enough, they can make a ton of money selling publishers ways to get in touch with them.

David: The “surprise” for non-Local SEOs is, I think, the extent to which Google is now able to match the intent of a query not just with a given webpage, but the salient portion of that webpage that addresses the query—which, as you pointed out last week, is not just text snippets, but images and increasingly other (potentially interactive) media.

Just as an example, I’ve seen a more than a handful of video OneBoxes that cut right to the segment of the video that answered my question.

Mike: I think Google, with their strong position in Local, is just getting started in terms of offering more and more ways to keep users on their site, from significantly more granular content to the ability to transact right in the search results.

Google often thinks that they can provide a better user experience than most publishers (but particularly small, local businesses). While it is arrogant, there is often truth in it as well.

We are seeing more and more cases where Google is using their Reserve with Google to capture an increasing array of transaction types across ever more industries. Restaurants and hotels are but two recent examples.

As we saw with their recent search announcements, they are interested in “collecting” all of the information a searcher needs to complete the full journey from exploration to purchase without ever leaving Google.

To me, this means that what Rand is noticing will accelerate across all aspects of search.  

David: Seems like a topic that deserves an entire side conversation—for our next discussion.

For now, let’s talk for a couple minutes about the staggering and staggeringly un-addressed impact of this trend on the SEO industry.

Given the complexity of explaining this trend to clients, and the difficulty in constructing an ongoing training curriculum for employees that can keep pace, I can sort of understand the inertia of the on-site optimization focus that has built up in our industry.  

Mike: I think it is all too easy for agencies to take a cookie-cutter approach using standard dogma around “best practices” to offer client solutions. I thought that Will Critchlow captured that perfectly in this Moz Whiteboard Friday video when he noted that 40% of common tech audit recommendations make no difference in the real world.

David: And my guess is that the 60% of those recommendations have a much larger impact for brands, where solving systemic (often technical) problems can pay massive dividends once they’re sorted out.

But for smaller companies with smaller websites—the typical 5–50-page small business website, for example—most SEO agencies are still selling plans and packages that feel like they were designed in 2010.

The lens through which I’ve viewed Local SEO has always been about On-SERP optimization since the advent of the 10-pack and the Authoritative Onebox. Our friend Will Scott has been talking about the power of Barnacle SEO for close to a decade.  

I see very few agencies leading with Knowledge Panel optimization or Barnacle SEO, though. Title tags, meta descriptions, and image alt text are apparently much easier to sell (or are perceived to be easier to execute?) despite having a lower impact on customer acquisition.

Mike: I agree. Knowledge Panel optimization can be a key differentiator that will convert more customers and could be an obvious focus for the agency.

I would add that in many ways your own website has become the “ultimate barnacle” in marketing. But it means that content creators and SEOs, if they want to influence Google’s results, will need to worry much more about context and content than technical aspects like image file names and alt tags (not that they are not important for other reasons).

It goes back to your idea of the website being a feed for Google, though it will need to feed not just information about your business but also topical relevance and authority. That’s hard to package and sell.

David: Nothing I’ve seen in the last two years has changed my predictions for this space: the return on SEO investment for the average small business will decline, and there will be fewer winners.

But among those agencies with the resources to help their clients compete, I’d love to see a radical rethinking of service packages that were designed for the bygone Ten Blue Links era, and more experimentation around tactics that create that topical relevance and authority.


After more than a decade in local search, David Mihm now runs Tidings, an email newsletter platform for small businesses that leverages their everyday social media activity, and his own weekly newsletter, Minutive. In 2012, he sold his former company to Moz, helping over 3 million businesses get better visibility in Google and other search engines. Along with Mike, he’s a co-founder of Local University. 

Mike Blumenthal is a co-founder of GatherUp, a feedback and reputation platform, and LocalU, which provides small business and agency training in sustainable local search marketing. His motto: All Local All the Time. He writes at his blog and does a twice-a-week podcast about Local marketing. 


Got an idea for what you want Mike and David to discuss next time? Send it to either [email protected] or [email protected], or just leave a comment below and we’ll put it in the hopper!

After more than a decade in local search, David Mihm now serves as VP of Product Strategy at ThriveHive, leading the direction of the company’s search-related product offerings. He’s also the Founder & CEO of Tidings, an email newsletter platform for small businesses that leverages their everyday social media activity, and his own weekly newsletters, Minutive and the Agency Insider. He’s the former founder of, Director of Local Strategy at Moz, and along with Mike Blumenthal, he’s a co-founder of Local University. Mike Blumenthal is the co-founder and analyst at Near Media where he researches and reports on reputation, reviews and local search. Mike has been involved in local search and local marketing strategy for almost 20 years. He explores the online to offline local ecosystem and helps businesses understand it and benefit from it through writing, speaking and education.