The Era of Zero-Click Consumer Engagement Is Here

The stories we have to tell about local search and location marketing in 2021 might appear at first to be a case of “more of the same.” Google My Business is more important and central than ever, as are sites and apps that generate their own dedicated traffic, such as Yelp, Apple Maps, and Facebook. Reviews are more important than ever. Well-optimized profiles linked to well-optimized websites are more important than ever. Though the significance of each of these things continues to grow, it’s a story we’ve heard before.

Still, upon reflection I think many of us will agree that we are in the midst of a tipping point. You might describe it as the historical moment when location marketing becomes mainstream. I’m using that term to draw a circle around local search and its ancillary activities, such as hyperlocal advertising, localized email marketing, and anything else related to digital methods for translating online traffic to offline sales. One of the notable side effects of our pandemic era has been a swift broadening of awareness of how much consumers rely on these channels. If 2020 was a year of dramatic change, 2021 is the year when we can begin to comprehend what that change means for the future. 

From Open Web to Zero Click

Local search used to be complicated to accomplish and to explain. Through roundabout publication pathways involving terminology like “data aggregators” and “end publishers,” business listings made their way to consumers across a highly competitive, extremely fragmented landscape of websites. To succeed in local search, the proposition went, you had to create strong listings on Mapquest, Superpages, Citysearch, and YP.com, not to mention Magic Yellow, Insider Pages, Yellowbot, and a host of other sites, most of which have faded into our collective memories. Even search itself, inside and outside the local sphere, was a space for real competition, with Bing and Yahoo each winning significant market share for many years in the 2000s into the 2010s, even though Google’s ascendancy, once established, was never seriously questioned and never stopped growing. Though Yahoo Local’s relevance today is approximately nil, you can still find old-school SEO types who look askance at your local search offering if it is not included..

Rather than reciting the steps that brought us from there to here, I can merely mention Rand Fishkin’s paradigm-shifting 2019 report that found more than 50% of Google searches were now zero-click. Zero-click means that the searcher found an answer or performed an action (such as calling a business via Google local results) without ever clicking through to a website. 

Google hasn’t quite abandoned its original mission — “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” — but it has certainly reinterpreted that goal in a dramatic fashion. The company made its reputation on providing the best possible gateway to the World Wide Web; now, if Fishkin’s findings are correct, most of the time people don’t bother walking through that gateway because the information they are searching for is right there in the search result page. 

I said that our current historical moment is a case of “more of the same.” As a case in point, Fishkin updated his findings earlier this year, using a different data source that now extends to searches across the globe. His latest results show that zero-click grew in 2020 to two out of every three searches. 

If we turn our attention back to local, we can see some of the ways Google has accomplished this momentous shift. As an arm of the project to create a map of the world’s information known as the Knowledge Graph, Google has devoted significant energy in recent years toward defining businesses as semantic entities in minute detail. This is no mere academic exercise. Google has essentially redefined the old idea of an online business listing, analogous to print listings in the white and yellow pages, by expanding the listing into a more robust data object better termed a business profile. In addition to basic contact information, Google now permits and encourages businesses to add categorized photos, structured menus, action-oriented URLs (appointment booking, food ordering), social media-like posts, answers to consumer questions, responses to consumer reviews, attributes of the business, service details, lists of products, special and secondary hours, and more. With real-time messaging, following, update feeds, and other social features, Google is also pushing to make these rich business profiles more sticky and engaging. 

Shortening the Distance from Brands to Consumers

As early as 2017, local SEO guru Mike Blumenthal started calling Google “your new homepage.” Again, 2021 is the same, only moreso. If things were leaning that way in 2017, in the intervening years Google has done even more to build out Google My Business features and to extract relevant information from business websites to display as snippets in search, making the website itself more and more a repository of supplementary information rather than a primary site of consumer engagement. 

The demise of the Mapquests and Superpages of the world is one obvious outcome of Google’s increasing dominance, though this is not to say that competition for relevant local results is a thing of the past. Instead, publishers who have maintained a loyal user base, like Yelp and Apple Maps, or who have grown up in the wake of our larger history, like Snapchat and Tiktok, have carved out a share of the market based on the demographics they most appeal to. Yelp in particular has done its own part to turn business listings into rich profiles in recent years, and was especially active and pioneering during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in aggressively adding new features that would be of use to businesses and consumers. 

When the pandemic hit, local search was both ready and completely unprepared. Google My Business, Yelp, and other local resources were ready to serve up relevant results for local searches, traditionally defined; they could not have anticipated the very non-traditional nature of the searches consumers actually performed: searches for safe shopping hours, curbside pickup, sanitation practices, and so much more overwhelmed the ecosystem, and had repercussions in two directions. 

For the publishers, this was a signal that local search had to grow and grow fast. For businesses, it was a wake-up call that stated in no uncertain terms: Consumers depend on digital channels of information, and when the need becomes desperate, that dependence is shown starkly and unmistakably. At Brandify, we saw client after client turn to us with a renewed sense of urgency regarding the importance of local search. Suddenly, the boss’s boss’s boss was paying attention. 

At this vantage point, I seriously doubt we will ever return to the previous complacency. There’s nothing like a crisis to awaken us to our basic needs. If you’ve ever been without water or electricity for a day, you know what it means to realize, minute by minute, how critical those resources are to your daily life. Location marketing has now had its testing moment, a moment that Google and its contemporary alternatives have been priming themselves for, whether knowingly or not, for quite some time. The era of zero-click consumer engagement has arrived; if that had been apparent to local SEOs prior to this year, it’s now clear to consumers and everyone else concerned with the business of local commerce.

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Damian Rollison writes the Streets Ahead column for Street Fight. He is VP of Market Development and Strategic Partnerships at Brandify, and can be reached via Twitter at @damianrollison. Brandify is the publisher of Street Fight.