As we sweat through the first heatwave of summer 2019, Google is slowly but surely coming under pressure from the US antitrust watchdogs. That’s why in June’s edition of SEO News, we will be examining whether the search engine should be seriously concerned about the possibility of being broken up.

Google is set to become a global portal

Since Donald Trump’s election to President of the United States, governance on the other side of the Atlantic has not been quite as rigorous as it once was. Given that no important legislation is being passed in Washington D.C. anymore, politicians are even more eager to figure out how they got into this mess in the first place. That’s why the bosses of digital giants like Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple are being summoned by Congress, in no particular order, for the purposes of fact-finding and damage limitation. With the threat of antitrust laws being used to break up the corporation hanging over his head like a sword of Damocles, last December Google CEO Sundar Pichai was also forced to answer the question of what his company is doing with its legendary reach. More precisely put: How many hits does Google forward to third-party sites as a conventional search engine, and how much of this reach does the company retain for commercial exploitation and monetisation on its own Alphabet Holding websites and apps?

The answer Pichai gave at the time was not terribly helpful; rather than citing specific figures, he instead made vague statements about the distinctive characteristics of the user journey in Search. The search engine from Mountain View is also about to turn this user journey completely on its head: At the recent search marketing conference SMX Advanced in Seattle, observers were in agreement, for example, that Google is becoming increasingly less a search engine and much more a portal.

Clickstream data confirm the trend

A recent blog post from SEO aficionado Rand Fishkin conveniently fills in the gap in the numbers. Using clickstream data from analytics firm Jumpshot for the US market, he showed that around half of the approximately 150 billion Google hits in the US in 2018 were so-called ‘no-click searches’ – in other words, end points of the user journey, with no further click to a third-party site following the search request. This means that Google answers every second user’s query on its own website, thereby itself becoming the end point of the user journey.

New design layouts and clickable features in its once cleanly structured search results give the impression that Google is increasingly taking on the function of a classic web portal, according to the intention of the user request. What’s more, Google forwards around twelve percent of clicks to its own third-party sites, such as YouTube, according to Jumpshot data. According to Fishkin, what is not known is how many search requests are forwarded to a Google app such as Maps or Gmail on mobile devices and opened in those. This still leaves a significant proportion of more than 40 percent – over 60 billion clicks annually – that are forwarded to third-party sites as organic traffic on the Internet.

His traffic analysis also shows that the total number of these clicks has remained relatively consistent overall over the past three years. On the other hand, organic traffic from mobile end devices is falling sharply compared to desktop devices. This can be attributed to the increasing preference for paid and local search results on the small screen. The reason this decline in organic traffic from mobile searches is not yet being felt by website operators, according to Fishkin, is that Google’s reach continues to grow rapidly.

Google is standing at a crossroads

Let’s recap: Google is capitalising on most of its traffic growth on its own websites and apps. This loss of potential visitors to third-party websites is currently being offset by Google’s steep overall growth, however. One of the major reasons for this development is that the search engine from Mountain View no longer differs all that much from its commercial competitors – the price comparison and shopping platforms – when it comes to certain structured search requests, such as for flights, hotels or cinema listings.

The hearings before Congress and investigations reportedly launched by the US Department of Justice are therefore coming at the right time. Google must decide whether it wants to be a search engine or an omniscient universal portal. The diversification of its business model should not come at a cost to other market players.

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