This essay originally was published on February 16, 2023 with the email subject line "CT No. 155: Medium, meet message."
For years, online businesses have depended on Google to drive audiences to their content. With something like 93% of global search market share at its peak, Google owned search engine use.
And why wouldn't it be the first focus for online businesses? For many years Google Search worked, Bing didn't feel like a serious alternative, and there were no other options to consider.
Leading search engine competitors — Bing, Baidu, Yandex, DuckDuckGo — didn’t even come close to sending the levels of traffic to online businesses that Google did.
But in 2022, Google's seemingly indestructible search product began to show cracks. First, more and more questions were asked about the quality of the search results. Engineers, press, the Hacker News crowd, and investors began to openly critique the search engine. Take this opinion, for instance, from venture capitalist Talia Goldberg:
Google search has deteriorated. Results are riddled with SEO arbitrageurs, ads, and affiliates. It pushes users to the highest bidders. It prioritizes its own results over organic links and prioritizes SEO-optimized sites over quality content. The quality and relevancy is declining. I am not the only one complaining.
As a professional SEO, I agreed in part. Searching for information on Google can feel like searching in the dark: you have to click open all the results to find the information you’re seeking.
But when I looked at the actual results for my employer — apart from the perceptions of writers and investors who don’t understand SEO or use analytics — I saw continued growth in traffic from organic search. For the business property I manage, I saw 47% traffic growth from organic search alone in 2022, compared to 10% growth in 2021. Other businesses are reporting all-time high traffic from organic search, indicating that audiences show no sign of abandoning the platform.
According to research from Growthbadger and corroborated by our knowledge of digital analytics, organic search is by far single largest online traffic source, driving over 50% of most industries' web traffic. Google specifically brings websites 8 times more traffic than all social media networks combined. If you’re looking to attract users to your website, organic search optimization, aka SEO primarily focusing on Google, is a safe bet.
It’s easy to critique Google and SEO if you don’t have experience with how it can drive serious growth to an online business with high-quality content, or if you’ve never audited your performance numbers. But we also know that the winds of change and a bottomless appetite for the next big thing can steer users — and investment dollars, online chatter and press perceptions — elsewhere. I had to ask: Why is everyone looking for a Google killer?
Understanding the difference between organic and paid search
Many who are unfamiliar with digital marketing lump all search tactics together as “Google.”* But organic search (aka SEO) plays a very different role from paid search (aka search engine marketing [SEM] or pay-per-click [PPC]) in a digital ecosystem, so let’s establish the differences for the unfamiliar:
- Organic search traffic: Audiences visiting from a search engine, where the visitor clicked on a “blue link” or other non-advertising search result.
- Paid search traffic: Audiences visiting from search engines, where the user clicked an advertiser’s clearly marked search ad at the top of search results.
Businesses use Google as an intermediary between content they create and the audiences they serve. In a basic media strategy, paid search typically funnels audiences directly to product sales and purchase pages, while organic search supports broader brand initiatives like content marketing and audience development.
If organic search as a channel disappears or is eliminated, the digital media landscape would drastically change, especially for web-based content businesses.
*From our understanding, Google’s free organic search product data remains mostly separate from its far more invasive advertising and browser businesses. But many consumers just see the brand “Google” as a privacy-obliterating monolith and want to kill it off. Yes, the business units are all part of the same company, but the algorithms and personal data aren't all swimming in the same pool yet. Branding! It has an impact, especially for monoliths. —DC
Why are we looking for Google killers in the first place?
Why is there such avid speculation about the end of Google search? Four reasons stand out:
- Quality: Sometimes Google’s search results aren't great. The amount of search result pages occupied by paid search ads has grown over the years, as Google tries to monetize its cash cow. At least for some queries, it seems that non-experts can easily get a top-3 position in the search results in many industries.
- A psychological factor: people simply enjoy seeing a major player fail. It's an underdog syndrome, or an assumed David vs Goliath dynamic that can move markets.
- Privacy concerns: A search engine like DuckDuckGo positions itself as the better alternative to Google because it doesn't use any tracking (yet it never really took off with user adoption).
- Legal matters: There are, of course, all the lawsuits and legislation.
Let's take this shift seriously and review TikTok and ChatGPT as search engines: Will these new tools kill Google Search?
Search queries match search results
Before we dive into the disruptors, let’s understand the difference between search queries, search intent and search results.
The words that your audience types into a search engine are their queries: “blue pleated pants” or “how to unclog a sink” are all queries. A query can also be an image, voice prompt, or even an audio recording.
After a user submits a query, they receive search results. Different search engines display different results:
- Spotify has audio results
- YouTube has video results
- Instagram has image and video results
- TikTok has video results
- Amazon has pages, but focuses solely on specific products
In web search engines, a search result is a list of links to websites, images or videos.
Intent is a major factor in organic search strategy. When someone types a phrase into the search bar, what do they mean? In SEO, we identify the following different search intents people may have when they type a query in Google:
- Informational: Not all informational searches are the same. There are two types:
Quick answer: I have a simple question with one answer: “How old is Barack Obama?”
Research: I want to find in-depth information about something: “What are some digital strategies that work for businesses?”
- Navigational or branded: I’m looking for a specific website and don’t know or don’t feel like typing in the URL: “amazon” or “content technologist”
- Commercial: I’m looking to buy something, but I need more information first: “best slow juicer”
- Transactional: I’m ready to buy something online: “buy vita extract slow juicer”
- Local intent: I want to find a nearby location, often performed on a mobile device: “coffee place near me”
Search engines interpret intent based on the user’s query. It’s not always simple. For instance, if someone searches for: “pizza margherita,” are they looking for a recipe or do they want to order a pizza? Perhaps they are interested in the history of the dish.
Search engines use many different signals to understand the intent behind every search query, such as the device you are using, your location, and your most recent past searches. Producing the right result for each query at mass scale happens on a semi-personalized level, so if search engines don't already know your intent, they can guess.
Don’t misread the human behind the machine
Like machines, marketers and SEOs often misread their audience’s search intent.
- In keyword mapping, if a marketer assigns an informational search query like “2023 summer fashion trends” to a product page selling pants, they would fumble the original intent of the search.
- In content creation, if a writer develops an information-heavy blog post about the history of running shoes, they’d likely misread the intent of the heavily searched but mostly transactional search query “men’s running shoes.”
- In content design, if an information architect asks for a text-only page explaining the function of a “tax estimation calculator,” they wouldn’t see the same results as a page with an actual, functioning tax estimation calculator.
The pros and cons of video for information-seeking: TikTok as Google killer
Content discovery is a common intent for users of both search engines and social networks. If you want to learn something, TikTok, YouTube and Google are all reasonable places to start.
If you want a recipe for pasta bolognese or you want to learn to play piano, a video can be useful. But in many situations, video content just doesn't cut it.
I moved from The Netherlands to Sweden last year. If I want to understand how income tax works here, should I load TikTok? Perhaps there is a creator making TikToks about international tax law.
But, thinking about it, I would rather learn tax rules from the Swedish tax authority. Do they make videos? Perhaps if TikTok is the new Google, they should create video content.
Video content has a downside: it’s expensive and challenging to do well, and it’s not as easy to edit as text on websites. If something small changes in the tax rules — say income tax rises from 35% to 36% — every video containing that number needs to be made again from scratch, uploaded again, etc. That's okay if you are sharing content for entertainment, but not ideal for distributing official information from institutions.
What about audiences who grew up learning from textbooks? Many people prefer reading text over education via video. If I want to dive into a nuance of the tax code, text is often easier to navigate and review. Uses and gratifications theory has its merits: In a diverse world, people prefer to learn and communicate in different media for different reasons.
Will TikTok kill Google? Only if the following two unlikely scenarios occur.
- TikTok starts crawling the web, so that they can serve videos and websites to their audience when they search for something.
- More organizations start creating video content and uploading them to TikTok, even to share official information.
Both options are highly unlikely. TikTok will never become a true Google search competitor. But advanced video search is an alternative to Google’s YouTube, so if video is part of your content strategy, it’s an easy win.
Search or creative text generator: What is the intent of ChatGPT users?
A message to the world's hottest new chatbot seems similar to a search query in Google, but does it provide the same function for the user?
When people share how they use ChatGPT on LinkedIn, their aim reads differently. Chatbot users are not simply looking for information. More often, they’re testing the robot’s creative abilities.
Looking at the results, it seems ChatGPT understands that wish. Take this example:
I didn’t ask for the AI to write me a haiku; I only asked whether it could write one. And then ChatGPT generated this haiku. There seems to be no haiku on the web with those exact words. I know this is the future and all, but I still find this spontaneous creation extraordinary.
But few signs point to the OpenAI chatbot replacing Google. ChatGPT hasn’t proven that it can process real-time or even recent information. Of course, OpenAI can connect it with more updated data or recrawl the web. But for now it’s drawing from archival rather than real-time data.
And ChatGPT doesn't share sources. Google might not show perfect search results, but at least users can investigate who published the results. In its current state, ChatGPT isn't ideal for either research or information gathering.
How should content professionals and SEOs respond to the future state of search?
If GPT-powered Bing takes some of Google's market share, that doesn't change a lot for most websites. [Editor’s note: As of the morning of publication, Bing’s chatbot was looking more like a serial killer than a Google killer, failing to display even the slightest bit of even robotic grace under pressure. Insert your joke about training Skynet on forum data here. –DC]
Since Google drives a massive percentage of web traffic, Bing might steal a few users, but content professionals don’t have to worry about shifting to Bing-first optimization. Similarly, TikTok is likely not taking users from text-based websites. Businesses can still create quality content for their audiences, publish it on a search-optimized website, and provide top-notch experiences for the users who find your brands.
Thomas Frenkiel is an SEO strategist with a particular interest in the interface between SEO and content marketing. He currently works at Funnel, a SaaS product designed to help marketing teams own their performance, and lives in Stockholm.