[DATA] Don’t Believe the Hype: Ten Blue Links Are Alive and Well in Search

[DATA] Don’t Believe the Hype: Ten Blue Links Are Alive and Well in Search


“Ten blue links in search are dead,” has been a common refrain in recent years of the search industry.

(With all the different things, including SEO itself, being declared dead lately I feel like we need a “what’s now dead?” list somewhere. Whatsnowdeadinsearch.com is available.  Just sayin’.)

‘Blue links’ refer to organic results, as opposed to paid or universal elements on the search engine results page (SERP). The saying refers to the proliferation of ‘non-blue link’ elements in the search results and posits that the old days of a purely organic SERPs with only ‘ten blue links’ is no more.  Any regular user of the search engines is likely to agree that that this is true; Google and other search engines are clearly on the trajectory of adding more and more rich elements in the search listings.  Recent additions including the Knowledge Graph and Carousel confirm Google’s commitment to this approach.

rich elements in serp

Testing for ‘Ten Blue Links’

Given the chorus of “Ten blue links is dead,” — Bing itself said as much last year — it is fair to wonder the extent to which SERPs have abandoned their ‘blue-link’ focus.

bing blue links article

In thinking more about what is meant by ‘ten blue links’ we realized we could measure the extent of the ‘disappearing blue link’ phenomena in the SERPs in two ways:

  • Presence of ‘non-blue links’:
    The extent to which ‘non-blue links’ (rich media) appear in the search results.  This view will tell us how often ‘non-blue link’ elements now appear around the links.
  • Distribution of organic links:
    A distribution of the number of organic links appearing on the search engine results pages.  Although this view alone will not tell us the extent to which rich media elements appear around the links, it will tell us the frequency ten blue links now appear.

To test these assumptions, we looked at the search engine results pages for a million and a half keywords, a small subset of Searchlight’s database.  The keywords represent a broad mix of informational, transactional and navigational queries with a mix of low, medium and high search volumes.

Result 1: 34% of SERPs Have Rich Media

Analysis of the data is a good news-bad news thing for search marketers.  First, looking at the extent to which rich elements appear in the SERPs: images appear on 28% of search results pages, news 9%, and shopping 1%.

Overall, search pages had images, news or shopping 34% of the time.  While this is not an insubstantial percentage of pages and represents an increase from the past, this means 66% of search pages do not have rich SERP elements, which suggests the SERPs are not being overwhelmed by digital assets to the extent the headlines would have us believe.

Of course these results can vary both individually and collectively based on industry, search volume and other factors.  For example, we’d expect to see a higher incidence of shopping results if we were to focus on a bucket of transactional keywords.  But, our sample of a million and a half keywords is a good finger-in-the-air test of the occurrence of key rich elements across a broad set of keywords.

rich elements in the search results

Result 2: Nearly 9 out of 10 SERPs Have 9 or More Organic Links

Further analysis brings more good news: 88% of SERPs have 9 or more natural search links, with nearly ¾’s (73%) having exactly ten.  Similar to our earlier conclusion, this suggests that there remains significant opportunity for Marketers to appear organically in the search listings and capture market share.

organic link distribution

More Than Half of Search Results Pages Have 9 or More Ads

The not-as-good-news for organic search marketers is that paid ads—lots of them—are making their way into the search results. 56% of search pages now have 9 or more paid ads.  This finding lines up with Google’s consistent signals (the increase in ads at the top of the search results pages etc…) that their intent is to squeeze more and more revenue from Search by growing ads in both quantity and in size on the SERPs.

serp 5

But not everything is exactly as it seems.

Although more paid ads in the search results is generally not a good thing for organic search marketers, eye-tracking studies show that increasingly, searchers are tuning out ads and focusing on organic results:

eye tracking pattern in serp

Source:  LookTracker eye-tracking study (via Search Engine Journal)

This finding — visually illustrated by the heat map above and confirmed by other similar studies — suggests a phenomenon is occurring in the search results that follows a similar trend taking place in traditional media: an increasingly blind eye to sponsored results.

When was the last time you really noticed an ad in the newspaper?  Increasingly, viewers fast forward commercials, and we are all but blind to highway billboards.

When it comes to the search results, the phenomena may be explained as much as a turning an intentional blind eye to sponsored results, as searchers mentally focusing attention on the real estate (organic listings) that contain the information that they want.   Whatever the motivation, eye-tracking studies show that the phenomena is very real.

keep calm seo on

Keep Calm and SEO On

At the end of the day, what does all this mean for Search Marketers?

Yes, it’s true that more digital elements are moving into SERPs, eating into organic search real estate. Yes, paid ads have crept into real estate of some high-traffic SERPs historically occupied by natural search listings. And yes, there are challenges in operating in a monopolized industry, where you are subject to the whims of the incumbent.

But our data shows that the SERPs still have plenty of organic results: nearly 9 out of 10 SERPs have 9 or more ‘blue links’. And, these organic results are important to search engines because they’re important to their customers: although the number of Paid ads in the SERPs is on an upward trend, searcher attention is very much focused on the organic results.

Taken together, we think these factors point to two distinct takeaways for Online Marketers:

  1. First, our core business remains organic search results. Don’t be distracted, remain focused on your core business and capture your share of organic search traffic.
  2. Second, take some time to explore where you are appearing in new, emerging areas of the SERPs. With a solid base in organic results, if you allocate some time to discover your visibility and develop a strategy to attack the weaknesses of competitors in digital results you may able to achieve a competitive advantage.

Keep calm and SEO on. 

Want more data on the importance of SEO? Download this stat sheet with 8 compelling natural search data points.

About Nathan Safran

Nathan is the Director of Research at Conductor and leads Conductor’s research and content team. Nathan is a monthly columnist at Search Engine Land and Search Engine Watch. Nathan’s research on digital marketing has been widely covered in both industry publications and mainstream media such as Techcrunch, Venture Beat and the Washington Post. Prior to joining Conductor, Nathan was an analyst at Forrester Research.

  • Dr. Pete

    As someone who titled a presentation “Beyond 10 Blue Links,” I feel obliged to comment :) Granted, this data depends a lot on the sample. Our regular tracking data set shows almost 51% of SERPs with either news, images, or paid shopping, but I will happily admit that our data set tends to be more on the commercial site, so a lower number is definitely possible.

    However, defining “rich” SERPs as news, images, or paid shopping seems very, very limited to me. Add in video, in-depth articles, authorship, and review snippets, and that number goes from 51% up to 73% in our data set. Add in Knowledge Graph boxes (on the right) and answer boxes, and it’s up to 79%. Add in 7-result SERPs with expanded site-links, and you’re at 84%.

    This doesn’t count local boxes, carousels, authoritative one-boxes, maps, etc. It’s a very different SERP than 2-3 years ago, IMO, and if your primary keywords are impacted by a new feature, your business can be overwritten. Put aside news or shopping. How is the Weather Channel or ESPN doing in organic since Google created rich weather and sports answer boxes? How is anyone with a holiday date website doing since you can just type “When is Mother’s Day?” How is credit card comparison going since Google stepped in and took over the space with their own site?

    It’s not the average number that matters, ultimately, but I think the point that the landscape is radically changing and people should be very aware of their own SERPs is very important. That doesn’t mean we should panic, of course, but I do think we need to be vigilant.

    • Nathan Safran

      Hey Dr. Pete,

      Thanks for the detailed comment. You raise a good point re: our looking at images, news and shopping vs. other SERP elements. Our experience historically has been that those are the elements that most often appear in the SERPs, but we do have future analysis planned that includes additional elements.

      I’m not sure what your experience has been, but in attending industry events and staying on top of publications the cries of “ten blue links are dead” while, from one perspective with the increase of digital elements theoretically true (from a “online marketers: get ready for change” angle), those not in the know could conclude that traditional organic listings are essentially no more in the search results.

      So, the main goal of this post was to point out that there very much remains opportunity to appear in the organic search listings–nearly 9 out of 10 SERPs still have 9 or more blue links–and we ought to temper the hype a little bit. I agree that vigilance is definitely required but erroneous conclusions about the current state of organic listings could be made if based on the headlines alone.

      • Dr. Pete

        It’s funny – when I gave that talk back in July, I actually felt like people were getting a little complacent. It’s so easy to just look at a ranking in a report and forget the diversity of what happens around it. So, I really did want to give a wake-up call. By some accounts, that was a little too successful, so I hope I wasn’t part of some new mass-hysteria :)

        I do take it as a good sign that we both have slightly different perspectives, even though we essentially both work for search analytics companies that, among other things, do rank-tracking. I think the key right now is to keep our eyes open and be as intellectually honest as we can, recognizing that we all only have pieces of the puzzle. I’d actually love to see how Knowledge Graph entities are represented in Conductor’s data.

        • cstebbins

          Not mass hysteria, just a little healthy jumpiness. But my worldview improved after that ice cream bar snack break (other MozCon highlight).

          Agree that it’s great to have different lenses & thanks for your thoughtful responses.

          Re: Knowledge Graph entities: We’ll see what we can do about that! :)

      • David Mihm

        Three more questions regarding this analysis, if you don’t mind, Nathan:

        1) how many of those 9+ blue links are localized organic results?
        2) how many are personalized?
        3) how many of these searches were conducted with a mobile user agent?

        Echoing Dr. Pete above — in 2014 SERP breakdown now depends entirely on what business you’re in. There are surely industries that are more purely influenced by traditional SEO than others but even in those industries, to say that these are ‘traditional organic results’ seems a bit of a stretch?

        • Nathan Safran

          Hey Dave,

          1. I will check on the data and get back to you on this.
          2. All results were collected as a “logged out user”
          3. All results were collected as a Chrome user agent (non-mobile)

          Regards,
          Nathan

    • cstebbins

      Dr. Pete, I was at that presentation at MozCon… and I distinctly remember it being titled something like “Well, we had a good run, search marketers.” Haha…just kidding! It was a sobering, enlightening, & I often revive those ideas when we’re discussing data like this.

      Agree with you that the above is not a comprehensive look at rich SERP elements. Although: we didn’t want to look at the rich elements that enhance organic here, more so those that replace them/distract from them. A great addition to our data set would have been the knowledge graph or answer boxes, as you brought up, less so authorship and review snippets by that logic.

      Agree also that it would be silly to dismiss the “danger” of lost organic traffic to SERP elements based on the facts presented in this post. It’s now part of an SEO’s job to monitor the state of relevant SERPs, just like they monitor things like rankings. So…I hope that this data doesn’t make marketers complacent! I hope it gives context & validation.

      • Dr. Pete

        The most common reaction I got was “Thanks for scaring the crap out of me, Pete!” – Um, you’re welcome and sorry?

        Fair point re: authorship and review snippets. This is actually something we talk about a lot at Moz. If you have authorship/reviews they can boost your CTR – if someone else has them and you don’t, they can lower your CTR. So, is it good or bad? It’s both opportunity and risk (if you’re paying attention). We’re getting to the point, though, where just saying “I’m #1!” doesn’t mean what it used to. I’m sure very similar conversations are happening with your product team(s).

        • cstebbins

          Good point, it is a matter of perspective on those snippets. The growing complication is in itself a mixed bag; the bad news is that it’s harder to do SEO, the good news is that a good marketer certainly has job security!

  • http://www.adamdince.com/ Adam Dince

    Nathan, I think you did a valiant job in your research. Yes, it all depends on the data you’re looking at, but I think you made a well-informed point.

    There are too many Chicken Little’s in our industry and I’m glad that you’ve provided a little context around this particular “sky is falling” topic.

    • Nathan Safran

      Thanks Adam. Hopefully it will serve to provide an “other side”: to the issue.

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