Watch Out For The Impending Click Drought


Everyone in California has been focused on the water drought.  And we should because it’s real and potentially a long-term problem.  But in the digital world, both content and commerce companies need to be worried about the impending click drought.  I can hear you saying it now, “Oh good, one more thing to worry about. What’s next, meteors?”. But hang with my apocalyptic concerns for a minute.

Like water coming down from the hills, clicks flow downstream from the sites and applications where consumers go first. In dark and antediluvian days the first clicks were from AOL (remember keywords), the portals and directories such as Yahoo.  For most of the last ten years, the upstream clicks flowed from search engines, increasingly Google, to websites.  And for most of the last ten years, Google was a relatively honest broker. Whatever the quirks and frustrations of their algorithms, they were genuinely trying to find the best answers to consumer queries. Almost all of the traffic that came into that clean, white query box immediately went back out to other sites. Significantly, most of those clicks were sent without charge to the downstream sites. When I ran About.com ten years ago, we were able to build a significant and valuable business because Google directed users to our pages for free because we did a good job of answering their questions. More recently, Answers.com has enjoyed a similarly synergistic relationship.

There have been two existential changes in the market.  First, many of the upstream sites (Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc) have become black holes of clicks.  Once a user enters, they rarely come back out. Take a look at the image below. I did a quick search on airfares from LA to NYC. Once Google would have sent you to Expedia or Travelocity or perhaps an airline such as United or American. Instead, they now send you to their own fare shopping service.

Google has claimed the first "organic" search result for it's own listing of air fares

Google has claimed the first “organic” search result for it’s own listing of air fares

And they are doing this across a wide range of product and service categories. So what’s the effect on the sites that previously depended on clicks from Google? Click drought.

A search for flat screen TVs returns Ad Words ads, Google PLAs, and then Amazon

A search for flat screen TVs returns Ad Words ads, Google PLAs, and then Amazon

A product search that once would have sent clicks to a comparison shopping engine or retailer now returns a page where all the real estate above the fold is dominated by Google ad products and Amazon. Don’t be distracted by those millions of results that are returned in nanoseconds. 80% of the clicks and a greater proportion of the money is driven off of the real estate above the fold on the first page.

Amazon, like Google, has worked hard to construct an immersive commerce experience. Like the Hotel California, you can check out any time that you like but you just can’t leave. Amazon is now a default shopping engine across many product categories. Google, Amazon, Facebook and others now have a business model that is predicated on retaining as many of the clicks and as many of the dollars as possible.

The concentration of upstream clicks is becoming even more pronounced with the evolution of mobile. There has been a lot of discussion about the shift from the web to the mobile web to apps. Like presets on a car radio, mobile users have access to many, many apps but use only a few. This is interesting and significant in its own right. However its long term impact will be greatest on the downstream sites that previously depended on those clicks.

Content companies are having a hard time driving usage of their point applications. Clicks are primarily flowing from Facebook and Twitter. Many sites that previously had a fair shot at clicks coming from search engines, portals and news readers now have no access to the click stream.

Fortunately, publishers and commerce companies have more options than a bereft farmer looking upstream at the wall of a new dam holding back water that he desperately needs. But like that farmer, they need a strategy beyond cursing the changes in their fortunes.

The first step (and it is a bit like a twelve step program) is to acknowledge that the market has changed and it’s unlikely to ever change back in a way that will benefit you. The unlimited flow of free upstream clicks is likely gone for good.

There are two initiatives that content and commerce companies should explore right now: treat build your app business as a blood sport; and develop a profitable paid traffic driving strategy.

Neither of these two strategies is easy. In fact, they are both hard. And they require investments in people, technology and tools that are often outside the company’s skill set. But, in short, tough. Evolution waits for no man or woman or company.

I have often said that the different between the success that we enjoyed at About.com (and later AllBusiness.com) was that we treated SEO as a blood sport at a time when others treated it as an after thought. We woke up every morning and thought about what content people would search for. We got the best people and best tools and rewarded them for success at SEO. Other sites went about their jobs as they always had, stuck on a few keywords and tags, and then patted themselves on the back.

I’ll spend more time in future posts talking about how to best execute on these strategies. The specifics of execution may be different for every company and in every category but the common idea is that the survivors will approach them with the same level of determination as a thirsty looks for water in the desert.