Last month at MN Search, I attended Rob Bucci’s excellent presentation describing a sophisticated keyword research process based not only the strength of your competitor set, but the features present in Google universal search–Google News, Google Images, YouTube Videos, Product Listing Ads, and more.  Although I wasn’t present, I’d imagine his more recent Mozcon presentation was an extension of this talk.

Rob called the study of these features “SERP topology.” This concept–and its outcome, which I guess would be SERP topography–brilliantly crystallizes a macro-level topic I’ve been struggling to illustrate for the last 2-3 years: the archetypal local SERP, what that SERP might look like down the road, and the forces shaping that SERP.

The Dawn of the Local SERP

10 years ago, the archetypal local SERP was “10 blue links,” making SERP topology pretty boring. Universal Search wasn’t been released until 2007, let alone the Knowledge Graph, so a webpage result was by default the best answer to a typical local query.  It was the only answer type Google provided.

Adwords had been introduced, but few local businesses had heard of it, national brands weren’t really localizing their ad groups, and Google had almost no pressure from Wall Street to make money. If anything, they probably hoped to slow their own growth rate to temper financial expectations.

Knowledge Graph results proliferated in Local (as 10-packs, 7-packs, and Authoritative OneBoxes) long before the formal announcement of the Knowledge Graph.

Mo(bile) Search = Mo’ Ad Inventory

Then came the iPhone (and later Android devices of course).  We saw Google come to the conclusion that “three shall be the number of the counting” when it came to local packs, presumably informed by the desire for pack results to fit vertically on a standard mobile screen.

Mobile search volume skyrocketed, which was great for Google. It gave them more real estate on which to display ads. The fact that desktop search was flatlining wasn’t a big deal, since Google could serve better-targeted ads on mobile, thanks to inherent location-tracking and persistent Google+/Gmail logins.

Throughout the initial mobile frenzy, organic results remained robust traffic sources for many local businesses–particularly since Google localized its organic algorithm in 2012 with the Venice update, which gave local businesses an artificial leg up on the low-value directories which had dominated prior results.

“The Day the Knowledge Graph Exploded”

July 19, 2013 was a big day for search marketers. In an era of near-constant algorithmic updates from Google, it was this user interface update which signaled the start of a long-term trend whose effects we’ll feel indefinitely. Moz’s Dr. Pete Meyers tracked a 50% uptick in the number of Knowledge Graph results overnight.

Two years later, Cindy Krum highlighted the rationale behind this change in her SearchLove presentation, stating that “Google wants to be the presentation layer of the Internet.” Google’s endgame by this time had become clear (at least to Cindy): obviate the need to click through to a website. Keep users on Google as long as possible to increase the chances they’ll click on an ad. Jumpshot’s research indicates Google’s done a pretty good job with this, as only about half of all searches now result in a clickthrough.

A few months prior to Cindy’s presentation, two other significant events happened: Google publicly confirmed that mobile search volume had eclipsed desktop, and they hired Ruth Porat as CFO.

Under Porat’s leadership, Google’s ad revenues have increased by almost 50%, while the growth in searches has likely been something closer to a more modest 20-25% over that time. In addition, Google has said that way more of its revenues come from its own properties (like mobile search), including a “whopping 53 percent year-over-year” increase in paid clicks in April 2017–which continued in its most recent earnings report yesterday.

So while I directionally buy Jumpshot’s 50% zero-click stat, paid clickthrough rates simply cannot be flat, or Google’s ad revenues would track far more closely with overall search growth.

Feeling the Squeeze

The proportion of mobile local searches continues to grow at an incredible rate, predicted by Statista to be 70% of all local searches by 2019.

Local search is also qualitatively different from general search. For years, YP has touted the fact that its customers are “ready to buy.” Local intent is inherently transactional intent–these mobile-local searchers are looking for businesses near them to transact with. This is particularly true for head keywords like “boutique hotels,” “honda dealers,” or “emergency plumbers.”

“Transactional intent” in Googlese translates roughly as “monetization opportunity.”

My guess is that much of Google’s sustained 50% increase in paid clicks is driven by local search.

Voice Search: Largely Additive or Largely Cannibalistic?

While mobile search has largely been additive for local businesses (desktop search has only declined by a few points), I’m not convinced voice search–or at least transactional voice search–will be similarly additive to mobile.  

Reasonable minds differ–Andrew Shotland and I have engaged in this debate multiple times over numerous IPAs.

I expect voice to eat many local searches we otherwise would have performed on our phones–especially in our cars or in the home, where voice assistants will be ubiquitous and un-embarrassing to use.

Monetizing the Future

Regardless of whether you believe voice is additive or cannibalistic, competitive pressure from Amazon and Apple will force fewer ads on voice than Google would like (cue Beauty and the Beast).

The result? Google has already signaled that transaction fulfillment is, at this point, their primary voice monetization strategy.

In fact, I’ll go one step further than Cindy Krum did in 2015 and say that “Google wants to be the transaction layer of the internet,” regardless of medium.

But a 3% voice transaction fee will not fill Google’s revenue bucket at the same clip that Adwords does–unless they can collect it across a much broader range of searches than Adwords currently monetizes.

Thus, absent a rising inventory, I predict Google will monetize mobile local searches even more than they have already to keep Wall Street happy with that sustained 50% increase in paid clicks. This means more hybrid ad units, whether Home Services or Product Listing Ads, as well as more industries where transactions happen right on the SERP.

The Relationship Between SERP Topography and Local SEO

Thus far, as SERP topography has changed, SEO has simply changed along with it. Danny Sullivan made this point eloquently in his keynote at the recent SMX Advanced.  I agree with him, to a point.  I certainly don’t believe, as Larry Kim says, that local SEO will die

I do think, though, while SEO will continue to evolve with the SERPs, there will be fewer winners from organic local searches than ever before.  You’ll simply have to be one of the three lucky businesses selected for the Knowledge Pack, or perhaps the one lucky business selected by Google Assistant, across a wider range of searches than ever.  And an increasing number of those Knowledge Pack or Knowledge Panel results will be pay-to-play.

To that end, I hope this graphic helps at least directionally summarize my search worldview.  Thanks again to Rob Bucci for the brilliant concept of SERP topography!