What works in SEO and digital marketing overall?

That answer is always changing, says Kevin Indig, VP of SEO and content marketing at G2. But it’s that “continuous development” that attracted him to work in this field, along with the chance to stretch his creative and analytic muscles on a regular basis.

There is an issue he’s particularly concerned with these days. Google has gone from simply displaying ads and search results and sending searchers to other websites to actually answering queries themselves – and reducing traffic to other sites as a result.

We talk about how that impacts companies that buy Google ads and their SEO efforts, the regulatory implications, and more, as well as…

  • The types of sites that are particularly vulnerable to the changes
  • Industries that are benefiting from Google’s new business model
  • How search marketers are adapting to this reality
  • Potential channels that are ideal alternatives to Google
  • And more

Listen now…

Mentioned in this episode:



Steffen Horst: Welcome to the Performance Delivered Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success Podcast, where we talk with marketing and agency executives and learn how they build successful businesses and their personal brand. I’m your host, Steffen Horst. Today we’re going to talk about how Google continues to become a competitor to businesses.

Here just speak with me about the topic is Kevin Indig who is the VP SEO and content marketing at German Accelerator. Previously, he runs SEO at Atlassian and Dailymotion. Companies Kevin worked with in the past include eBay, Eventbrite, Bosch, Samsung, Pinterest, Columbia, UBS and many more. Kevin is also the publisher of the Tech Bound newsletter and Tech Bound Conversations Podcast, Kevin, welcome to the show.

Kevin Indig: Thank you for having me, Steffen. It’s a pleasure.

Steffen: Before we go into the topic, let’s talk a little bit about yourself. How did you get started in digital marketing?

How Kevin Got Into Digital Marketing

Kevin: If you want me to go all the way back, I would probably say computer games. And, you know, if we wouldn’t go that far back, I earned my chops on the agency side. I was in consulting for about five years and then had the chance to join a company in house. And just like you, Steffen, I was born and raised in Germany, the son of an American father and of a German mother, which gave me two citizenships and allowed me to come over to the US six years ago. And after working for companies like Atlassian, I was then finally able to join GQ last year. And I’m also a mentor at the German Accelerator Network.

Steffen: That’s great. What was interesting for you on the digital marketing side that you decided to go there? You know, If we don’t go as far back as computer games.

Kevin: Yeah, that’s a great question. And it’s great because I just this week talked with someone about that question. And so when I really think about it, I would say that one thing that was very fascinating to me is this fast-changing environment, right? They can constantly deal with new things. You know, the core discipline that I grew out of, which is SEO, or even technical SEO, changed probably five times in the last 20 years, right?

It’s that continuous development. And at the same time, I really enjoy the creative and analytical aspects of online marketing, right? Like, since the rise of platforms like Google and Facebook, we’re able to do performance marketing, and measure our returns and impact very, very deliberately. But at the same time, there’s still a strong creative side to whatever marketing you pursue, whether that’s finding new strategies or the creative itself, copywriting, content marketing, all that type of stuff. It’s not we’re not at the stage yet where algorithms can do everything for us, right? We still need that human element. So I enjoy that divide.

Steffen: Interesting. You already mentioned Google. And, you know, the main topic today is how Google continues to become competitive to businesses. Google, Amazon, those are probably two of the businesses that have huge, huge market share, and they have started to kind of not only provide advertising services or a platform for people to offer their services and advertise their services, but they seem to also start to offer products that seem to be demanded quite a lot. So when we talk about Google continues to become a competitor to businesses, what do you mean by that?

The Most Successful Startup in Human History

Kevin: Right. To set the stage, Google is probably the most successful startup in human history, right? Since birth, or since going public, they raked in about 20% revenue growth year over year, every year, right? There was hardly a year where they didn’t grow by 20%, which is unprecedented. And that also puts a lot of pressure on the company. They had a couple of well-played cards. So I mean, Google is a company that’s very good at acquisitions, most of their most successful products came from mergers and acquisitions.

And then a couple of years ago, or better said about 10 years ago, they got very lucky because of the rise of smartphones and they pushed that development forward. In part, because sure, it’s important to be present on smartphones, but in the other part, it’s another platform where Google can show ads. And so that also allowed them to really, you know, keep this trend of revenue growth. But now, they’ve come to a point where it’s getting harder and harder.

And as a result of that, in combination with their amazing technology, of course, I mean, they’re leading in terms of machine learning or one of the leading companies in machine learning research and technology, they answer more and more searches directly, right? So they send less traffic to websites and answer more searches directly. And that’s what I mean by what I’m saying that Google is becoming a bigger competitor because it occupies a bigger part of the market that before doing that, it belonged to websites that were ranking or paying for Google traffic.

Steffen: Yeah, yeah. I think a good example there is, I think, you know, the listeners will have noticed that when you search for flights, for example, that you still have, you know, your paid ads on top, but then all of a sudden, there is kind of Google native blog in there where you can basically now select your flight time or give you results from that kind of leads you to a separate page, where you then see all the airlines that can bring you from A to B for that time period, basically. Which means Google has a much bigger real estate on the search result page than any other company that might advertise against flights from Los Angeles for example.

Kevin: Yeah, that’s absolutely correct. And this is one of the many examples of where Google provides a direct answer, right? So there’s one integration that we call featured snippets, that is basically an answer in the search results. And in many cases, it makes it redundant to even click on an organic result. But Google also has this, I would say, database that they call knowledge graph that they’ve recently evolved to the next level, which they call topic layer. And that database allows them to, on a mathematical level, understand the relationship between entities and topics. So entities are basically things, right?

So they’re like their names or places, books, people. And Google has a, probably the largest database off that in the knowledge graph. And now as I mentioned, they added the topic layer, which is the same thing just for topics. So Google can very well understand to make this more tangible. When people imply COVID-19 with searching for Coronavirus, or when they search for Coronavirus a couple years ago it was, you know, like a completely different meaning.

So Google’s getting much, much much better in recognizing meaning itself and what’s implied and answers those searches as well. So when you search for something like CRM software, you get a nice list of different CRM solutions. When you search for something like what to watch, Google will suggest a lot of different TV shows or movies to you. When you search for something like what to make for breakfast, and Google has an answer. So these simpler searches yield, and much less traffic now because Google all answers it for themselves.

Steffen: I mean, from a Google perspective, they’re kind of following what they set out to deliver, right? They want to provide information as quick as possible to people that are looking for information.

Kevin: You’re absolutely right. From a Google perspective, it’s, you know, they pursue their vision and mission. In fact, last year in 2019, at Google IO, the CEO of Google, and now also CEO of Alphabet, Sundar Pichai publicly said that they’re going to transition from search engine to an assistant that helps you getting things done. So, and then, you know, there’s a lot to be interpreted into this.

I already alluded to the business model implications and monetization implications. But sure, you know, for users, in a lot of cases, it is a very good result with exceptions, of course, but at scale, great result. It’s the websites and the businesses that relied on either organic traffic or even paid traffic that suffer under this transition. And for Google, of course, it’s a very fine line to walk to get this right and not cannibalize their own business model.

Steffen: Yeah, and I think that’s a great point because at the end of the day when businesses are no longer able to use, you know, search engines, or in this case, Google to drive traffic to their website, which means, you know, or to sell products or offer services, then their business goes down unless they find another channel at the end of the day where they can get new prospects or new customers from.

Kevin: Right. And that’s, I think that’s where, you know, Google Flights is a bit different than the other integrations that we see. And that’s very interesting because Google Flights is more of a like, out of the box conversion funnel to book a flight. And Google is still experimenting with how to monetize that accurately. Very recently they had the OTAs or the better, not OTAs, sorry, the flight companies bids on pretty much ads to appear in that funnel, but they realize that that’s not the best way to monetize that.

So now they’re looking for a different way. And I could see that potentially Google follow some sort of a lead model or an arbitrage model where they just charge the five companies or the airlines commissions for whenever somebody books a flight through that, which would probably yield a lot of money. So I think the verdict is still out of how they monetize that. But as you mentioned correctly, Google covers and integrates more workflows, besides just providing the answer even.

Steffen: Yeah, and as I just mentioned, you know, from my perspective, that just means that just stay with the, you know, the flight example, that aggregator sites that do exactly the same, that they will get less traffic at the end of the day. Do you see any other implications for businesses when it comes to Google experimenting, pushing into areas that might negatively impact businesses?

Google’s Impact on Different Business Sectors

Kevin: Yeah, you know, besides just lower reach or a harder time getting customers and getting brand exposure, it’s also getting much more difficult to differentiate yourself. So when we stay with Google Flights, or even Google, like the hotel booking engine that they also recently launched, then, as a brand, you’re being basically commoditized, right? You’re like, the only way to differentiate yourself is through price or maybe a little logo. But other than that, it’s fully in control of Google to send traffic and buyers to a certain airline or to a certain hotel.

And that’s even worse, right? Like, at least before you could bid on ads and within ads, you could differentiate yourself and promote your brand and build your brand. But now you’re just one choice of many. And sure, you could, you know, philosophically argue that the whole flight sector and travel sector is a commodity already, but, you know, we definitely see that being accelerated and driven forward by Google by making the whole purchasing process like, even more commodified.

Steffen: Yeah. Do you think there’s a danger for kind of a monopoly in kind of a, you know, from an aggregator perspective? Because if Google dominates that part, and Google is the most dominant search engine at the end of the day with, I don’t know, 80, 90%, that means if they are able to funnel traffic through their native integration there, that takes a lot of traffic away from other sites, like Kayak or Hotwire, for example.

Kevin: Oh, yeah, I mean, those companies are probably going to go under. I mean, I’m getting a bit harsh here but that’s what I would expect, with all due respect. But I think Google is deep in regulation territory, but we don’t yet know how to regulate those new tech companies. I actually recently wrote an article about Google’s market share. It’s very interesting. For example, in search on Google on mobile devices, they have over 90% market share across the board. So they’re absolutely dominating that space.

Once you look at the desktop side of things, it’s only 73%. So that’s where we already see a bit less. Still very dominant. But then when you look at even other products, they have way, way lower market share. So one example is the wearable operating system sector where Google, you know, like Google acquired Fitbit and all of a sudden their market share jumped by a lot, but before that, they had hardly anything. So I think, you know, the one problem that we’re facing when it comes to regulating Google and tech companies in general, is that first of all, not all of their products and markets are, you know, or did not dominating all markets and products.

Number two is that users still technically have a choice. So you know, as opposed to the Microsoft regulation case 20 years ago, Google users could technically still use Bing, but they don’t. So there’s no kind of unfair advantage that Google leverages in that sense. And then Google also does not exclude other players from the market, technically. Now, it starts to get a bit more fuzzy, you know, with the whole kind of airline and Google Flights booking thing, which is why they’re very, very careful in how they position it and what they do.

And we’ve also seen a huge slowdown in m&a, basically, like in acquiring other companies because Google is getting so careful with, you know, being on the regulator’s radar. So it’s gonna be very interesting to see how they get this right. Again, they’re under an immense pressure to keep their revenue high and hit those goals and at the same time, they have like a smaller space to navigate. So I think it’s a, it’s probably one of the most interesting times for search out there ever.

Steffen: When we look at the winners and the losers when it comes to, you know, Google becoming a much more dominant figure in their own search results, are there actually industries, areas that benefit positively from that situation?

Kevin: Well, there might be a few. So I think any site that provides very simple basic information is probably like should not bank on search as a channel anymore. And what comes to mind specifically is something like dictionaries or reference sites. So dictionaries, like dictionary.com, for example, I think like, their business model is having a really rough time unless they build a very big, big, important brand, right? Anybody who’s offering more sophisticated information, I think still has good chances to benefit from Google.

Just to be clear, like 50% of traffic is still coming from Google as a platform, whether paid or organic. So it is still a great channel to invest in. You just have to make sure that you don’t fall into this area where Google can easily provide information for you. So Wikipedia is another interesting example, right? Like Wikipedia is one of the largest sites out there, basically nonprofit, and Google heavily leverages Wikipedia as information for many things, sometimes for direct answers. And then the question is like how much traffic Wikipedia still gets. Now, that information is public. You can actually see how much traffic Wikipedia still gets.

And so far there’s, sure. traffic has gone down, but it hasn’t gone to zero as you would expect it. And so that strengthens my point about really considering is the information that I provide, or the content that I create, is that something very simple that he can, you know, answer within maybe a line or in a sentence? Or do I provide something more sophisticated, where even if Google tries to give a direct answer to people, they would still have to click through my site to really understand what’s going on.

Steffen: That all points towards in general, aggregator sites, and there are lots of aggregator sites from different industries out there, that they probably will have the greatest challenge to remain in business or to remain or increase their business at the end of the day because Google, as we talked about, in the flight area is already what they’re covering.

And you mentioned hotel is what they just released. You know, who says that they’re not going, for example, into the insurance area where, you know, we’ve seen a number of businesses now pop up and in other areas where there are products or services that are compared on the website.

Kevin:  Yeah, that is definitely the reality. I think aggregators and meta searchers have a really hard time in might go under. When we look for example at OTAs like Expedia and TripAdvisor, they’re bleeding right now. Look at the stock price for TripAdvisor. It’s not looking that good. I mean, sure, right now with COVID-19 and the lockdown, that’s a given. But even before that, towards the end of last year, it was looking pretty bad.

And Expedia even kicked out their CEO. And they mentioned in the reasoning that a huge underperformance in SEO is one of the main reasons for that. The interesting thing that I mean, that hopefully makes it a bit more tangible for the listeners here and a bit more useful, is that there is one OTA that does not see that impact. And that is booking.com. And they’re an aggregator as well. But they were able to grow their organic traffic by 50%. I mean, 1.5 x it in 2019. But the interesting fact is that they get more than 55% of their traffic from direct traffic.

So what booking.com did is they were able to build a really strong brand and not rely on Google really. So a lot of their visitors come directly to them, and even when they come there, Booking does a really good job in signing them up for an email newsletter or registering on the site which allows them to better understand their users and put like, push them into an environment that they can control. I think it’s, don’t get me wrong.

Booking.com still is one of the largest spenders on Google ads. I think they still spend over a billion dollars per quarter on Google ads. But you see that this trend is actually declining and they’re investing more in other brand-building channels. So I think brand is the key here. And playing the game until you can actually opt out, until your brand is so strong that people come directly to you, that is the best course of action for aggregators and for beta searches.

Steffen: You just mentioned brand-building channels. Which channels do you see as brand-building channels that sit outside of Google?

Other Brand-Building Channels

Kevin: Yeah, I think video is very interesting. Anything in terms of display ads. Retargeting certainly has a positive impact. If you can afford it, TV, of course. But then anything in terms of social media, YouTube, those kind of platforms, I would heavily invest in those. Podcasts, certainly a great branding channel. And then just brand ad campaigns. You know, I think if I, it also depends on how much budget you have and how big you are, of course, right?

And if you’re a local business or like an SMB or an enterprise business, but there’s still many opportunities, even outside of Google to build a really strong brand. And then in the end, it comes back to classic marketing stuff like positioning, fulfilling your brand promise and just having like a concise story that people can resonate with.

Steffen: You also mentioned when we talked about booking.com, you said that they’re doing a good job of engaging with people once they’re on your site and keeping them kind of in their universe, basically. It sounds like now is the time to really rethink, especially for the businesses that are in danger of becoming competitive targets of Google to look into how they can capture people to come through your site in forms of you know, sending them up on newsletters or other ways to be able to reengage with them. You know, I already said signing up for a newsletter, you, it mentioned earlier. What other activities can a company do to engage with their customers and to build a database so they don’t have to go through other channels to engage with them?

Kevin: Yeah. So you mentioned newsletters, and then any web app or native app signups like download my app as would like Yelp, which also suffers greatly under Google’s competition and has for many years. And recently, I mean, we’re recording this in April, they recently let I think, 1000 people go. So when this, let’s see where they are when this episode comes out. But for web apps, native apps.

And then any sort of community you have, right? Any sort of web forums, Slack channel, other sorts of communities, LinkedIn groups, Facebook groups, whatever you have to get people closer to your brands and into an environment you can control is of help. Now the almost bigger question I would ask myself is what is an incentive or a pull that I can provide for users to do that? Because to be very blunt here, I think a lot, most companies do email very poorly.

And I think email is actually a very underserved channel. Now that al,l everybody uses Slack at work, right? We communicate through that. So I just think that most like, you know, the classic kind of offers and coupons via email, just don’t cut it anymore, right? You really want to build more of a pull and an incentive. And, you know, to stick with the example booking.com gives you I think, 50% off if you sign up right away. So they have like some very strong levers. And I think sometimes it can be different things.

Sometimes it can be access to knowledge that is really hard to get, it can be interviews with people, it can be a curation of information. It can be, you know, like, because I think as marketers, we have to be creative in how we get people to sign up. And once we have them sign up, it’s not enough for them to just be signed up. They need to be constantly engaged. But the reward for that is that you’re not dependent on a channel like Google, or a company when it decides that it wants more of the piece of the pie for itself.

Steffen: Yeah. It sounds like you have to work much harder now and moving forward, in order to really maintain or grow your business at the end of the day. Before, I remember the time when you paid five cents, or even less for brand click on Google, for example. Or when we had Overture, which later on became Yahoo, and you got cheap traffic and you could bid on so many terms that was hard not to have a positive return on investment, for example.

But over the years, obviously, that has changed with an increase in competition and adjustment of how search engine work, and how prices for specific keywords are determined. So nowadays, it’s not only, you know, let’s go onto Google and that’s the channel that you have to be on. You have to look into a wide array of not only channels, but tactics, strategies in order to be successful.

Why Business Growth on the Internet is Harder Than Ever

Kevin: That is absolutely right. It is much harder. And what are the reasons for that? The reasons are that we basically have a duopoly when it comes to digital advertising, Facebook and Google own the absolute majority of the market. I think combined they have around 80% market share. The only challenger to that now is Amazon, which is in itself interesting. But that is certainly one problem. And those platforms are matured, right? Like Google is over 20 years old. Facebook I think started in 2004. So they’re over 15 years old now.

And that’s why, as you mentioned, it was, you know, even 10 years ago was much easier because the CPCs were lower and the competition was less. Now that’s not the case anymore. Everybody wants a piece of the pie. Everybody has understood that digital advertising is important and that SEO is important. And the problem with SEO and content marketer thing is that not only do companies compete more, so you have more content out there, you have better optimized or more optimized websites out there.

But Google in itself has to adjust to this flood of content out there and this flood of companies and has made its algorithms more sophisticated. So it’s not just more competitors, the game itself is harder as well. And that’s absolutely right. Like you, it is not as easy anymore. And a third problem is that it is very difficult for new consumer platforms to come up because Google and Facebook have such a stronghold of the market and buy other competitors like WhatsApp and Instagram.

If those companies wouldn’t have been acquired by Facebook, we’d probably see a slightly different landscape and it might have been easier to reach. So I think until we the next big competitor, we can argue whether that’s something like a Tik Tok or Something else. You know, I think Snapchat had a chance at one point as well. But those are, you know, deep, deep conversations that need a lot more context. So I think as long as we don’t see this next big consumer platform that provides marketers opportunities to advertise and create organic reach, it’s probably going to stay that hard.

Steffen: But I mean, from my perspective, there’s just a general danger. And you just said, you know, if you look at WhatsApp and Instagram, they were bought by Facebook. Of course, they had the pockets, right? They could splash out billions of dollars for those software solutions. Any company nowadays that comes up, how easy is it for Google or Facebook or even Amazon to go in and say, Oh, they’re going to become a danger unless we are going to pick them up now and take them off the market and make them be part of our business?

Kevin: It’s a bit harder again, because those big tech companies are scared to be reregulated. At the same time, it depends on the station these up and comings are on. So I think until $80 million acquisition cost, you don’t really have to report how much you paid for a company. So what I’ve seen is platforms just snap up younger startups. I think HQ, that was a competitor.

It had strong growth, especially in a very young population was snapped up by Facebook a couple of years ago. So there is still a bit of a gray zone for these big companies to make something like Tik Tok like, that’s never like, you should never say never. But I have a hard time imagining that a Google would by Tik Tok or something like that. I think they’re much more going the route that Facebook went with Snapchat where they just basically occupied and destroyed Snapchat’s market by copying stories.

And so now we see this very interesting fight between YouTube and Instagram, where YouTube suddenly adds stories and then Instagram suddenly makes their live streams accessible on desktop. And so you see that the two have more and more touchpoints. I think that’s going to be very interesting battle to see, or to follow. So my take is that either we’re going to see acquisitions of potential competitors, or that the big tech companies are going to copy what those up and coming platforms are offering and trying to cut off their air.

Steffen: Okay. We’re coming towards the end of the podcast episode here, Kevin. How do you see this all playing out? What is your prediction for the future as it relates to the likes of Google, Facebook? And pull in Amazon there is, as you said, it probably have 20% of the market and they probably will continue to grow as they are the search engine where most of the people start your product searches, right? So how is this space going to look like 5, 10 years down the line?

Kevin: Man, I, take all this with a grain of salt because if I knew, I would invest in the right company. Or not, or short their stock of whatever. My take is that within the next five years, I don’t expect a lot of disruption happen. Instead, I think marketers have to be creative. I think they have to look at smaller platforms, smaller forums or communities and find ways to advertise on those. So I don’t think there’s kind of going to be this next big single platform.

I think until we have a new platform on the rise, which I think we’re going to see in five-plus years. Until that happens, we have to look at much smaller committees and platforms and be creative about how we can leverage those to acquire new customers, and then of course, played the game as we know it today, just better and harder, if possible. So there are no real shortcuts in that sense. I think, you know, beyond the next five years, and when we talk about a 10-year horizon, I could definitely see or expect either a new technology or another competitor on the horizon.

And there’s so much that can happen, you know, until then. I mean, Just look at the situation that we’re in right now. Anything is possible. Nobody knows what the next few months are going to look like. And when I’m saying that, one thing about specifically is, of course, the economy, what the implications are here. And then also China. We see a lot of big, or a lot of tech coming out of China.

They’re innovating at a fast pace, and again, like a Tik Tok or a Weibo, and all these other, like huge startups are going to become the chip competitors to Western companies, and also consumer platforms. So that is going to be very, very interesting to watch as well. And I, at this point, I’m probably gonna stop predicting and assuming because it gets very, you know, philosophical and fuzzy, but these are kind of the big trends that I’m paying a lot of attention to.

Steffen: Well, Kevin, thank you so much for your time today. Thank you for joining the Performance Delivered Podcast and sharing your thoughts on how Google continues to become a competitor to businesses. If people want to find out more about you, or the company you work for, how can they get in touch?

Kevin: Thanks. Yeah, again, it’s been my absolute pleasure. We can own that. And if, you know, of listeners found that interesting, I blog a lot on my personal blog, which is kevin-indig.com. I also send a weekly newsletter, which is completely for free. No, you know, you can just get that in your inbox or blog. And I curate the five that week.

And that is called Tech Bound, also a little podcast attached to it. So I think if you just go to my site, you’ll find all that information. And if you’re interested in the company that I work for, it’s www.g2.com and hopefully, we can assist you in finding the software that you’re looking for.

Steffen: Perfect. Well, thanks everyone for listening. If you like the Performance Delivered Podcast, please subscribe to us or leave us a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast application. If you want to find out more about Symphonic Digital, you can visit us at symphonicdigital.com or follow us on Twitter at Symphonic HQ. Thanks again and see you next time.