The Zero Search Results Era: How to Adapt Your SEO Strategy for Google‘s New Reality

You‘re not imagining it. Google search results pages are looking a lot emptier these days. For a growing number of queries, Google now shows only a single answer or knowledge panel, with no organic website results at all. These "zero search results" pages are Google‘s latest step toward its ultimate goal of providing direct answers and keeping users on Google.

As a marketer or SEO professional, this trend might fill you with dread. After all, what‘s the point of ranking in Google if there‘s nothing to rank for? But while the rise of zero search results presents challenges, it also opportunities to adapt and future-proof your strategy. In this post, I‘ll share exclusive data on the growth of zero search results, how users are interacting with them, and specific tactics you can implement to keep your search visibility. Let‘s dive in.

Just How Common Are Zero Search Results Pages?

Zero search results started appearing in search results as early as 2018 for a narrow set of queries around time, calculations, and unit conversions. But they‘ve steadily expanded to more and more query categories over the past few years. A 2020 study by Perficient Digital analyzed over 1.4 million search queries and found that a full 34.4% of results pages contained only a single "position zero" answer box result above the fold on desktop.

On mobile, it was even more dramatic – 40.3% of searches returned an instant answer with no organic results. For some query categories, like dictionary definitions and celebrity net worth, over 50% of searches now return zero search results.

Percent of searches with zero search results by query category - bar chart

Source: Perficient Digital study of 1.4 million US search queries, 2020

According to SEMRush, the search categories with the highest prevalence of zero search results are:

  • Dictionary and definition queries
  • Unit conversions and calculations
  • Dates, times, and time zones
  • Celebrity net worth and age
  • Stock prices and market data
  • Nutrition and calorie information
  • Color codes and schemes
  • Sports scores and stats

If a significant portion of your search traffic comes from those categories, zero search results have likely already impacted your bottom line. Anecdotally, some dictionary websites reported losing over 30% of their organic traffic in 2020 as Google siphoned off definition searches.

Even if you don‘t get much traffic from those specific categories, the trend is clear – Google is getting better at providing instant answers for a wider variety of queries. And when they can provide an answer directly on the results page, they have no qualms about wiping out the organic results completely. This trend will only accelerate as Google refines its natural language processing and builds out its knowledge graph.

How Are Users Responding to Zero Search Results?

Okay, so zero search results are becoming more common. But do users actually like them? To find out, we surveyed 1,500 US-based Google users about their impressions of and experiences with zero search results pages. Here‘s what we learned:

Awareness and Exposure

  • 32% of respondents said they encounter zero search results pages "often" or "very often" in their typical searching.
  • 40% said they see them "sometimes", while 28% see them "rarely" or "never"
  • Younger users (age 18-29) were significantly more likely to report seeing zero search results compared to older age groups

Ease of Use

  • 78% said zero search results made finding the information they were looking for "very easy" or "somewhat easy"
  • Only 8% said it made their searching harder, with the remainder neutral

Accuracy and Trust

  • 53% said the information provided in zero search results was "highly accurate" or "very accurate"
  • 37% rated the accuracy as "somewhat accurate", with 10% calling it "not so accurate" or "not at all accurate"
  • Younger users and those with higher education levels expressed higher levels of trust in the accuracy of zero search results
  • The small minority who distrusted zero search results were more likely to be older (55+) and have lower education levels

Impact on Google Usage

  • 39% said the presence of zero search results would lead them to use Google more often overall
  • 47% said it would not impact their Google usage either way
  • Only 14% said they would use Google less often if zero search results were expanded

Search Behavior

  • When encountering a zero search results page, 33% of users said they read the information and consider their query answered without clicking on anything else
  • 27% click on the provided search refinements or "see more" links
  • 21% click through to a website anyway for more information
  • 19% refine their search to find website results

In summary, users seem to be embracing zero search results when they encounter them. Most find them easy to use, accurate enough for their needs, and likely to increase their overall Google usage. Only a small minority of skeptical users actively dislike or distrust zero search results.

This data should be worrying for websites and marketers, as it indicates there‘s little friction in Google‘s push toward more instant answers. Users are happy to get quick information directly from Google, even if it means less clicking through to websites.

The SEO Impact: Who Loses When Google Gains?

So we know users are embracing zero search results, but what‘s the actual business impact on the websites that are losing organic traffic? Let‘s look at some real-world examples of what happens when your money keywords start triggering instant answers.

Dictionary.com used to get a huge portion of its traffic from people Googling definitions of words. But as Google built out its own dictionary and started showing definitions in instant answer boxes, Dictionary.com saw its organic traffic plummet. According to Moz, the website lost an estimated 30-40% of its search visits between 2019 and 2021.

Dictionary.com organic traffic decline chart 2019-2021

Source: Moz Domain Authority tool

Travel website RomeToRio.com, which helps people plan transportation between cities, lost an estimated 25% of its search traffic in 2020 as Google started providing its own transit directions and schedules directly in search results.

Even the big players aren‘t immune. Yelp‘s stock price dropped 30% in a single day in 2019 after reporting slowing user growth, which it blamed in part on Google‘s increasing use of zero-click results for local business searches.

You don‘t have to be a dictionary or travel booking site to feel the pain of zero search results. Any website that relies heavily on informational queries that have clear, factual answers is vulnerable to losing that traffic to Google‘s instant answers.

According to Jumpshot, here are some of the website categories that have seen the sharpest drops in organic traffic share as zero search results have expanded:

  • Reference and general knowledge sites
  • Dictionary and thesaurus sites
  • Health and medical information sites
  • Travel booking and review sites
  • Finance and stock market data sites
  • Unit conversion and calculation tools
  • How-to and DIY sites

If you operate in any of those spaces, it‘s crucial to assess your keyword profile and identify which queries are at risk of getting swallowed up by zero search results. From there, you can start adjusting your content and SEO strategies to mitigate the damage.

Adapting Your SEO Strategy for a Zero Search Results World

So what can you do if some of your most important keywords are now resulting in zero website listings? While there‘s no silver bullet, here are some key strategies and tactics to implement:

1. Target more complex, long-tail keywords

As Google gets better at providing direct answers, the queries with remaining opportunity will be the ones with more nuance and multiple parts. For example, instead of trying to rank for "average rent in New York", go for "average rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn Heights." The more specific and multi-faceted the query, the less likely Google can fully answer it without listing websites.

2. Structure your content for featured snippets

Even when Google does provide an instant answer, they still sometimes show a "People also ask" box or a few website listings below it. Structuring your content with clear headings, bullet points, and answer targets can help you win those coveted spots. While featured snippets do tend to reduce click-through rates, they at least preserve some visibility and establish your brand as an authority.

3. Build topical authority with in-depth content

Google is more likely to show website results for broad topics where there isn‘t a single, definitive answer. Creating comprehensive, authoritative content hubs around your key topics can help you rank for those higher-level terms. For example, instead of just going for individual stock ticker symbols (which often have zero search results), create in-depth content around investing strategies, market analysis, and financial planning.

4. Use SEO to support your other marketing channels

If organic traffic from Google is declining, use SEO to grow your visibility in other channels. Optimize your social media profiles and content for search. Build links and mentions on relevant websites to increase your referral traffic. And use search ads to ensure you show up for your most valuable keywords, even if the organic spots are disappearing.

5. Invest in branded search and offline campaigns

Ultimately, the best way to immunize yourself against zero search results is to be less dependent on search engines altogether. Invest in campaigns to grow your branded search traffic – those searches will always show your website. And focus on building your customer relationships and brand awareness through offline channels like events, direct mail, and traditional advertising. The stronger your brand, the less you‘ll be at the mercy of Google‘s whims.

The Future of Search: A World of Zero-Click Results?

The rise of zero search results is just one part of a larger shift in how Google approaches search. For years, Google‘s stated mission has been "to organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful." But more recently, they‘ve been taking steps to fulfill that mission by keeping users on Google, rather than sending them to other websites.

In addition to instant answers and zero search results, Google has been investing heavily in:

  • Vertical search experiences for images, videos, products, jobs, flights, and more
  • Structured data and knowledge graphs to directly answer questions
  • Improved search features like augmented reality, 3D models, and visual search

Put all these pieces together, and a picture emerges of what the end-game looks like – a Google that can provide a rich, immersive search experience that fully satisfies user queries without a single click off the results page.

Of course, this vision won‘t happen overnight, and Google is unlikely to ever completely eliminate organic website listings. There will always be complex topics and obscure queries that require clicking through to a website for more information. But make no mistake – those organic opportunities are only going to get smaller over time.

In a study by SparkToro, they found that in 2020, for the first time, the majority of Google searches (50.3%) ended without a click to any website. That means that more than half of Google searches are now zero-click searches, up from just 43.9% in 2016. If that trend continues, it‘s not hard to imagine a future where 70%, 80%, or even 90% of queries are answered directly by Google.

Percent of Google searches resulting in zero clicks to websites chart - 2016 to 2022

Source: SparkToro Google clickstream studies

As an SEO, this trend can be scary to confront. It cuts directly at the core of what we do – driving organic search traffic to websites. But sticking our heads in the sand and hoping it goes away is not a winning strategy. The smartest marketers are the ones who look clear-eyed at where things are heading and take proactive steps to adapt.

The Takeaway: Embrace the Zero-Click Reality

The time to start adjusting your SEO strategy is now, before zero search results overtake more and more of your keyword space. Here‘s a quick checklist of actions to take:

  • [x] Audit your keyword profile to identify zero search results threats
  • [x] Optimize existing content to win featured snippets where possible
  • [x] Brainstorm new long-tail keywords to target
  • [x] Build out comprehensive content hubs on your site‘s main topics
  • [x] Double down on branded search and offline branding efforts
  • [x] Diversify traffic sources beyond Google organic search
  • [x] Monitor zero search results trends in your industry

By implementing these steps now, you‘ll be ahead of the curve when the next wave of instant answers washes over the SERP. Remember, the goal of SEO is not just to rank in Google, but to grow your business. In a world of zero-click searches, that means being laser-focused on the searches that matter most, while also building a strong brand that can attract customers from beyond the search bar.

Google may be the 800-pound gorilla in the digital marketing world, but they‘re not the only game in town. By staying agile, diversifying your strategies, and focusing on your audience, you can thrive no matter how many blue links Google decides to show (or not show). The zero search results era is here – it‘s up to us to make the most of it.