Recently a friend of mine who works with a major airline in Canada asked me to see if I could spot any problems with the website. Their organic SEO traffic had fallen dramatically, even though no major changes had been made to the site. My initial instinct was to look for Panda or Penguin related issue, and check for on-site anomalies. I found a well SEO’d site, no violations, nothing fishy, and an authority domain. I checked the search results, and strangely enough, it looked like they hadn’t suffered any downturn in their organic rankings, just their organic traffic.
What’s changed? Well, actually, Google has.
This summer Google launched Flight Search in Canada, a program that has been running in the US since late 2011. Continuing their trend of becoming a content provider (ahem, a for-profit content provider of course) and super-affiliate, taking a cut wherever it can position itself as a middle-man, Google’s Flight Search feature finds itself nestled neatly between Adwords ads and natural organic search results.
Now, as the pressure mounts from the FTC over anti-trust issues, it would seem a good time to revisit how the Flight Search program has actually affected the industry. Direct competitors have specific issues with the Flight Search program, and it’s not hard to see why.
The combination of Adwords ads and the Google Flight Search box takes up so much room that by my calculations, over 60% of people searching for flights which trigger Adwords and the Flight Search box aren’t seeing any organic results above the fold.
It’s just a page full of ads.
How did I come to this conclusion? Simple, I used Google’s own tools! First off, let’s try and get a representative sample of average screen resolutions in use in 2012. How much of a sample do we need? A few million should do the trick:
After this it’s a simple case of seeing what resolution represents the cut-off point for natural search – once again, Google has a tool for this, the Google Chrome resolution screen test.
Let’s see what we get with the most popular resolutions, starting with the most common vertical resolution of 786px:
How bout the next? x800:
Hard to say if that counts as organic results being visible. How far would we have to go to see a full organic listing? Here’s x1024px
Hey we got one! And I mean ONE organic listing. At a vertical resolution of 1024, with no toolbars on my browser, I can finally see ONE organic result for a flight search. General conclusion, you need at LEAST a 900px vertical resolution to even see a partial organic result for a flight search.
How many people operate at a resolution that high? A little uuber basic RegEx in Google Analytics gives us a mighty good idea:
34% of people (and testing across a range of industries and sampling over a billion visits, we’ve found the range to be from 33-38%) have a vertical screen resolution 900px or higher. This means that well over 60% of people will see ZERO organic results on a flight search that returns both Adwords ads and the Flight Search box (which, from my testing, is most major city flight searches).
Mystery solved. My friend’s client is losing organic traffic because it’s being cannibalized by Google with their for-profit Flight Search affiliate box.
The data begs the question: is this ethical behaviour on Google’s part? It seems strange the Flight Search is so visible considering the FTC seems to want to nail Google on anti-trust issues for promoting their own products over competitors in specific verticals. But being an affiliate blurs the line between competitor and partner, and so Google may simply get away with costing the airline industry extra money for the same old traffic. The direct competitors in this niche are the larger airline affiliate companies like Expedia and Kayak, who themselves say Google is breaking the law.
Is it good for users? In many respects, yes, these services are well made and provide useful information. But being useful for the user doesn’t detract from the fact that it may be anti-competitive for the industry. Anti-competitive laws are in place so that, in the long run, users will have a competitive marketplace to choose from, and so will not be restricted in options or have fixed pricing to deal with.
So will Google continue to use their own search results pages as a platform for integrating their other products? So far, it looks like the answer is yes, as earlier this year they decided their hotel finder (currently a pay per click program) belongs at the top of their results.
About the author: Naoise Osborne is co-founder of AOD Media Group and actively writes about Search for a number of publications.