I was struck recently by an online conversation where someone was bemoaning the fact that Google has almost removed their website from its search results causing huge amount of damage to their revenue flows. This particular website had not paid for any advertising anywhere, nor to appear on any of Google's properties, yet was happily cashing in thousands of pounds a month from appearing in organic search.
Naturally the removal of their site from search was something of a body blow but I was struck by how much we all take organic traffic for granted.
If we go back fifteen years there was a dominant media in the advertising market called directories. Every business was entitled to have a 'Free' line entry in a single directory which would put them in the section which best reflected what they did. Even back then though the producers of these directories were at pains to point out that what they were giving away was a 'discretionary' line entry. They were not obliged to provide it but did so predominantly to provide a more comprehensive product for end users and ultimately to generate a prospecting list for their sales people.
The books were delivered for free and paid for by advertisers, most of whom generated a positive ROI from their advertising so all in all it was a virtuous circle. Everybody won from the process or at least there were very few losers.
Fast forward to today and the entire landscape has changed. Google dominates in a fashion that could not have been imagined back in 2000 and directories are all but gone.
The 'discretionary' free entry that we used to get is still there but the paradigm has shifted; you now need a website to join the fun. Get one of those and you can ask Google to come and index your website, entirely for free and based on what it finds it can rank you in the most relevant searches for the things you do or sell. Sounds familiar?
Much like the directories once you have a website indexed on Google it will offer you advertising, to give you even more chance to connect with people who want the things you sell.
The key difference here is that Google can and will use its 'discretion' as to whether your website appears anywhere in any of its search results and can change its mind on a daily basis. Unlike the old directory days when you had one entry in one place you now have hundreds, or in the case of e-commerce thousands of places which need to appear in search. As do all your competitors so it becomes a bun fight to get yourself seen amongst the noise. Barriers to entry are lower so you don't need heaps of capital to compete and some of the best websites are run by people in bedrooms on a part time basis.
Which brings us back to our unfortunate website owner. They are no longer generating the volumes of revenue they once were from their website because Google has removed their 'discretionary' entries. Sure it hurts but they are and always were 'discretionary'.
There is no right of appeal and no higher authority to which you can complain; you just have to lump it.
All of which kind of points us back to organic traffic being a privilege rather than a right. Of course this isn't made clear to people when they jump into the pool to start with; generally they find this out when they start to swim in the deep end with the big boys.
The fact that Google is a 'de facto' monopoly provider does not help the piece and will naturally lead to accusations of unfair tactics, bullying from a monopoly provider and a callous disregard for small businesses everywhere.
We have all heard these accusations and they are well understood but no one seems to ask the key question behind all of this. The $64,000 question I would contend is 'When did it become a right to NOT have to pay for your advertising?'
If we can answer this then we are some way towards deciding whether organic traffic is a privilege or a right.
This article first appeared on the Aqueous Digital website