Google: Zero Click Claims Are Misleading

Google published an article aiming to debunk claims by SparkToro that only 35% of searches resulted in a click. Google contradicted those assertions with facts about the real-world context of searches today, stating that the findings about zero click searches are misleading.

An inconvenient truth that SparkToro might not have known about is that, rather than “steal” visits to websites, Google has yearly increased the number of visitors it sends to websites.

SparkToro claims that less clicks are going to websites. Google shared that they have increased the number of visitors to websites every year.

“We send billions of visits to websites every day, and the traffic we’ve sent to the open web has increased every year since Google Search was first created.

…we’ve seen that as we’ve introduced more of these features over the last two decades, the traffic we’re driving to the web has also grown — showing that this is helpful for both consumers and businesses.”

Mixed Reactions in Search Marketing Community

SparkToro’s claims that Google is sending less percentage of visitors to websites every year  is seemingly incompatible with the fact that Google is sending more visitors to websites every year.

But the search marketing community was divided in its reaction to the “facts” presented by Google.

Search marketing expert Ammon Johns (@Ammon_Johns) commented on Facebook:

“Usually Google are a lot better than this at spinning BS. I’m disappointed.

Nothing in the piece in any way denies or counters the valid observation that despite overall search traffic increasing, including outward, Google have continually worked tirelessly on capturing and owning an ever larger share of it, and actively worked on multiple measures to have an ever increasing proportion of searches never leave Google or a Google owned property.

This ludicrously obvious article, in attempting to switch from proportional to absolute numbers as if we wouldn’t notice, is frankly patronizing, and offensively so.”

Another member of the search community said that it’s within the realm of possibility that zero clicks are up and that Google sends more visitors every year, but that it’s not valid to say that Google is “stealing” traffic.

SparkToro Claims Are Misleading

Google called the SparkToro Zero Click claims misleading:

“To set the record straight, we wanted to provide important context about this misleading claim.”

Significant Problems with SparkToro “Research”

SparkToro made waves in 2019 with a research study claiming that less than 50% of searches resulted in a click and the idea was promoted from the search industry all the way to the halls of Congress where it was held up as evidence against Google.

But there were many problems with that 2019 report.

One of the many flaws was that the data contained Google App searches that are not tracked and therefore they could not know if the search result was clicked or not.

There are more flaws but I’ll set those aside for now because I want to highlight what a professional statistician said about those earlier claims because the flaws she pointed out in the 2019 report may carry over to the latest SparkToro research.

According to a professional statistician Jennifer Hood, the 2019 SparkToro research reached a flawed conclusion (Do We Have the Math to Truly Decode Google’s Algorithms?).

She pointed out that the 2019 SparkToro research suffered from Availability Bias.

Availability Bias is a cognitive bias that results in believing that something is representative of most things when in fact it is limited in scope.

A website about different biases offers this definition of availability bias:

“A distortion that arises from the use of information which is most readily available, rather than that which is necessarily most representative.”

This is what the professional statistician said about the 2019 SparkToro findings about the so-called Zero Click search results:

“Rand says he estimates that Jumpshot’s data contains ‘somewhere between 2-6% of the total number of mobile and desktop internet-browsing devices in the U.S., a.k.a., a statistically significant sample size…’ Rand would be right about statistical significance IF the Jumpshot data were a truly random and representative sampling of all Google searches.

From what I could find, [Jumpshot] harvested all their data from users who used Avast antivirus… This set of users and their data likely differs from all Google users.

This means that the sample Jumpshot provides isn’t random and likely not representative enough – a classic sampling error usually referred to as Availability Bias.”

This same bias may affect the current 2021 research in that it does not represent a true random sampling because it represents data from the SimilarWeb’s “proprietary panel of tens of millions of users who have installed” their apps (according to the SimilarWeb FAQ about the origins of their data).

Statistics Without Context are Problematic

Another issue that the statistician raised with the 2019 research that also plagues the 2021 research is a lack of context.

A problem she cited with the 2019 SparkToro zero click research is a lack of context.

“Statistics without context should always be taken with a grain of salt.

This is why there are analytics experts to raise questions and give context. What types of questions are people asking, and how have these maybe changed?”

She is making reference to the kinds of searches that lead to zero clicks and asks if there is a legitimate reason for not having a click.

Examples are searches for a phone number or the lyrics to a song. These are contexts of searches and if these contexts are things that are changing because more people rely on mobile devices then the conclusion that Google is stealing clicks fails to hold up.

And that is one of many problems with both the 2019 and the 2021 research that Google called “misleading.”

SEO Community Questions Validity of SparkToro Zero Click Research

It’s not just Google that pulled the curtain aside on the research. Members of the search community stood up to question it as well.

Glenn Gabe questioned the research specifically because it lacked context, which is what the statistician found problematic about the previous research.

Rand Fishkin disagreed.

Google Calls SparkToro Report Misleading and Lacking in Context

One of the criticisms Google raised with the SparkToro report was a lack of context. The author (Google Search Liaison Danny Sullivan) also raised the issue that people use search differently than in the past and that can result in search queries that require an instant answer but do not need a click.

Here is what Google published:

“…this claim relies on flawed methodology that misunderstands how people use Search.

In reality, Google Search sends billions of clicks to websites every day, and we’ve sent more traffic to the open web every year since Google was first created.

And beyond just traffic, we also connect people with businesses in a wide variety of ways through Search, such as enabling a phone call to a business.”

That last part is an important point. People use search to connect with businesses in ways that go beyond clicking to a website, like connecting through a phone call.

Phone related searches should arguably have been filtered out. But when questioned by Glenn Gabe about filtering out legitimate informational searches, Rand Fishkin doubled down on not filtering for context.

Google Offers Four Examples of Context

Google’s Danny Sullivan offered as examples four contexts for why a search would not result in a click.

  • People reformulate their queries
  • People look for quick facts
  • People connect with a business directly
  • People navigate directly to apps

Danny further explained how Google connects users with websites, products and businesses:

“Over the years, we’ve worked to constantly improve Google Search by designing and rolling out helpful features to help people quickly find what they’re looking for, including maps, videos, links to products and services you can buy directly, flight and hotel options, and local business information like hours of operation and delivery services.

In doing so, we’ve dramatically grown the opportunity for websites to reach people. In fact, our search results page, which used to show 10 blue links, now shows an average of 26 links to websites on a single search results page on mobile.”

Search Community Divided But Generally Agrees With Google

The response to Google’s rebuttal was fairly unanimous in agreeing with Google.

Ryan Jones tweeted:

Others cast doubt on the SparkToro methodology:

More Signal Less Noise

The Internet has been plagued by clickbait and the meme-ification of information. The SEO industry has fallen victim to those trends as well. Search result correlation studies with dubious results have been a feature of the SEO community for many years.

The search community is beginning to stand against that kind of misleading information.


Google Search Sends More Traffic to the Open Web Every Year

Do We Have the Math to Truly Decode Google’s Algorithms?