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A Worrying Trend For Sport Sites – How Searches For Live Sport Don’t Lead To Click Throughs

Regular readers of this blog will know that a former editor once described me as the ‘most boring man on Twitter’ (thank god he never saw the YouTube video in which I reviewed Aldi baked beans for 17 minutes…)

Quite possibly he was right.

Just as possibly, he was right when he said ‘sport news is what happens when there’s no live sport’. I’m paraphrasing, it was probably said with a degree more elegance. This is why I was never senior management (it’s probably not the only reason to be fair. Senior managers don’t review baked beans.)

Anyway, to stop this becoming even more self deprecating than last time, what’s the relevance of this quote?

I took it to mean that nobody really gives a shit about sport news. I mean, I guess they do a little bit, but it’s not sport is it?

Do people really care all that much about governance, or who at Sky knew what about Jiffy bags handed to cyclists? Not really.

Do they care how their team is doing right now? Absolutely.

Sport sites plan their content around live sport and most of their traffic comes from live sport and the reaction to it.

Sport is quite easy like that – we all know when the games are so when there will be potential interest, this one of many reasons sensible people work on sport and not news. News bods have all the stress of never knowing when the next big thing will happen.

I don’t think I’d ever take a bathroom break if I was a news editor.

Anyway.

This live sport has traditionally been an opportunity to gain traffic from search – yes, I am using traditional to describe a trend that goes back barely a decade.

Increasingly though it is becoming ever more difficult.

The relationship users have with Google is fundamentally changing and this looks like bad news for many sport sites unless they give real thought to how to adapt.

Here’s the issue as I see it.

The Search Is There – But Not The Traffic

Searches spike around live sport. I have tonnes of graphs to prove it, but its also pretty obvious.

Think of any sport tournament – from the Premier League to the Ashes to the Australian Open to the NFL season – and search queries will surge at predictable times. Every weekend, while matches are live, there will be huge numbers of searches for Premier League and Premier League scores.

And you can repeat this pattern across any event, it also applies to teams. When Manchester City play Liverpool, searches for both teams will be huge, similarly when India play England in cricket there will be searches for India cricket, England cricket, India v England and other similar terms.

If you’re running a sport site and covering these events naturally you want your results to show up in search. Someone Googles a term related to the game, you want them to see a link to your live coverage, or the scores page on your site, or your preview content or, immediately post match, your match report or reaction.

That has been the search challenge – ranking high. Rank high for a popular term, get click throughs. Seems obvious enough.

The problem is that ranking high is increasingly irrelevant.

Ranking high does not lead to many clicks and this isn’t because people are clicking on rivals, sites where maybe the search snippet is more enticing.

It is because people aren’t clicking on anything.

Boris Johnson’s Age

This is the Boris Johnson’s age phenomenon.

There will be hundreds of thousands of searches for this question every year – how old is Boris Johnson. However, ranking number one is largely pointless because the answer is right there in the results.

search results for Boris Johnson’s age

Google gives the user the information they want right there on the page, there is no need to click through to see the answer to the question.

This same process is increasingly happening for sport. There is no need to click through.

Often, fewer than 50% of people who search for a term related to sport scores, fixtures for similar click on any of the results – and this is data from a year ago (the most recent ahrefs will provide). The trend is only going one way – I suspect that for a term such as Premier League scores, we will reach a stage where 75% of searches don’t lead to a click, people just stay on Google.

I’m writing this the day after a fairly unremarkable day in the sport calendar – there was FA Cup football, the Australian Open tennis and some NBA. Admittedly the Everton v Spurs game turned out to be a remarkable 5-4.

Let’s start with the FA Cup then and think of a likely user case.

I Want It Now…

If you have access to BT Sport you won’t need Google to get scores as you will have them right there as you watch the match. The most likely user case is someone checking their phone to get score updates and potentially follow the match. We know that around 80% of traffic to sport sites in the evening and weekends is via mobiles.

Every UK sport site tries to appeal to this user case.

This user puts a search into Google – FA Cup scores, Swansea v Man City, Everton. v Spurs. Anything related to the competition or a specific game.

A search for FA Cup brings up the games live at that time and the results of recently finished games. There are even match highlights as seen below, these taking you through to the official YouTube channel for the tournament.

For the astonishing Everton v Spurs match, a game that will lead to searches from a huge number of neutrals, we see this post match.

You have the score, the scorers and you can click through for highlights. There is also a tab for stats (which I’ve managed to not capture here) and this will show you possession and other data.

I couldn’t tell you who ranked 1,2 and 3 below this because they didn’t grab any attention, everything you need as a user is right there in the panel.

If I want the score, and it’s there, why on earth would I then click through to another site to tell me the score I already know?

To give one further example, here is the Australian Open.

You can see the live matches – even with the score in the current game – and highlights for completed games (these going through to the official site). For each match, selecting it also brings up more detailed stats, these still within the Google ecosystem.

And all the above is just Google’s minimal offering, I’m not a fan of Spurs, nor massively bothered about the Australian Open. I was also getting the grabs on my desktop not mobile.

Every Angle Covered

For the stuff Google knows I like, the offering is even more complete – scores straight to your lock screen, notifications that highlights are ready. A fan barely ever needs to search, or go outside what Google offers.

All this seems like a problem – a potential large source of traffic disappearing. What can sites do to remedy this?

In my opinion, it makes it important to be different and to offer something beyond the scores and data. People will not Google ‘Premier League scores’ and then click through to a site to see those scores, similarly they are increasingly unlikely to click through to the live blog you lovingly curate.

Official sites and partners are less affected, in fact they can do very well out of this trend, with Google promoting their highlights prominently. How many UK browsers would go to the Australian Open official site but for Google’s promotion of their highlights package?

Google is increasingly promoting official sites, what though for the many, many sites that don’t have rights and aren’t ‘official’ but want the traffic?

When I worked at BBC Sport, we could guarantee huge traffic every month for a huge range of these searches. ‘Premier League top scorers’ ‘England cricket fixtures’ ‘Live football scores’…

These searches still exist but I suspect that click throughs to the BBC, and others, will have been greatly reduced. For a search such as top scorer you do still have to click through, but this will change in time. Google’s ability to serve results on page will increase.

Sport sites need to be working on plans to counteract this loss of traffic, which is not to say there are easy solutions. If far fewer people are clicking through, that traffic cannot be simply recreated through magic.

Maybe, though, it is a reminder that there is more than just ranking, sites also need to be different and build loyalty.

Field Of Broken Dreams

I believe a lot of sites have fallen victim to what I call Kevin Costner thinking – Build It And They Will Come.

Target key words, rank prominently for them, watch the traffic roll in. The strategy has been to move from number 8 to top three in the rankings and then, ideally, number one.

What, though, if even being number one doesn’t automatically lead to the traffic you want because people aren’t clicking on any of the rankings?

Could the following all be important?

For search, focus on times when user intent is likely to lead to a click. This could be post match when people crave reaction to talking points, for instance Everton 5-4 Spurs would be an obvious candidate for interesting follow-ups.

This is also true for when fixtures are announced vs th general weekly run of fixtures. By this I mean, on a typical Saturday click throughs for Premier League fixtures might be low, but on the day when fixtures are announced there is far more scope for interesting editorialising.

Our pick of the first weekend’s fixtures. Who will be happiest (and who won’t be) with their Premier league fixtures. 10 Premier League future dates to pout in your diary.

Imagine also the potential when World Cup fixtures are announced.

Think as a user when searching. I’m amazed that lots seem to forget to do this. If you’re on Google and search for a term, what would you click on?

Be honest, as a user, when you Google terms such as those listed in this post which of the results would you click on, often none of them really stand out beyond the massive great Google panel with scores, stats and video.

Spot the Players with Potential. In Andy Murray’s absence, there aren’t brits who are household names playing at the Australian Open – even if Johanna Konta has been a top 5 player.

Obviously, British sites will carry reports on Konta, Cameron Norrie and Heather Watson, but the search potential lies elsewhere. Compare interest on them vs interest in Nick Kyrgios, who played a typically entertaining match earlier this week.

Expect the spike for Kyrgios’ next match to greatly surpass anything seen in this graph.

Using all pre match content as a reason to return during the match. What can the previews do to suggest to a user it is worth visiting the live coverage?

Doing more with data. How can the stats be editorialised? Rather than just here are the Premier League fixtures, what the talking points going into them?

Having a tone of voice that is that bit different and stands out, the tone itself a reason to visit and stay loyal, be that through use of humour, or in-depth analysis or appealing to certain demographics.

A high degree of interactivity, an ability to engage with the coverage and feel part of it. Another way to encourage loyalty, making your site THE place to go, not one of many. However, it can’t be THE place for all users – it’s that old saying about pleasing all the people…

Let’s Bring This All Together

What does all this really mean?

I think it is a reminder that search, and especially Google, can be both an opportunity but also a huge threat. Google is increasingly keeping users right there in the search listings, this is true for share prices, sport scores, fact based searches (how old is BoJo, which is the richest country in the world.)

Users don’t necessarily need to remember sites or have any great loyalty, they can just punch a query into Google and get the answer right there – not a site that will tell them the answer, that was the old way. Now they get the answer.

So, there is no singular answer as to what this means. It is a trend, it is a reminder that while sites need Google they also have to be aware of Google’s ambitions.

Yes, a search strategy is essential, but that strategy is not just to rank. It is to rank when it is useful to rank, to target times when overall search traffic might be lower, but likelihood of clicking through higher.

It is, I believe, also a fundamental reminder of the need for quality, tone of voice and building loyalty. All very hard to get right, but worth striving for nonetheless.

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