The headline is probably somewhat scary so let's start with some data that's been released recently. The first is a bunch of data Rand Fishkin published on his SparkToro blog here.
In short: CTR on mobile (which is Google's biggest growth area by leaps and bounds) is dropping and has been for some time. Not only that - no click searches is on the rise. That means Google is answering people's questions without the need for those people to go to a website. Why click a website for sports scores when Google just gives you the answer?
That's just organic though - what about paid?
The CTR of paid campaigns is still relatively fine but if you combine this with this data:
"In Q4 2017, year-over-year CPC growth accelerated across the board, including brand and non-brand campaigns, shopping, text ads, desktop and mobile." LINK
it's kind of a scary picture. You're paying more for the same clicks as previous years. While you can keep the CTR high, it's costing you more.
In general you either are going to get way less clicks to your organic results or you're going to have to pay more to get clicks through paid.
This is just Google though - what else is going on?
Let's take a look at social. Not long ago BuzzSumo released a pretty danming report:
"Our review of 100 million articles published in 2017 found that social sharing has halved since 2015."
"The volume of content published continues to increase, and new topic areas get rapidly saturated with content."
That doesn't exactly paint a rosy picture.
The first issue is the glut of content being posted on social sites along with the fact that social media sites want you to stay within their platform as a user. If you stay in their platform they get more advertising dollars. This incentive has lead some to believe that social sites are actually limiting the impressions of posts that include external links in favour of posts that don't force users out of their system.
Here is an important quote from Facebook:
“Now, we’ll also consider whether a potential interaction is between two people, or between a person and a Page. Person-to-person will be more valuable than person-to-Page. Connections with people in your network will get the biggest boost because interacting with people you’re close to is more meaningful”
While that is specific to Facebook pages you can see how it might affect changes they make for posts that are basically just links.
I also took a look at email, something many people consider to be one of the most important marketing channels there is. I found Epislon's Q3 2017 report that showed CTR for emails is down to 3.1% in Q3 of 2017 compared to 3.5% in Q3 2015. One interesting drop is from Q2 2017 to Q3 2017 in term of open rates - from 33.8% down to 31.2%, this just continues the trend I see in social - people are getting sick of clickbait headlines which is what many email marketers are using to get better open rates overall. LINK
In summary: Google is answering people's questions so you don't have to (err... can't.), Social is keeping people from going to your site and email is just getting less and less effective overall.
Combine all the above with Andrew Chen's law of shitty click through rates and you have a climate where you have to constantly be innovating just to keep your head above water.
That's enough doom and gloom, what do we do about it?
The answer is in Rand's post, just taken to a different level:
"Ultimately, I think this data shows us that the future of SEO will have to account for influencing searchers without earning a click, or even knowing that a search happened."
This is actually an old idea centered around brand. Companies found that users don't just interact with your company once and then make a purchase - they have a long journey of seeing ads, reading blog posts, seeing news and more before they make that purchase. What Rand is saying is that you need to use the HTML titles and Meta Descriptions to leave an impression rather than invite a click.
The more touch points the customer has with your brand, the less hard you have to fight to get that sale. Meaning you get more out of each one of those expensive clicks.
You need to get impressions with your core persona before they get to that ad that is now costing you more so that they have a much higher chance to actually get the sale when it happens.
What I'm saying is that clicks are going to continue to cost you more and more - make sure you get the most out of each one.
The way to do this is complicated and will take time. A better focused programmatic campaign with hardcore specific targeting, a fantastic PR campaign, the SEO idea above, social that is okay with people never clicking through to your site and more. Heck, even being okay with letting your email subject lines leave an impression if they are never opened - seeing the value of that subject line in terms of branding.
I think that's enough for now. Maybe I'll be wrong and everything will be just peachy over the next few years...