The Grammarphobia Blog

Who’s killing organic search?

Q: You’ve written before about the evolution of “organic,” and I wonder if you’re aware of its further morphing to mean something like relevant, as in this blog heading: “How Google is killing organic search.”

A: That heading is on a July 1, 2013, post by Aaron Harris, a co-founder of the website Tutorspree.com, that looks at “the amount of real estate given to true organic results” in a screenful of Google hits.

In a Google search for “auto mechanic,” Harris says, only 13 percent of the results on the first page are organic. The rest of the page, he adds, is taken up by ads and Google products.

Our 2008 post about “organic” notes that the word has changed radically since it entered the language. In fact, as you point out, it’s still changing. 

A recent sense of the word, and one that standard dictionaries haven’t yet caught up with, involves the use of “organic” in reference to search engine results.

In this sense, “organic” results are those that pop up naturally because they’re relevant to a keyword query. The “inorganic” results are the those that are paid for (Harris, in his post, also includes Google maps, navigation bars, and so on).

Another way to look at this is that “organic” hits are the ones you’re actually looking for. “Inorganic” hits (otherwise known as “sponsored” or “featured” links) are what you have to slog through to get there.

This technical use of “organic” has been familiar for about a decade among people involved in web marketing and search engine optimization. But as of now, it hasn’t made its way into standard dictionaries.

The only dictionary we’ve found that recognizes this use of “organic” is the online Wiktionary. Its entry for “organic” includes this definition: “Generated according to the ranking algorithms of a search engine, as opposed to paid placement by advertisers.”

And it provides this example from a book published in 2008: “According to a recent survey by Jupiter Research, 80 percent of Web users get information from organic search results.” (From Changing the Channel: 12 Easy Ways to Make Millions for Your Business, by Michael Masterson and MaryEllen Tribby.)

As you might expect, the term has also made its way into technical glossaries. The Computer Desktop Encyclopedia defines “organic search results” this way:

“A results list from querying a search engine that is ranked entirely by the search engine’s algorithms rather than due to being paid advertisements. … Also called a ‘natural search.’ ”

 As we say in our earlier posting, when “organic” made its debut in English in the 1300s, it was an anatomical term referring to the jugular vein.

Over the centuries it gradually developed new meanings, having to do with the organs of the body, with living organisms, with things derived from living matter, with things developed continuously or naturally, with chemical-free farming methods and foods, and so on.

It’s often used these days in the sense of natural or “green.” Within its definitions of “organic,” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has this: “simple, healthful, and close to nature: an organic lifestyle.”

The web-marketing sense of the word is just one more in a widening pool of meanings for “organic.”

So when did the search-engine sense of the word first appear?

The earliest example we’ve been able to find is from the March 11, 2002, issue of the marketing journal B to B. An article entitled “Marketers report high ROI with paid listings” has this paragraph:

“Lee Mills, director of online promotions for SiteLab, a San Diego-based interactive marketing agency, said, ‘Standard, organic optimization provides a high ROI over time in most categories, but paid listings can be one of the most cost-efficient methods.” (“ROI” means return on investment.)

This sense began to appear more frequently in 2003, when a Business Wire press release said a new service by WebTrends would help clients “distinguish pay-for-performance versus organic search listings,” and answer questions like these:

“How much of my traffic is coming from paid search versus organic search, by each search engine? Do paid search listings generate a higher return than organic search listings?”

Two months later, in August 2003, PC World.com cited a study saying consumers found it difficult to tell these paid ads from “organic” search results.

PC World said the study—by Consumer WebWatch, a service of Consumers Union—found that the Federal Trade Commission’s voluntary guidelines “may have even made it more difficult to tell paid-for search results from free or ‘organic’ ones.”

“It seems,” the website reported, “that searchers don’t know the meaning of such recommended but ambiguous terms as ‘sponsored’ and ‘featured’ that are used to identify paid-placement listings.”

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