The TL; DR version
The SERPs have changed. Search features have become a dominant force in the results pages of most major search engines, particularly Google, and this could have major implications for the millions of smaller companies that rely on search engines for their traffic.
Historically, Google has provided a relatively level playing field for the little guys, both in organic and paid search. The changes, however, risk destroying the relationship Google has long held with these smaller companies, and tipping the scales firmly in the balance of the biggest brands.
So, what are the changes, what are the impacts they are having, and most importantly, what can you do?
A Seismic Shift
Marketers like to talk of “the year of”. I’ve lost count of how many years have been ‘the year of mobile’ (there’s currently 3.6 million results for this search term in Google), and no doubt there’ll be a flurry of articles on their way shortly to discuss what 2019 will be ‘the year of’.
Such declarations are of questionable use, but they make for good headlines, so, shamelessly jumping on the bandwagon, I’m going to retrospectively declare that 2018 was the year of the enhanced search feature.
Google has been steadily enriching the SERPs in recent years, gradually adding more and more features that go above and beyond the traditional ‘ten blue links’, but beginning at the end of last year and throughout 2018, they went absolutely bananas.
Many of the enhanced, in-search experiences we’re seeing aren’t really new, or have at least been around in some form for a while. A non-exhaustive list includes:
• Knowledge Graph (and derivatives like Knowledge Cards etc)
• Live Results (weather, sport and more)
• Carousels (everything from songs to products)
• Questions/Answers (including featured snippets)
• Enhanced regular search results (rich snippets)
• Videos and movies (which makes heavy and exclusive use of YouTube videos)
• Local results (again, exclusive to Google Maps
• Google My Business
• Various tools (including a mortgage calculator)
• Custom in-search portals (including among many others Google for Jobs, which rolled out in the UK earlier this year)
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What is new though is the huge prevalence Google has given to these results in the last year or so. According to Spark Toro, this (and the subsequent large drops in organic CTRs and click share) really kicked off in at the tail end of Q4 2016.
It’s not unusual for Google to test stuff for a bit before changing their minds (remember 300 character meta descriptions?), but what 2018 has made clear is that this shift in the SERPs is not a one-off, or a blip, or a test. It’s a major directional shift, and for the foreseeable future, it’s here to stay.
Outside of organic, we’ve also seen Google testing new enriched features in its paid search ads (more on that later) – currently to a much lesser extent, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we see more and more of this in the next few months.
So, the rationale makes sense, but is it actually beneficial?
This all fits into Google’s changing philosophy as it attempts to move away from a search engine to an answer engine: the ‘answers, not just links’ approach.
This is partly due to the explosive growth of voice search. The traditional ten blue link format doesn’t work very well with voice searches, so the enhanced search features allow Google to provide single*, authoritative answers in an instant.
* More recently Google has started giving multiple answer options to ambiguous questions or on disputed topics, but the net effect is much the same.
Increasingly, Google wants to answer user queries right from the SERPs rather than sending them away to other sites. Google’s heavy promotion of Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMPs) has, whilst welcomed in some areas, been criticised in others for similar reasons. This, in turn, is part of a more concerning ‘walled garden’ approach, as Google starts to fence users into the SERPs and stops them from accessing the content that those very SERPs are built on.
On a different but related note, the changes to paid search ads Google is experimenting with are also part of Google’s recent shift in focus: rebranding AdWords as Ads, and trying to move away from its entrenched image as ‘just’ a search engine.
Change should be expected in the digital marketing world and if you don’t like it, you’re probably in the wrong job, but sometimes, change isn’t just disruptive but also downright damaging.
I’m not the first to raise concerns about these changes to the SERPs – Rand Fishkin and Dr. Peter J. Myers to name just two have both made excellent points about the potential negative consequences of these changes to organic marketers.
I’d recommend you check both of those out. What has been less mentioned, though, is the impact this will (and is already) having on the smaller companies.
• Effects on Organic
The scale of the organic impact does vary significantly by search query length and industry sector. Weather and sports queries have seen huge drops in organic CTR, while other areas are relatively unaffected.
What is beyond doubt is that, while appearing in one the enhanced search features can bring big CTR benefits to a select few, overall, organic traffic to the links languishing far below can take a right hammering, particularly on mobile devices, where screen space was already at a premium.
Of course, this has always been true to an extent: Google can’t possibly give equal treatment to every single possible result for a search term. Links on the first page have always enjoyed far better CTR than links languishing in the pages below, and the higher up the page a link sat, the better it performed.
But these new changes are different in three key ways.
Firstly, they drastically reduce the prime positioning. SERP features are just… big. Screens haven’t really got any bigger (in fact, with the rise of mobile, they’ve actually got smaller), so it’s more of a squeeze than ever.
For some searches, you now have to scroll through five or six mobile screens of featured snippets, structured snippets, knowledge cards and (ever bigger) ads just to get to the first organic link – more than most users, it seems, can be bothered to do. Never before has there been such a squeeze on prime search real estate.
Secondly, they’re much more engaging than regular organic results. The ten blue links represent (if you’ll excuse the metaphor) a fair and democratic search world.
All links are created equally, and with good basic meta info copywriting, everyone had a chance of competing equally (factoring out ranking) for user intention. With the rise of SERP features, that’s all changed. Users are much more likely to click on the new colourful, feature rich, look-at-me SERPs than the humble blue links, which look decidedly plain in comparison, and less likely to entice a click.
Finally, the search features are more likely to be perceived as having Google’s official seal of approval. This had amusing and highly embarrassing (for Google at least) consequences when Google started giving unequivocal, authoritative, and completely abominable answers to questions on Barack Obama, women and the Holocaust. But this isn’t really a laughing matter: if Google presents something as ‘the’ answer, be it a weather forecast, a fact, a news story, or a company, product, or service, then by default it gives official weight to those results.
So, why does this matter for the smaller brands?
Enhanced features seem to be largely, although not exclusively, dominated by bigger, more well-known brands. To get there needs good organic ranking, quality structured data, and frequently the resources to create quality images and videos.
It’s a high barrier. Organic ranking has never been easy but it’s probably tougher than it’s ever been before. Now, you could legitimately argue that it’s up to brands to invest the time in marking up their website, and that Schema.org is a simple, easy to understand tool to do so. You would of course be right, but it doesn’t detract from the fact that a lot of smaller businesses are very unlikely to do so.
It seems to me that with these changes we will see the SERPs become more and more exclusive, with the biggest brands coming out on top.
If so, this would be a very unequal situation, where those already in the best position are more likely to be able to cement their power, at the expense of smaller companies pushed ever further down the available screen space. It would also be a betrayal of the very people that Google built their business on.
Frankly, I think Google is taking the piss a bit here: dangling a carrot in order to force us to markup our sites, which makes their job easier, whilst simultaneously beating non-compliers with the huge stick of plummeting organic CTRs.
I’m not sure exactly what the legal definition of the abuse of monopoly power is, but this to me certainly smacks of just that.
• Effects on Paid
This trend isn’t only limited to organic results. Generally, Google Ads has been a great way for smaller brands to compete against industry leaders thanks to the fairness of its Ad Rank algorithm and auction based, but there’s rumblings of changes that could impact that.
We first saw this with Google’s new minimum guidelines for Ads Grant accounts, which amongst other restrictions, now requires charity accounts to hit a minimum of a 5% average CTR across their campaigns.
That’s doable if you’re a big charity with a high volume of branded searches, but damn near impossible as a small charity with limited brand awareness. That means that the people who most need the free money (still a great thing for Google to do, by the way) have to work the hardest to get it.
A more recent development is the video ads in Search spotted by Search Engine Land. Currently this looks like a limited beta that’s only for a small number of major film studios, but if it rolls out on a wider basis, it could have a significant negative impact on smaller advertisers.
Video ads look great, but realistically, most companies don’t have the budget to produce them on a regular basis, so a wider roll-out of this ad format would indirectly but automatically give preferential treatment to companies with the ad dollar to spend on the required creative assets.
In both cases, we’re seeing the smaller players at risk of being squeezed out, whilst the big established brands get the preferential treatment.
Are these changes all bad?
No. Some of the enhanced SERP features are incredibly useful for the end user, and are pretty much essential for voice search functionality. They’re not all bad for marketers either – there are good opportunities for canny SEOs who can make it into the SERPs. And they’re great if you’re a big brand. This is not to say though that they don’t have some major drawbacks.
Does this run counter to Google’s ethos of being fair and accessible for everyone?
To be honest, it’s hard to see how it doesn’t. Smaller, less technically competent companies are going to be squeezed out if this trend continues.
Is Google taking liberties?
A controversial one. Google would argue, with some justification, that the changes are better for the end user, who is, after all, their number one customer. But it doesn’t half feel like an abuse of monopoly power to the smaller companies, content creators, and advertisers (who Google has heavily relied on to get to the position it is now) who are finding their available search real estate is rapidly being pushed to the margins.
Is Google being greedy?
Maybe. Again, Google would argue it’s putting the user first, but with organic links being pushed further down the page, there’s a greater pressure on advertisers to pay to rank through the use of paid search ads — which is, of course, far and away Google’s main source of revenue.
I, for one, welcome our new SERP overlords.
So, in the words of notorious capitalist advertiser Vladimir Lenin, what is to be done?
1. Play the Google Game
Well, the most obvious, least palatable and unfortunately probably the most effective way of dealing with these changes is to fall in line. If Google wants us to use structured data to make its indexing life easier, we have little choice but to play the game. In many ways, we always have been, but this time, it seems we aren’t going to get back as much as we did before. It leaves a sour taste, but that unfortunately is the way it is.
See our articles on why structured data is so important, and our other article on how structured data works, for more info.
2. Go for the long tail
One crumb of comfort for SEOs is that currently the new enhanced SERPs seem to mostly limited to shorter tail searches: the ‘fat head’ and to a lesser extent the ‘chunky middle’ of searches. Featured snippets and knowledge cards are still a thing for long tail queries, but the other snippets are much less prevalent.
That means that, for now at least, good old-fashioned SEO practices still apply.
3. Aim for the top 10
This sounds somewhat patronising, given that that’s what SEO has been all about since pretty much the first days of search engines, but the fact is that you stand almost zero chance of featuring in any of the enhanced SERP features if you aren’t already in the top 10 for that query, so it’s time to redouble your efforts to reach the holy grail of the first page for your target keywords.
4. Build your brand
Again, hardly a staggering new recommendation (sorry). The truth is though that these changes probably aren’t going away any time soon, and they do favour the bigger brands, so becoming more well-known amongst your target audience will bring additional organic benefits. Rather than trying to cover every sector, focus your advertising spend on smaller segments of your target market and try and build your brand steadily.
The final option (which I will admit is the most optimistic recommendation) is to unanimously and vocally give your feedback to Google. Voting with your feet isn’t really an option (yay for monopolies!) so your only recourse is to make your voice heard and hope it will have an impact.
Google has, despite its faults, generally proved reasonably willing to listen to organic marketers in the past. It’s possible they will do so again, so stand up and be counted, and make sure you give your own contribution to the debate around this changing face of SEO.
Maybe, just maybe, it might work.
Join the debate! Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, and be sure to check out our other articles on the importance and the details of structured data.