Google Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) has evolved over the last ten years with the introduction of new features, some which have stuck and some which have not. The original landscape saw a regular set of ten results per page and nothing else. Now Google is always testing new features in the SERPs to keep users interacting and even making measures to defer users from entering sites (as we will get onto later). You’ll rarely see a SERP without any features now and these often dominate the feed more than organic results. These changes underline the importance of understanding the developments in the search landscape. What we will look at here is some of the current SERP features and how they might affect your organic traffic.
The Knowledge Graph/Card & Direct Answers
Google’s main goal is to answer user queries in as few clicks as possible and this is reflected in most of the features introduced. The most obvious use of this in the Direct Answer or Knowledge Card. The Direct Answer introduced in 2012 has endeavoured to answer user’s queries without navigating away from the SERP. Questions such as “What time is it in Singapore?”, “Weather in Manchester”, and “Movie times near me” are all answerable without clicking any links. While direct answers are useful for the user to find quick results, this has meant that sites that information pages are seeing less traffic such as Wikipedia. Jimmy Wales spoke in 2015 about the long term problem of direct answer boxes providing users with quick information and pulling them away from entering sites.
The knowledge graph appears for searches into specific interests such as people, places, media or companies. This information is often pulled from various sources rather than just one so can differ in reliability, meaning users may want to look further to find more details. It’s difficult to optimise for (most big companies will have specific schema markup geared to it) but also difficult to gain any traffic as the information is fairly short providing a date of birth, list of actors or location of a business.
Featured snippets have become such a mainstay in the SERP that they are targeted by digital marketers as ‘position zero’. They appear above the organic results so naturally, are fought over to outrank every other position. The snippet usually shows an excerpt of the queries’ answer in the form of a paragraph, list, table or bullet points and includes a link to the source. Such as in the snippet (shown below) for “What is a featured snippet” you will find the complete answer in the box, leaving the user less inclined to click through to the site.
Other results may have a limited amount of information meaning users will be more likely to click through for more details. With this feature, as the information is laid out at the top of the SERP, other results on page one tend to be ignored.
It’s strange to think of a SERP without ads but now we can see up to seven paid text ads (four at the top and three at the bottom) along with shopping ads for a multitude of products. A PPC campaign is often run alongside SEO and the traffic is often shared although this changes hugely from industry to industry. If you can afford to use AdWords then you can jump above all results and most other SERP features without the need to rank highly organically. While organic results are still important, businesses that rank third for example but run no AdWords, may find that they are actually the seventh result without considering any other features. This may result in a drop in traffic and reinforces the importance of the number one spot. With Google reportedly testing for 14 text ads to appear on SERPs at any one time, the challenge to remain seen could become more difficult.
Local results are most important when using mobile as people will search more ‘near me’ navigational queries such as restaurants, banks, or shops. The graphic is quite distracting as it will use a map and three large results with reviews alongside pictures. In the example of local restaurants, the top three results will often be highly rated, well-known places that are attractive for users. This would mean that other organic results will be ignored for this option as well as pushing lower ranked content to the next page.
More and more you’ll find that across the top of the SERP or even within the organic results, images and videos will be offered as an alternative response. While the variety of results is great for users, this carousel will generally push other websites down in the rankings. Google want to diversify the SERP to provide a better experience, so a user searching ‘T Shirt’ without any obvious intent may just want an image rather than to buy one. This also means your SEO strategy requires diversification to rank for more than just text results.
The Future of SERP Features
There are many more SERP features that we can discuss here and how they affect organic traffic. Research by Ahrefs found that SERP features are driving traffic away from organic results in many different ways. The main way we see traffic falling is from Google providing direct answers through Knowledge Cards meaning people do need to navigate away from the SERP. Other features such as the Local Pack or Ads tend to push other organic results lower down the SERP or even to the next page so you’ll find that ranking in position nine or ten will now be considered page two. Who knows what new features will be added to the SERP in the future but you can predict it will tend to be negative for organic traffic.
If you’d like any advice regarding your business’s SEO strategy, then do not hesitate to get in touch.