Google SERP Changes: Are They “Whoa, Dude,” or Are They Bogus?


Posted by Jonah A. Berger, Search Specialist (SEO)

To quote the incomparable Keanu Reeves from his role as Ted “Theodore” Logan in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”: “Strange things are afoot at the Circle K.” That was 1989, roughly around the time English computer scientist and MIT professor Timothy Berners-Lee was credited with inventing the World Wide Web. With Bill and Ted having little (OK, nothing) to do with cyberspace, let’s fast forward 20 years to the SEO world, where the Circle K plays the role of Google and phone booths have all but vanished due to cell phones, smartphones, iPhones and just about any other device you can fit in your satchel.

The ubiquitous Google recently made more enhancements to its search engine results pages (SERPs), changes that could further refine result relevance and increase the amount of information presented to searchers before their next click. Announced on its official blog on March 24 in a post titled “Two new improvements to Google results pages,” Google search results now showcase enhanced “related search” capabilities and longer snippets returned for queries of four or more words. What does all this mean for SEO? Below, I will break down each enhancement and highlight some takeaways from each.

 

Related searches

Related search is nothing new to search engine users, so what’s the big deal? Google already offered it, as do competitors like Ask.com and Live Search. Yahoo! doesn’t show related searches in the same way, but it does provide searchers with a similar “Also try” feature that suggests terms for each query. Never one to shy away from tweaks and small changes, Google appears to have taken related search results to a new level by providing related concepts within a search term. Confused? Don’t be. Think of it as keeping related search results within the immediate family and not involving the aunts, uncles and in-laws. The following example should help clear things up.

First, head to Live Search and enter the query “hamburgers”. You’ll see the following results:

Msn hamburgers
Notice the “Related searches” field at right outlined in red. It contains all sorts of variants related to hamburgers, but surprisingly doesn’t show any results that contain the actual word “hamburgers.” Are some of these related searches useful? Yes. Relevant? Well, sort of. Live Search appears to be stuck on hamburger recipes, and throws in “hot dog” and “pizza” for good measure. While it has all the makings of a summer picnic to remember in Aunt Edna’s backyard (complete with an above-ground pool and Slip ‘n Slide), the related search area could use some work.

Now, perform the same query in Google for “hamburgers” and you’ll see this at the bottom of the search results:

Google hamburgers
Google’s related search not only returns “hamburgers” in most of its query examples, but also provides the searcher with links to fast food empires Burger King and McDonald’s (one of the first things I think of when hamburgers are on the brain), as well as recipes, pictures, the art of making hamburgers and even “hamburgers games” (don’t ask because I don’t know either).

Takeaways: These examples lead me to pose this question: Are the related searches for Live Search and Google that much different? Will they change history in a phone booth like Bill and Ted did? No, but what a more refined related search feature could do is drive more relevant traffic to a site. If you think about it, the searcher who typed “hamburgers” into Google could have been looking for anything related to hamburgers, from restaurants and recipes to, heck, T-shirts with hamburgers on them or hamburger games (sorry, had to). By giving them the ability to pare down the search result possibilities into a more palatable list, a searcher is more apt to find what they are looking for. This benefits not only the searcher, of course, but also sites that are effectively optimized for SEO and given the most love by Google.

Gone are the days when you can rank on Page 1 just because you’ve done one thing really well, like optimized your title tags or garnered a few inbound links. Search engine results are becoming more refined and accurate by the day, and it’s now up to Webmasters and site owners to follow or take heed to the fine words of Ted when he said: “All we are is dust in the wind, Dude.”

Snippets

The legendary (used very loosely) Devo once released a song that I think went something like this: “Get straight/Go forward/Move ahead/Try to detect it/It’s not too late/To snippet/Snippet good.” The folks at Google must have that ditty programmed on repeat on their iPods because these ain’t your momma’s snippets anymore.

First, what’s a snippet? In Google speak, it’s the text shown below the title tag link in search results – real estate that’s used primarily to pull content from a page’s META description tag. Our best practices have long been to populate META description tags with a minimum of 150 characters to a maximum of 250, depending on the search engine. Any additional text is likely to be truncated, much like title tags that run past 70 characters. When a META description tag isn’t populated with content related to a search query, search engines like Google often will pull text from the body of a page if it’s relevant. If that’s not the case either, it’s not uncommon for a snippet to be filled with random text (a sure sign that a crawler is fed up with your site and unlikely to attend Aunt Edna’s party).

(Side note: To avoid confusion, from this point forward I will refer to snippets as META description blurbs when not talking primarily about Google because I can’t seem to get that Devo song out of my head.)

For a long time in SEO, META description blurbs haven’t been much of a factor in search engine ranking algorithms. Instead, the blurbs are primarily used as platforms for marketing call-to actions. Because of this, META description blurbs are still important – they can persuade a searcher to click through a search result after giving them a taste of what’s to come. They also can be the first site content a searcher sees after query results are returned, and can help them form an early (and hopefully positive) site opinion.

So what’s different now, you ask? What has Google done to its snippets? Well, for longer-tailed queries that contain four or more words, Google is now returning longer, more defined snippet text that attempts to touch on every topic found in a query. To explain this in pictures, shown below is the top search result in Google for the query “chicago restaurant review”:

Chicago metro
The search result is for Citysearch.com, a popular online lifestyle guide that claims to include over 14 million business listings, hundreds of thousands of user reviews, and ratings on more than 2 million businesses nationwide. Before commenting about how generic this search result – which clocks in at 145 characters and pulls content directly from the page’s META description tag – might be, you have to remember how generic the query “Chicago restaurant review” is, and know there’s a possibility that a search engine isn’t going to return results solely related to restaurant reviews, but also those related to Chicago restaurants and other restaurant keyword variants.

However, when you perform the query “chicago restaurant reviews hours chicken pizza burgers fries” in Google, the first result that appears contains information about an actual restaurant, Milwood Pizza Burgers & More:

Millwood pizza
This search result, which houses 228 characters of snippet text taken from the body copy of the page and not the META description tag, highlights just about every word from the ridiculously long query. Ridiculous, you say? Well, consider this: online competitive intelligence leader Hitwise released a study earlier this month that found that longer search queries continue to be all the rage these days. From February 2008 to February 2009, U.S.-based searches of eight or more words across all search engines increased a whopping 20 percent, while searches of one and two words actually decreased 3 and 5 percent, respectively. A chart that presents this data is shown below:

Hitwise longer search queries
Takeaways: Longer snippets, longer search queries – what does this mean? And why did they make a Bill & Ted’s sequel?  It can mean a lot of things, and those who eat and drink SEO from Austin to Zion are quick to theorize. However, one very important takeaway from this remains unchanged:  Sites have to make sure they are fully optimized from front to back and top to bottom. It’s not acceptable anymore to just optimize a part of your site or pages you feel might be most relevant. Treating every page of your site as if it were the home page is one of the keys to improving search engine visibility.

Furthermore (and somewhat less obvious), as the amount of pages added to search engine indices continues to grow, so will the amount of information displayed in search results. Searchers have been at this search thing for a long time now and have learned how to flex their querying muscles. The likelihood of typing “hamburger” into a search engine and finding what you’re looking for is rare (OK, medium-rare) these days, and searchers know this. Much like the old saying, “You get what you pay for,” the same can be said for search queries. Paying a little extra in the form of a long-tailed query can lead to a more favorable return.


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