Performics POV: Google Adds Dates to Result Page Snippets


Posted by Sam Battin, Senior Search Specialist (Natural Search)

The beginning of some snippets in Google’s search results pages now include a date.  This does not happen for all search results, and where a date appears for a page in one site, it may not necessarily appear for all pages in that same site.  Why is Google doing this, what date are they using, and what could this mean for your natural search strategy?

The following screenshot of a Google results page shows how only certain snippets in a site will contain a date.  In the first result, Google has added the date “Aug 23, 2007 …” at the beginning of the snippet, while the second result’s snippet has no date:

Google-date 


Some search engine users may find a date at the beginning of the snippet helpful when choosing the result they will click on.  For example, suppose someone does a search and the top two results are your site and your competitor’s site.  If the date that appears at the beginning of your site’s snippet is “May 3, 2004”, and your competitor’s snippet date is from last week, the Web user may be tempted to click on your competitor’s site and not yours.  “Newer is better”, as the saying goes, and a current snippet date on a results page may give sites an edge over competitors with older information.

So how is Google determining the date snippet, and how can you make sure the date snippet accurately represents your site?  On Google’s Webmaster Help site, we found the following date snippet advice from Google employee John Mueller on how to ensure Google knows the date it should use:

1)      Write the date in the body copy of the page (this is useful for both Google and your visitors)

2)      Specify the “Last modified” date in the HTTP Header of the page, e.g.

     Last-Modified: Mon, 30 Jun 2008 12:45:26 GMT

3)      Make sure the date in the HTTP header matches the “” tag for the page in your site’s XML sitemap, e.g.


Carry out these steps on all of the pages for which you would like the date to appear in the Google snippet.  It’s likely that Google will cross-check each page’s date information with other verifiable information, such as the date the document appeared on your server and the date at which the Google spider first indexed the page.

It is likely that Google’s date snippets are an experiment in improving user experience.  There is no indication at this time Google will make this practice universal, and Performics has determined that the dates in Google snippets have no effect on PageRank scores or results page rankings.  However, this does highlight the importance of your site’s META description tags; even though they have no effect on natural search visibility, they can say a lot about your site and can encourage clicks from search engine users.
 

Google has been adding dates to certain search results pages since March 2008, and since then they’ve stealthily gathered data on how the date snippets affect user behavior.  Naturally Google won’t want to add dates to all results until they’ve thoroughly satisfied themselves that it won’t have a negative impact on the experience of their users.  For example, a popular site with lots of good information may not update its home page frequently, and adding dates to the search results snippet might mislead users into thinking the site’s information is older than it actually is. 

Google also wants to establish the user search queries where date snippet information will be most useful.  For example, are date snippets more useful for retail sites or for product review sites?  Would news search queries benefit from date snippets?  What’s a reliable way to determine when a user needs to know the date a page was updated?  Google has not yet answered these questions, and so the date snippets will continue to appear on an unpredictable basis.

Performics will closely monitor when and where dates appear in results snippets, and will provide its clients with solid advice on effectively managing their natural search strategy.


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