Around July 4, 2012, Google briefly rolled out something new on its search result pages; a set of tabbed links that allowed visitors to browse around different sitelinks within a single site. This increased the number of sitelinks for certain search terms to dozens of different links, but could have other implications.
Several days later, Google confirmed that the tabbed sitelinks were a test, and removed them from all results, where they have not been seen since. We don’t know if Google will add tabbed sitelinks to the search page on a regular basis, but we wanted to explain how they worked and suggest some ideas before Google brings these around again.
WHAT DO THE TABS LOOK LIKE?
Here’s a screenshot for a Google search results page when the test was active. Here, we see a Google result for the search term “SEO Book.” The #1 result was the site SEOBook.com, and at the top of the page are a number of tabs:
Research by other SEO bloggers indicated that Google would devise as many as eight different tabs to show off your site’s content. Each sitelink in each tab was accompanied by a brief descriptive snippet.
WHY WAS GOOGLE ADDING TABS?
Google is constantly going to experiment with the layout and information available on its search results page. The better it engages visitors, the more often those visitors will return to Google for their search needs. This is the philosophy that helped it achieve the market dominance Google currently enjoys. Exploring tabs is keeping with this directive.
Since the test was so short (about two days), we didn’t get a chance to learn about how sites should be configured to promote tabbed links, or learn about what kind of searches trigger tabbed results. In the future, it may be the case that Google Webmaster Tools allow sites some level of control over what the tabs display. For example, webmasters can use Google Webmaster Tools to disallow certain sitelinks; future tools may be implemented for tab controls.
Web users are not going to search for their favorite sites on Google; if a visitor is already familiar with a site, he or she will have the site bookmarked or the domain URL memorized to type into the address bar. So why did Google add these tabbed links? It would seem the advantage these tabs offer is quicker browsing for new visitors who are green to a specific topic. With a set of tabs, and “top links” in the first tab, visitors will have a birds-eye view of the site’s contents and may choose a tab that more accurately reflects their search need.
During the test, Google may have tracked which tabs got clicked and used this information to further its understanding of search intent. For example, if someone searches for “Apple,” Google is not immediately certain what they want. The user who types “Apple” into Google may want to learn about a type of tree-borne fruit, or they may want to learn about the computer company. If they do want to learn about the computer company (and they probably do), it’s in Google’s interest to learn what it is specifically about “Apple” the user wants to know. Are they looking to buy an iPhone? Do they want technical support? By displaying a set of tabbed results, Google can give the user an option to tell Google what they need to know before they visit the Apple site.
ANALYTICS AND OTHER QUESTIONS
From the results so far, the tabbed initiative was only a quick test, and there are a lot of things Google must figure out before they might add this feature. For example, how will tabbed results affect analytics? Will analytics reveal the original search term, or could they show the sequence of tabs the user clicked to visit their site?
Another element Google must include in its investigation is advertising. Every time Google adds a new feature to the results page, like Universal Search, or left-rail controls, a user’s attention is drawn away from the supporting advertisements. In the results we reviewed, it wasn’t clear how the tabbed results fit in with the ads on the page.
Formatting is another consideration. The existing tab content appeared to be Google’s “best guess” on site topics of note to visitors. To what degree can Webmasters influence tabbed links by re-configuring their navigation? Is there some way to control the number or anchor text that appears in the tabs?
Given these and other pressing questions, it will likely be some time before Google rolls tabbed sitelinks out for everyday searches.