Google Brings Breadcrumbs to the Table

Posted by Jonah A. Berger, Search Specialist, Natural Search

The Thanksgiving holiday is here and we’ll soon turn our optimization efforts to turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and pie (OK, cake too). Google has something else in mind: breadcrumbs. I’ll explain.

A recent change to the Google SERPs we've grown accustomed to has led to the addition of site hierarchy links (aka “breadcrumbs”) at the bottom of select search results. See for yourself:

The query “turkey stuffing recipe” returned the search result shown above. Notice the green site hierarchy display in place of what used to be an unclickable URL that mirrored the blue (and always clickable) title tag. Except for the domain name at the far left (in this case “”), the green text is now very clickable and gives searchers multiple avenues to enter a site. For example, searchers can visit through the “Recipes” category-level page, the “Holidays and Events” sub-category page and the deeper “Thanksgiving” category page, which is one directory above the title tag link destination. All said, for this particular result there are now four pages to choose from instead of one.

Where did this green site hierarchy display come from? Believe it or not, the very “Thanksgiving” page itself. Check it out:


Outlined in red in the preceding screen shot is what’s known as breadcrumb navigation or simply “breadcrumbs,” which are frequently implemented by Webmasters to help people navigate through a site. Breadcrumbs answer the “How the heck did I get here?” question, as well as the “How the heck do I get back?” one. They can also be very useful to search engines, which through breadcrumb navigation are provided with easier access to higher-level pages (and especially the home page) no matter how deep their site crawl goes.

These breadcrumbs sure sound tasty, don’t they? Why not add a few to the search results to shake things up? Before touching on the possible pros and cons of this latest change, let’s see what Google has to say. According to the Official Google Blog, the addition of site hierarchy links in search results is "an improvement that replaces the URL in some search results with a hierarchy showing the precise location of the page on the website." Translation: Breadcrumb links (if optimized effectively) will grant searchers an opportunity to find out more about a site before they visit. These links will also give searchers the ability to choose a generic higher-level page if a deeper page just won't, um, fit the bird.

Sounds good, right? Remember, there are two sides to every story and, in this case, there are searchers sitting on one side and a collaboration of search engine marketers and advertisers standing nervously on the other.

From a searcher’s point of view, the hierarchy links make a search result more robust and allow searchers to pick and choose the exact route they want to take. This is especially helpful with retail site results because a searcher who queries Google for “red basketball shoes” might have originally ended up on a product-level page that displays just one model of red basketball shoes. Now, with the hierarchy links in place, that same searcher can intentionally (heck, or even unintentionally) click through to a higher-level page within the same result and find hundreds of red basketball shoe models.

Search engine marketers and the advertisers they engage with may develop several different points of view, especially when SEO is the topic of discussion. First, the good: The addition of hierarchy links can instantly increase search engine visibility of a site. What once was a search result that contained just one link (likely cued to the song “One is the Loneliest Number” by Harry Nilsson) now might be that same result with three or four (likely cued to the song “The ‘In’ Crowd” by Dobie Gray). With all these links comes the possibility of a traffic increase not only to the site as a whole, but also to individual pages that might have otherwise been overlooked by searchers and search engines.

Now, the not so good: Effective SEO is a combination of, among many, many other things, the optimization of a particular landing page using a targeted keyword. To take the previous “red basketball shoes” example, the product page that displays just one model of red basketball shoes might be the intended landing page that’s heavily focused on during an SEO engagement. It’s this page that’s specifically designed to drive qualified natural search traffic and increase conversions; it’s this page that once flew solo and in bright lights in the search result. Now that same search result might give that same searcher multiple options to click through, which could lead that searcher to an unintended link destination. Sure, you can argue that they’re in the right ballpark; it’s just that they might not be sitting in the right seat.

Like every Google and other relevant search engine addition, subtraction and revision to the SERPs over the years, this latest change should not cause immediate panic or concern. It’s just too early to tell if it will affect the way future SEO programs are run. What is known is that breadcrumb navigation is and for a long time has been an important internal linking aspect of any SEO program. Webmasters should continue to use breadcrumbs as an effective navigation element on every applicable page, and marketers who speak SEO should make sure those breadcrumbs are optimized properly for search engines.

These days, you just never know when your breadcrumbs might end up at the table.

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