As Google continues to expand, personalise and localise its SERPs, is an organic ranking worth the same as it once was?
The Google search engine results page has undergone some pretty radical changes in recent times. Organic results have been joined by news, images and even social results. Sponsored links have expanded, map results have become more competitive. Individual users can even have unique results depending on their search history.
All of this tinkering has changed the dynamic of a Google result page hugely [see: The Changing Anatomy of a Google Search Page]. A searcher today has more choice than ever before. The blended results can take them in any one of a number of directions. To such an extent that they may never get as far as the organic results.
To start with let’s look at the various components may make up a Google SERP:
Organic results – These are the results that the Google algorithm has indexed in terms of their relevance to the search phrase used. This is what we target with Search Engine Optimisation.
News results – Links to some of the major news stories related to the searcher’s request.
Image results – Exactly what it says on the tin, images for the key phrase.
Social results – When logged in you can see comments people have made on the search term from your extended social contact list [see: Google’s Social Search Adds Further Personalisation to SERPs].
Live feed – General social media comments on the subject taken from sites like Twitter [see: Google Goes Real-time]. These are usually vetted to a degree, allowing more authoritative messages to take precedence.
Map results – This features a large map of the area that has either been specified by the searcher or is nearest their current location. Businesses are usually highlighted and ranked in terms of their relevance. This usually appears at the top of the page, just beneath the sponsored results.
Blog results – If there are a number of blog posts relating to your search query you might well see the most relevant on the Google SERP.
Related results – If there is some ambiguity about the search term used, Google may also provide a selection of organic results from one or more related search phrases.
Shopping results – Appearing on many product searches, this section features a range of suppliers offering the item, the prices and images. This data is taken from Google Base.
Sponsored results – Often appearing both at the top of a SERP and along the right-hand side of results, these are the Paid Search results (PPC). These can now include numerous links for a single advert, which means that box sizes may vary.
All of these have now been joined by personalised search. This effectively monitors what you have visited in the past (while logged into your Google account) and will rank those sites you go to most often highest within the search results [see: Is Google Personalised Search Moving Us Towards Web 3.0?].
The Challenges of a Changing Google SERP
Whilst a Google SERP can include any of these features, aside from the organic results, none are guaranteed. This means that the appearance of your Google SERP can markedly change from search to search and even day to day. Of course this provides a more up-to-date experience for users, but it can also lead to confusion.
When it comes to SEO and the organic results that we look to achieve, instant visibility can’t always be guaranteed. With the natural results occasionally featured below the fold and sometimes even lower down the pecking order than other search features, such as news or images, their value has been called into question. Equally, with personalised search altering rankings for different users, a top Google ranking still might not mean that you’re appearing first for all searchers. Frustrating!
So what does this mean for Search Engine Marketers and particularly those in SEO? How about those worried about their search engine traffic and considering other ways of promoting their website? Well, in the most part it should be business as usual.
There’s nothing anybody can do about personalised search. We can’t adjust the way in which Google chooses to lay out its pages and what elements it chooses to include. All we can do is make sure that site is getting as much visibility as is humanly possible. This means continuing efforts to gain a top organic ranking as well as exploring further ways of developing your search engine presence.
Expanding your Search Engine Marketing
Whilst maps and images might create a distraction, people are still drawn to the organic results. This is still perceived as the most accurate and relevant source of information for most users. If they choose to follow a news story or image on their SERP, there’s a pretty good chance that they aren’t interested in what you have to offer anyway. After all, Google has implemented these changes to make it easier for searchers to locate what they’re looking for quickly. Not everybody is looking to buy products or track down services.
If anything, these SERP updates have made it more important for websites to get themselves into the first few positions on Google. The results page is a competitive place, so if you can get yourself seen first, you stand a far better chance of getting a click. If you are top, you can also increase your chances of appearing above the fold (meaning that you don’t have to scroll down the page). Again, this is the prime position to get seen.
Optimising for Local Search
As well as performing your usual SEO work though, you need to be aware of building a local presence. Whilst the Maps section will only appear for searches that are strictly related to businesses and some services, you need to make sure that you are at least featured. Signing up is free to do with Google, Yahoo and Bing [see: Creating Your Local Listing in Google Maps].
By optimising for your geographical location, you can also boost your organic results for place specific phrases. With mobile search on the increase, doing this work now could well have major benefits in the future.
So whilst there is more to distract a searcher these days, there’s nothing to suggest that this should have a negative impact on your site. Visitor numbers might decrease slightly, but the likelihood is that they will be far more targeted. The SERP will weed out all of those looking for related stories or pictures to post on their blog and deliver only those who are interested in what you have to offer.
You also now have more opportunities to get yourself seen on a single Google SERP. Rather than just going after a good organic ranking, you can also have a PPC ad, feature on the map, have tweets posted on the live feed and have your news stories, blog posts and press releases featured on the same page. You can be king of the SERPs without resorting to spam or underhanded techniques.
Maybe the infiltration of these numerous search facets have taken a little of the gloss off of Google rankings (it’s certainly made reporting them more challenging). However, getting to the top position still provides significant benefits for any website and until that changes, SEO will play a major part in the wider world of Search Engine Marketing.