SEO news junkies are well aware that Google is constantly updating its SERP features on a seemingly constant basis. It seems almost as if each and every day some sort of ‘SERP fly’ (myself included) catches a slight variation of one of Google’s many SERP features. Beyond that, Google’s SERP features are often the subject of serious and substantial ‘SEO talk’. Ads in Local Packs, Featured Snippets as voice search content, and increases in HTTPS permeation, are all legitimate and impactful SEO issues.
The question is why? Why does Google invest so much time and energy into their SERP features? While of course the features improve the user experience, does that really explain why Google is constantly releasing a series of perpetual SERP features changes? There is simply way too much of an emphasis on SERP features over at Google to chalk their efforts up solely to “improved user experience.” If so, why then does Google go to such lengths for the sake of SERP feature perfection?
Google SERP Features for User Experience Enhancement
So yes, Google’s SERP features are there to make your life as a Google user fulfilled and easy. The ultimate endgame is to attract users to use Google search, nothing wrong with that. There are however certain SERP features that lend themselves to being exclusively for the purpose of helping the user obtain relevant content. Features like SiteLinks, Reviews, and Related Search obviously cater more directly to the user experience than say an AMP icon or HTTPS indication. As such, it’s pretty self-evident why Google has them available. Note though, these sort of SERP features are not the ones that Google is constantly experimenting with, there are not weekly tests of multiple variations of SiteLinks.
==> Check out our SERP Feature Rank Tracking Guide
Google Drives the Web with SERP Features
Moving on, and digging a bit deeper, there are those SERP features that are part of Google’s push to create a specific “digital environment.” For this category, think SERP features like the aforementioned AMP icon or HTTPS indication. These features don’t only represent certain technical specifications, but initiatives for a better and safer digital world.
To show you how this plays itself out, let’s take AMP. Google wants to go AMP. It wants a speedier mobile web, a less clunky mobile web, it wants an AMP optimized mobile web. Having such an AMP optimized mobile universe is good for Google. A quicker mobile page load time is good for Google’s AdSense ads and it’s good for users who are navigating from the SERP to mobile web pages. Think of it like this, if it took far too long to navigate from a mobile SERP to a website, would you still use Google, or as much as you would have otherwise on your phone? So what does Google do, they tell you that certain sites within your results will load faster than others by showing a little lighting bolt icon on the mobile SERP. In this way, Google is effectively driving how not only the SERP functions, but how the mobile web functions.
What Google Really Wants from Its SERP Features – Content Provider Dominance
It’s one thing to use SERP features in order to direct users to the most relevant content on the SERP. It’s another thing entirely to actually provide that content. Notwithstanding the moral sort of dilemma whether they should or should not, Google for all intents and purposes will quite often offer a user the very content they are seeking. Meaning, a user does not need to click on a single link in order to obtain the information that brought them to Google in the first place.
What do I mean?
Looking for a plumber, you don’t need to to click on any sites, here are names and numbers:
Want to see a list of all the Presidents of the United States, boom… here’s a carousel for you:
When is National Cotton Candy day? No site click needed:
What’s the weather outside today?
Who won the game last *****?
What’s the cheapest flight to finally send Uncle Harry back home?
Want to know everything there is to know about the best movie ever made…Battlefield Earth? (When I say best, I really mean worst, just for the record.):
What do I do if my teenager has been swapping spit and has mono?
Heck, Google will even tell you when Lady Gaga’s birthday is (admit it, you always wanted to know…):
I think I’ve made my point. Google is in the business of being a content provider. It doesn’t just want to direct you to the content you want, Google wants to be the one to give it to you and it uses SERP features like Carousels, Knowledge Panels, Local Packs, Features Snippets, Related Questions, and an almost endless slew of various Answer Boxes to do so.
Why does Google do this? Simple, it opens a whole new market and gives them an air of authority. That is, people are going to Google not to find a site, but to find information. Let’s take a simple case, I want to know what the weather is. I could go to the weather channel’s website directly, and completely bypass Google. Alternatively, I could open a browser and type something in like wether in nw yrk (weather in new york), I don’t even have to spell it correctly…try typing in wethurchanal.com, see how far that gets you. Me personally, I don’t even think of going to websites to find out a quick sports score, to check the weather, to see stock info. I type something nonsensically spelled into Google, who like my 3rd grade teacher did so many years ago, translates my chicken scratch into a bona fide query that gives me the exact information I wanted.
The proof is in the pudding, over time we’ve tracked Featured Snippets double from showing on around 5% of page one queries to about 9.5%-10% currently.
Featured Snippets now show in over 10% of Page One #desktop SERPs (USA)- Surge related to voice search optimization? https://t.co/dzoQcQx09o pic.twitter.com/KsEykNAW3a
— Rank Ranger (@RankRanger) December 21, 2016
Most recently, we’ve seen Answer Boxes on page one of the Google SERP break the 50% plane. Meaning, over 50% of page one SERPs (US) have some form of Answer Box on them, making Google the direct content provider (see graph below).
What Google Gets from Investing So Much Into SERP Features
A new set of users, or repeat users with a new purpose is a clear way to boost traffic to the Google SERP. If by creating a plethora of SERP features Google can not only bring users in search of enigmatic content to its site, but those users who know exactly what they want as well, it’s more than worth it. Google, by becoming a content provider, not only affords a user more reasons to use it versus other search engines, but offers users who know what they want and the sites they need a reason to come to Google’s site in place of another. This of course is good for business all-around.
Google as Content Provider – Our Own Glass Window
In economics, there is a famous inaccuracy involving a broken window. It goes something like this:
A baker has their window broken via hoodlum who threw a rock. Everyone cheers as the baker must now hire a glazier to replace the window. Why do they cheer? Well, because of the broken window, the glazier now has the chance to earn a living! Except, this is a bit linear, and doesn’t take into account parties who are not present in the immediate picture. After all, if this really were good for the economy, let the glazier replace the window and then let the hoodlum break it again, and again, and again, and again… without end.
The problem with this (actually one of many problems to be honest) is the person who is not in the immediate picture, the shoe salesperson. Who is the shoe salesperson you may ask? Ah, they are the person the baker would have gone to so as to buy shoes had they not spent money fixing a window broken by a hoodlum.
Why am I telling you this? Simple, people complain that Google’s SERP features can encourage a user to avoid the sites underneath them. After all, if I already know when National Cotton Candy Day is, do I need click on the official site to find out? This may be a good argument from a certain perspective (of course there are arguments bolstering Google’s practice as well), but it is the equivalent of our glass window, it ignores what is not in the immediate picture, sites accessed directly, without ever going to Google.
Just like those who cheered on the glazier, those who bring up the argument that some of Google’s SERP features encourage users to ignore organically listed sites are themselves ignoring what may be of bigger consequence, users who would have accessed a site directly but do not as a result of Google’s SERP features. The real upshot (or problem, depending on your perspective), at least in my mind, is that users (like myself) will bypass websites entirely, and employ Google to find the information they want, without an iota of intention of ever using the organic results to obtain the information.
Is Google Being a Content Provider a Good Thing?
I’m not taking sides on this issue. Is Google providing content directly to the user, good for the user? All things being equal, it would seem so. I’ve personally enjoyed it and made use of it. Is it good for the sites sitting below Google’s content? Probably not. However, the real heart of the matter is that due to Google’s role as a content provider, users circumvent sites and search as we know it altogether. Such users never had any intention of sifting through organic results to begin with.
Google’s intention, as I see it, is not to alter the search game by taking your attention off organic results and onto their content. Rather, Google is changing the rules of the game altogether. Google, via the content found in many of its SERP features, is giving users reason to altogether bypass sites whose URLs they would have otherwise typed into their browsers. For critics, this is a much bigger issue. At least sites on a SERP where the user initially intended on utilizing the organic results but settle on a SERP feature have a fighting chance. When a user specifically looks towards Google as a content source and types in a query with no intention of going to the organic results whatsoever, those sites have no chance of being clicked… at all.
Again, there are two sides to every coin. You can look at Google being a content provider as an overstep, as a negative, or you can see it as an efficiency builder, as a positive for the user, the choice is yours and it isn’t for me to say one way or the other. I will say however, that Google must walk a fine line here. It must carefully balance providing content and giving organic results some breathing room, a hard task for certain.