Google’s increasing dominance of their own search engine results pages (SERPs) has kicked up a lot of panic and controversy in the SEO industry. As Barry Adams pointed out on Twitter recently, this move by Google is not exactly new, but it does feel like Google has suddenly placed their foot on the accelerator:
I find it hilarious that SEOs are suddenly annoyed that Google is aggressively taking over some verticals with in-SERP features. They’ve been doing that for years.
What do you think the EU antitrust case is about?! Or do you suddenly care because it affects your clients?
— Barry Adams (@badams) March 15, 2018
Follow that Twitter thread and you’ll see the sort of back-and-forth these changes have started to create. Is this an ethical move by Google? Did you deserve the business they’re taking in the first place? Will SEO soon be dead? Or can we do what we’ve always done and adapt our strategies in smart, agile ways?
It’s hard to think positive when Google takes a stab at you like it did with this move on Ookla:
But regardless of how you feel about what’s happening, local packs, featured snippets, and SERP features from Google, properties like Google News, Images, Flights, Videos, and Maps are riding on a train that has no plans on stopping.
To give you an idea of how rapid these changes are occurring, the image below is what the SERP rankings looked like in November 2016 for one of our client’s key head terms:
And this image is the SERP for the same keyword by early December 2017 (our client is in green):
Check out MozCast’s Feature Graph if you want to see the percentage of queries specific features are appearing on.
Who is this blog post for?
You’re likely reading this blog post because you noticed your organic traffic has dropped and you suspect it could be Google tanking you.
Traffic drops tend to come about from four main causes: a drop in rankings, a decrease in search volume, you are now ranking for fewer keywords, or because SERP features and/or advertising are depressing your CTRs.
If you have not already done a normal traffic drop analysis and ruled out the first three causes, then your time is better spent doing that first. But if you have done a traffic drop analysis and reached the conclusion that you’re likely to be suffering from a change in SERP features, then keep reading.
But I’m too lazy to do a full analysis
Aside from ruling everything else out, other strong indications that SERP features are to blame will be a significant drop in clicks (either broadly or especially for specific queries) in Google Search Console where average ranking is static, but a near consistent amount of impressions.
I’ll keep harping on about this point, but make sure that you check clicks vs impressions for both mobile and desktop. Do this both broadly and for specific key head terms.
When you spend most of your day working on a desktop computer, sometimes in this industry we forget how much mobile actually dominates the scene. On desktop, the impact these have on traffic there is not as drastic; but when you go over to a mobile device, it’s not uncommon for it to take around four full scrolls down before organic listings appear.
From there, the steps to dealing with a Google-induced traffic drop are roughly as follows:
- Narrow down your traffic drop to the introduction of SERP features or an increase in paid advertising
- Figure out what feature(s) you are being hit by
- Gain hard evidence from SEO tools and performance graphs
- Adapt your SEO strategy accordingly
That covers step one, so let’s move on.
Step 2.0: Figure out which feature(s) you are being hit by
For a comprehensive list of all the different enhanced results that appear on Google, Overthink Group has documented them here. To figure out which one is impacting you, follow the below steps.
Based off of your industry, you probably already have an idea of which features you’re most vulnerable to.
- Are you an e-commerce website? Google Shopping and paid advertising will be a likely candidate.
- Do you tend to generate a lot of blog traffic? Look at who owns the featured snippets on your most important queries.
- Are you a media company? Check and see if you are getting knocked out of top news results.
- Do you run a listings site? Maybe you’re being knocked by sponsored listings or Google Jobs.
From there, sanity check this by spot-checking the SERPs for a couple of the keywords you’re concerned about to get a sense for what changed. If you roughly know what you’re looking for when you dig into the data, it will be easier to spot. This works well for SERP features, but determining a change in the amount of paid advertising will be harder to spot this way.
Once again, be sure to do this on both mobile and desktop. What may look insignificant from your office computer screen could be showing you a whole different story on your mobile device.
Step 3.0: Gain hard evidence from SEO tools and performance graphs
Once you have a top level idea of what has changed, you need to confirm it with SEO tools. If you have access to one, a historical rank tracking tool will be the most efficient way to dig into how your SERPs are evolving. I most frequently use STAT, but other great tools for this are Moz’s SERP features report, SEOmonitor, and SEMRush.
Using one of these tools, look back at historical data (either broadly or for specific important keywords) and find the date the SERP feature appeared if you can. Once you have this date, line it up with a dip in your organic traffic or other performance metric. If there’s a match, you can be pretty confident that’s to blame.
For example, here’s what this analysis looked like for one of our clients on a keyword with a regional search volume of 49,500. They got hit hard on mobile-first by the appearance of a local pack, then an events snippet 10 days later.
This was the clicks and impression data for the head term on mobile from Google Search Console:
As this case demonstrates, here’s another strong reminder that when you’re analyzing these changes, you must check both mobile and desktop. Features like knowledge panels are much more intrusive on mobile devices than they are on desktop, so while you may not be seeing a dramatic change in your desktop traffic, you may on mobile.
For this client we improved their structured data so that they showed up in the event snippet instead, and were able to recover a good portion of the lost traffic.
How to adapt your SEO strategy
You may not be able to fully recover, but here are some different strategies you can use depending on the SERP feature. Use these links to jump to a specific section:
Have you tried bidding to beat Google?
I cover what to do if you’re specifically losing out on organic traffic due to paid advertising (spoiler alert: you’re probably gonna have to pay), but paid advertising can also be used as a tactic to subvert Google SERP features.
For example, Sky Scanner has done this by bidding on the query “flights” so they appear above the Google Flights widget:
Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP)
AMP is a project sponsored by Google to improve the speed of mobile pages. For a lot of these challenges, implementing AMP may be a way to improve your rankings as Google SERPs continue to change.
If you’ve noticed a number of websites with AMP implemented are ranking on the first page of SERPs you care about, it’s likely worth investigating.
If you are a news website, implementing AMP is absolutely a must.
Featured snippets and PAA boxes
If you’re losing traffic because one of your competitors owns the featured snippets on your SERPs, then you need to optimize your content to win featured snippets. I’ve already written a blog post for our Distilled blog on tactics to steal them before, which you can read here.
In summary, though, you have a chance to win a featured snippet if:
- The ones you’re targeting are pretty volatile or frequently changing hands, as that’s a good indication the owner doesn’t have a strong hold on it
- If you rank higher than the current owner, as this indicates Google prefers your page; the structure of your content simply needs some tweaking to win the snippet
If you’ve identified some featured snippets you have a good chance of stealing, compare what the current owner has done with their content that you haven’t. Typically it’s things like the text heading the block of content and the format of the content that differentiates a featured snippet owner from your content.
At SearchLove London 2018, Rob Bucci shared data from STAT on local packs and search intent. Local SEO is a big area that I can’t cover fully here, but if you’re losing traffic because a local pack has appeared that you’re not being featured in, then you need to try and optimize your Google My Business listing for the local pack if you can. For a more in depth instruction on how you can get featured in a local pack, read here.
Unfortunately, it may just not be possible for you to be featured, but if it’s a query you have a chance at appearing in local pack for, you first need to get set up on Google My Business with a link to your website.
Once you have Google My Business set up, make sure the contact and address information is correct.
Reviews are incredibly important for anyone competing within a local pack, and not just high reviews but also the number of reviews you’ve received is important. You should also consider creating Google Posts. In a lot of spaces this feature is yet to have been taken advantage of, which means you could be able to get a jumpstart on your competitors.
More queries are seeing paid advertisements now, and there are also more ads appearing per query, as told in this Moz post.
If you’re losing traffic because a competitor has set up a PPC campaign and started to bid on keywords you’re ranking well for, then you may need to consider overbidding on these queries if they’re important to you.
Unfortunately, there’s no real secret here: either you gotta pay or you’re going to have to shift your focus to other target queries.
You should have already done so, but if you haven’t already included structured data on your website you need to, as it will help you stand out on SERPs with lots of advertising. Wrapped into this is the need to get good reviews for your brand and for your products.
Similar to paid advertising, if the appearance of Google Shopping sponsored ads has taken over your SERPs, you should consider whether it’s worth you building your own Google Shopping campaign.
Again, structured data will be an important tactic to employ here as well. If you’re competing with Google Shopping ads, you’re competing with product listings that have images, prices, and reviews directly in the SERP results to draw in users. You should have the same.
Look into getting your pages implemented in Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), which is sponsored by Google. Not only has Google shown it favors pages that are in AMP, better site speed will lead to better conversion rates for your site.
To see if implementing AMP may be beneficial to your business, you can read some case studies of other businesses that have done so here.
Knowledge panels and carousels
Knowledge panels such as the one below appear for broad informational searches, and rarely on highly converting keywords. While they are arguably the most imposing of all the SERP features, unless you’re a content site or CelebrityNetWorth.com, they probably steal some of your less valuable traffic.
If you’re losing clicks due to knowledge panels, it’s likely happening on queries that typically can be satisfied by quick answers and therefore are by users who might have bounced from your site anyway. You won’t be able to beat a knowledge panel for quick answers, but you can optimize your content to satisfy affiliated longer-tail queries that users will still scroll to organic listings to find.
Create in-depth content that answers these questions and make sure that you have strong title tags and meta descriptions for these pages so you can have a better chance of standing out in the SERP.
In some cases, knowledge panels may be something you can exploit for your branded search queries. There’s no guaranteed way to get your content featured in a knowledge panel, and the information presented in them does not come from your site, so they can’t be “won” in the same way as a featured snippet.
To get into a knowledge panel, you can try using structured data markup or try to get your brand on Wikipedia if you haven’t already. The Knowledge Graph relies heavily on existing databases like Wikipedia that users directly contribute to, so developing more Wikipedia articles for your brand and any personal brands associated with it can be one avenue to explore.
Search Engine Journal has some tips on how to implement both of these strategies and more in their blog post here.
Google Jobs has taken up huge amounts of organic real estate from listing sites. It will be tough to compete, but there are strategies you can employ, especially if you run a niche job boards site.
Shifting your digital strategy to integrate more paid advertising so you can sit above Google and to generating content in other areas, like on news websites and advice boards, can help you.
For more details on how to employ some of these strategies, you can read Search Engine Journal’s Google Jobs survival tips.
Look, I’d be lying to you if I said this was good news for us SEOs. It’s not. Organic is going to get more and more difficult. But it’s not all doom and gloom. As Rand Fishkin noted in his BrightonSEO speech this September, if we create intelligent SEO strategies with an eye towards the future, then we have the opportunity to be ahead of the curve when the real disruption hits.
We also need to start integrating our SEO strategies with other mediums; we need to be educated on optimizing for social media, paid advertising, and other tactics for raising brand awareness. The more adaptable and diverse your online marketing strategies are, the better.
Google will always be getting smarter, which just means we have to get smarter too.
To quote Jayson DeMers,
“If you define SEO as the ability to manipulate your way to the top of search rankings, then SEO will die. But if you define SEO as the practice of improving a website’s visibility in search results, then SEO will never die; it will only continue to evolve.”
Search, like nearly every other industry today, will continue to come against dramatic unanticipated changes in the future. Yet search will also only continue to grow in importance. It may become increasingly more difficult to manipulate your way to the top of search results, but there will always be a need to try, and Google will continue to reward content that serves its users well.