There’s one thing for certain about Google and their much-desired search engine result pages – they are constantly changing. Google updates the algorithm many times each year – in fact, one study from MOZ said there were as many as 500 changes every year. This means that every time someone does a search, one or more things could have changed behind the scenes from the last time they searched.
Recent changes in focus include things like rich snippets and the knowledge graph. But we truly never know exactly what Google is going to focus on next. While we can guess at trends, there is always the element of unpredictability with the company.
One thing is for sure – everything Google does is about the user experience and making it as great as possible. This means faster and more accurate content, reducing the time it takes for people to answer the questions they have and the final death of bad practices like keyword stuffing and quick, low-quality content.
I am not predicting any major, monumental changes to how Google does things in the next year (but who knows for sure?). So here are some areas we think that Google will focus on in the coming twelve months and what businesses are going to have to do to keep up with them.
More featured answers
Featured answers focus on that desire for Google to provide people with the answer to their queries quickly and with highly accurate information.
That’s why content on the search engine results page loads in less a second most of the time when you type a query. Millions of results are scanned, and the best possible answer provided.
This shows that we live in a fast-paced world where we want answers within a second.
People want things now, not waiting around for 5-10 seconds while the answers load.
Think about your own habits – how long did you wait for an answer to a search?
And if it took more than a second or two for some reason, bet you hit refresh because it was taking too long.
The facts are clear – the longer we wait, the more chance we go somewhere else. Waiting 1-3 seconds see a 32% chance that the person bounces straight off somewhere else.
This increases to 90% if you want for up to 5 seconds and 123% if the wait is up to 10 seconds.
Google have been talking about the speed problem for a long time – back in 2013, they started looking at increasing speed of search results. This was because their servers went down for five minutes – this caused a 40% drop in overall internet traffic and saw other search engines see better results.
Since then, Google has known that speed is essential, and slowness can cost it money.
This means they have invested time and money into making sure everything they do is as quick as possible. The same emphasis is also placed on websites.
Back to featured answers – these are when you type a search term into Google and are presented with a box of feature questions and answers titled ‘People also ask’. These are questions most commonly associated with the term you have used and if you click them, you get an instant answer to that question.
You also get further questions to continue your research on the subject, without the need for putting another related search term in the bar. You can potentially follow an almost limitless string of questions and answers on a topic.
Featured answers are also designed to give you the information you need instantly. This means there’s no need to leave the search page for a quick answer and you have basic information without following a single link.
Google aims to have these featured answers for every query and we will only see more of these into next year.
Bigger focus on PPC
Ask a marketer about PPC or pay-per-click and they might tell you that it is a waste of time on Google. PPC search results get virtually no clicks compared to organic results – first page clicks are 71.3% organic and just 15% PPC-based, according to one study.
So, it is true that at the moment, people don’t click on the PPC ad at the top of the page and this is a big issue for Google – they need advertising revenue to make money. Currently, they make around $100 billion a year from advertising making it the lifeblood of the company.
Central to this is AdWords where you bid for keywords and show up on the display network. If people stopped clicking those AdWords ads, then revenue would die. So, this tells you a few things:
- Advertising is vital if Google wants to make money
- Advertising will remain a central part of SERPs
- Focus on ads is liable to increase into 2018 and beyond
You can already see some of this in action. Conduct a basic search and the majority of the pages are ad-focused. Google Shopping dominates the right-hand sidebar and the top few results are from the AdWords search network.
Little changes have already been made to make the ads looks less like an ad – the little ‘ad’ block under the heading has gone from bold green to outline green meaning it is less obvious on the page. That’s because Google wants you to click on those links and not be put off by them being ads.
Many experts think there is a growing emphasis on the ad content in a similar way to we have seen on Facebook. When Facebook announced they had passed two billion monthly users, there was also a drop off in the organic reach that business pages were seeing. This is because Facebook wants people to pay for advertising for their business and doesn’t give them traffic without it.
This can be hard for businesses because, without that traffic, it becomes hard to get people to your website. How many businesses have taken the emphasis off Facebook because they don’t want to pay for ads and otherwise it is a bit of a waste of time?
This means marketers and business owners need to be prepared for a switch in how they approach PPC next year.
Even top ranking content will see lower CTRs
Google is making their search results page ever cleaner and sleeker. Search a term and you will often see things like a dictionary definition, a Wikipedia page or a graph showing the weather for your area if that’s what you have searched for.
Google is making SERPs more attractive and it works.
But it also has a big effect on those relying on organic traffic to convert on site. Data shows that only two-thirds of searches now result in a click – so one third get the information they need from the search results page. No need to click anywhere else.
This means businesses could put a lot of work into ranking #1 for a search term – and still see no traffic from it.
Normally, the higher the ranking in SERP, the higher the CTR (click through rate) but this is likely to change.
In fact, all results could see fewer clicks and means that instead, businesses need to look at providing rich snippets and rich cards that will catch people’s attention on those search results pages. After all, these snippets don’t always come from the top ranking page for the term – it is more about the right type of content and the format. And these snippets and cards get a higher CTR than even the first organic result.
Focus on trending news
You might not have heard about Google News yet, but you might have seen it in action. If you search like ‘hurricane’ you will see the first results are termed ‘Top Stories’ and feature news stories relating to that term. These offer a rich snippet of news on the topic you have searched for to answer your query.
The aim is to offer quick and accurate news for searchers. On mobile, this is often a combination of rich snippets and AMP that lets you scroll between multiple articles without returning to the main search page. This is a trend that is going to keep building.
The idea is to optimize content in a new way – instant delivery of articles with no wait time and the ability to see a number of stories on the topic without returning to the search page to click again.
TechCrunch studied Google AMP and says it is now powering some two billion mobile pages and nearly one million domains. It also loads twice as fast as a typical page.
The same report also said that Google aims to increase the AMP network into new areas including advertising and e-commerce. So as well as getting news, you could get products or adverts on products or services relating to your search.
There are also likely to be three new ad formats that will work with AMP – carousel, video parallax and lightbox. These will result in search pages that look very different to what they do now.
But how can you get involved with Google News? For starters, check out Google Trends to see what topics are being discussed at the moment. Find ways these topics relate back to your content and your niche.
These might not have the same use as evergreen content that stays popular for years but might see a short, massive boost in your traffic while that topic is popular.
Big fight over answer boxes
We’ve already spoken a little about answer boxes and there’s no doubt that a big fight between companies is going to be about them next year. Even if you aren’t top of the organic results, you can be in those answer boxes and people are going to increasingly use them to find out what they want to know.
Already, the difference between organic rankings and rankings for answer boxes are beginning to show. The first organic result is no longer necessarily the one that people will click. And each answer box has more than one answer to it, meaning there can be two sites giving information within a single box. Effectively, both are in that top results spot.
No longer is the first organic results spot going to be the most important aim for any piece of content.
Instead, people are going to be fighting to get in those answer boxes. Normal rankings are likely to fade and 2018 could see the start of this in action. Dynamic answers keep people on Google, clicking those answers and new questions rather than heading off to a website.
Continued focus on mobile optimisation
It's hard to miss the growing emphasis that Google has on mobile with more than 52% of worldwide traffic now coming through smartphones. As it continues to increase versus desktop traffic, Google will continue to grow their emphasis on it.
Layouts for search results have already changed this year with things like the change to where links were placed and more emphasis on the text and headline of the content.
Search results come in a rounded box with links above it in black, allowing the headline to stand out versus the old look where the link was green and below the headline.
This is aimed at making brands with less recognition being able to drive more clicks. Let’s say your site ranks first but a popular site like Amazon ranks third. People would go to Amazon because they recognise it and it has a name they know. Plus, the link is green, and this makes it easy to spot. But under the new system, the link is less obvious, and the emphasis is on the headline and the text.
Local map results have also changed. Filters are set to give marketers a better chance at getting that local traffic. It is another example of the countless ways that Google is trying to make their pages more mobile optimised. And this is a trend that isn’t going away into next year.
It isn’t news to say that Google is always changing how it works and how we find out information through it. As MOZ found out, there are easily 500 changes to the Google algorithm each year, most of which go unnoticed by the majority of people.
As marketers and business owners, it can seem daunting to try and keep up with all of these changes.
We have also seen dramatic changes to how people use Google with the introduction of rich snippets and cards, AMP, knowledge graph and more. All of these changes were made with one thing in mind – making a better user experience.
Everything is faster, smoother, more accurate and just better. Otherwise, there is always the risk that people will switch to those other search engines out there such as Bing.
For people using Google for business, this can have a massive impact on how we do things.
Back away, it was keyword stuffing now its long-form content and quality links. Who knows what next year will bring?
What we do know is that things like featured answers are definitely an area to focus on. Under the idea of giving more information, quicker, these are the perfect way to answer a question without needing to click through to a website.
The PPC rise
PPC is going to rise to prominence, despite declining results in recent times. This is for another simple reason – Google needs to make a lot of money from it. Alongside this will be developments such as Google News and AMP that will offer more information at the touch of a search term than ever before.
Despite our best efforts, we have to be prepared for lower CTRs in 2018 than we have seen before. Those dynamic answer boxes have the potential to spoil all the hard work put in to get the top spot on organic results and mean we need to reassess how we focus our efforts on getting a top spot. AMP and rich snippets will show that information for more people with no click needed.
And amid all of this is the continued emphasis on mobile. Even for businesses who conduct most of their business on a desktop and see more of their traffic from this source, it is vital that they don’t ignore the importance of mobile. Because Google’s Mobile First approach means that even if you don’t get much mobile traffic, you need to consider it in everything you do if you want Google to send anyone to your site.
Google SERPs are changing fast as always. And while you can’t stay on top of every one of those 500 changes that may come during the year, these are some ideas of the big concepts to keep your attention on. If you want to get traffic from Google, then you need to do the thing that Google likes and keep doing them as things change – until we realise that we need to do them differently!
If you would like to chat about your SEO requirements for the new year, please contact me.
I'm Paul Gordon an SEO freelancer who has spent the last 16 years helping businesses expand and grow through effective SEO strategies.