From its algorithm updates to its overall approach to the SERP, Google has been latently encouraging us to take on new content constructs and patterns. In fact, Google has been covertly pushing for the creation of more refined and targeted content. However, that nudge towards more targeted content leaves content creators and SEOs in a bit of a tough spot as Google has yet to adopt an ecosystem that truly supports the kind of content they’re pushing for.
Here’s a look at the content environment Google has been creating on the SERP, the problems with it, and what the search engine might do going forward!
SERP Intertia: How Google Has Been Incentivizing Targeted Content to the Enth Degree
Over the past year or more I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing Google’s algorithmic behavior, SERP feature presence, and overall direction of the SERP. In each instance, I keep coming back to a similar thought, that opportunity on the SERP is in highly-refined, highly-targeted content. It’s a notion that in my eyes has become quite thematic and I don’t think it’s an accident. I think Google is creating an environment that herds us towards creating authoritative content that deals with its subject matter in a highly-detailed manner.
Google is sending a clear message, on all fronts, as to what content it wants from the average site. The question is, how is it sending this message?
More Answers Means More Opportunity in Detailed Content
When the whole problem of the zero-click search arose (whether the numbers are as high as we think or not is a point for another time) there was obviously a lot of anger, resentment, and of course, confusion. What are marketers supposed to do when Google takes your potential consumer and satisfies their needs on the SERP?
Ultimately speaking there are two options, you could fight city hall or you could turn into the skid. Good luck fighting city hall, you have a much better chance of succeeding by turning into the skid here. How do you turn into the skid of the dreaded zero-click search?
Well, let me ask you, if Google has gobbled up the opportunity to capitalize on short tidbits of information, where do you think your “in” is? To me, the long-term impact of more direct answers on the SERP will be the move towards bottom of the funnel content and/or content that offers a more prolific look at a topic than whatever snippet Google can offer on the SERP.
More answers on the SERP means more opportunity in longer and highly-focused content.
The Core Updates the Ranking of Strong Identity and the Rise of Authority
If you’ve followed the SEO industry over the past two years you’ll know that talk around concepts such as expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (E-A-T) have dominated the conversation. The uptick in the chatter around E-A-T directly correlates with the set of core updates that Google has been rolling out since March 2018. That’s no accident. Google’s core algorithm updates have taken a strong liking to highly-authoritative content and have thrown sites that reek of undependability off the SERP.
What’s interesting, though, is how Google is doing this. What I’ve seen since the roll-out of the Medic Update in August 2018 is that Google is profiling sites. That is, Google is looking at the core identity, the core purpose of the site and analyzing if the site indeed lives up to that identity. For example, if a site portrays itself as an informational site but has an incredible amount of CTAs and internal links to its own products, then Google may very well view the site as having a conflict in identity. Is said site an informational site or is it a commerce site? If it’s a commerce site pretending to be an informational site, well how trustworthy can it really be?
In other words, Google is looking for strong identity. Why? Because strong identity is the flipside of strong authority. When you have a problem with your heart, you go to a cardiologist. Would you go to a cardiologist who sold homeowners insurance on the side? No, because such a physician doesn’t seem to be entirely credible in their expertise. That’s because a lack of singular and focused identity, right or wrong, also means a lack of singular authority.
Thus, when a site tends to double down on a particular focus, they’ve often been rewarded by Google’s algorithms. As opposed to taking on topics that fall outside of the site’s core purview for the sake of capturing a high search volume keyword, sites that tend to prolifically discuss their topical matter centered on the core identity are exactly what Google wants.
In other words, Google views a site that goes about producing focused content with a strong center of gravity as a being authoritative, much the way a user would when looking at the same site.
Being rewarded by the algorithm for doing as such only further incentivizes the creation of more highly-detailed and highly-focused content. In other words, Google’s focus on site identity and therefore site authority creates an environment where sites are going to be slowly working towards creating a more focused set of content.
In simple terms, Google’s very algorithm is heavily incentivizing the creation of highly-targeted and very much nuanced content.
The Rise of the Super-Authority and the Hyper-Incentivizing of Niche Content
The dynamic around creating detailed and therefore authoritative content that I expounded upon above is most easily seen when sites have to compete with authority juggernauts on the SERP. With Google’s love affair for all things authoritative, it’s been getting harder and harder for the average site to compete with “super-authorities,” particularly in verticals like Health and Finance, etc.
The logic here is pretty simple. If Google craves sites that produce authoritative content, then it follows that the search engine will give preference to those sites that have demonstrated a unique level of authority within a niche. This, I think, often gets confused with Google favoring “big brands” when, in fact, Google merely favors the authority some of the market’s bigger names have.
Take the keyword eating healthy while pregnant, out of the 10 results shown, eight of them represent either major health organizations, government sites, or major health content hubs such as WebMD. Only one result is from a site that deals with pregnancy and only pregnancy:
There is not much room for your “average” site to rank for top-level queries in many instances due to Google’s fondness for authoritative sites.
The problem is, many of these sites don’t go into more niche topic-matter. While these super-authoritative sites cover the full spectrum of health issues, their broadness often precludes their ability to offer incredibly nuanced and specific content.
Compare what Google shows us for eating while pregnant to the query how many cups of coffee can I drink during my first trimester:
Here, we only have two sites that represent super-authorities within the health vertical and six sites that specifically deal with pregnancy and the like. What’s more, is that these niche sites did not rank with your usual fluffy and thin content. For example, the ranking page from The Bump was filled with infographics showing how much caffeine can be found within the beverages offered by some of America’s most popular coffee outlets. And they did it down to the milligram!
If you create well-constructed, highly-targeted content that offers a nuanced and detailed look at a specific topic, there is far more opportunity on the SERP for you than if you stick to casting a wide-net with top-level information (all things being equal).
Again, Google is latently pushing for highly-detailed content by creating a dynamic where that might be a site’s only opportunity to drive traffic organically.
On the SERP Query Refinement Advocates The Creation of Highly-Focused Content
As I discussed in a June 2020 column on Search Engine Land, Google has introduced a new filter that puts top-level content on notice. The filter takes a general search query (which users are oft to utilize) and presents a series of refinement options at the top of the SERP. That is, before the user sees any of the search results, all of which cast a wide net due to the broad nature of the query, Google provides the opportunity for some serious query refinement.
Take the keyword where to go on vacation. Here, Google offers a filter to refine the query according to month:
When doing so (in this case clicking on “January”), the SERP brings up content that specifically deals with either winter vacations or vacations during that specific month:
In this case, the top-level broadly reaching content seen on the initial SERP will most likely never be seen by a user looking to take a vacation during a specific month or even a certain time of year.
By offering more options to immediately refine queries Google is backhandedly and quite strongly incentivizing the creation of highly-targeted content.
A Clear Pattern Towards Content Specificity
The push for a more specific type of content is not a one-off. It’s not a coincidence that everything from Google’s updates, to how the search engine formats the SERP, all foster the creation of content that is of a more targeted nature. Whether it’s because Google wants top-level content for itself or because Google needs its results to be highly-authoritative, there is a strong latent push for content that hones in on a specific aspect of a broader topic.
Outside of a content of a less spammy and thin nature, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Google push a new content dynamic like it is currently. If you step back and look at the broader implications of Google’s overall approach to the SERP, there is very little doubt that Google is subtly coaxing content creators to go deeper into detail for a more nuanced content experience.
While a deeper and more exact content format is a very attractive notion (at least to someone like myself), there’s a serious problem with all of this… accessibility.
A Lack of Content Opportunity and Accessibility on the SERP
Here’s the problem, if Google is going to incentivize the creation of a more targeted and detailed kind of content, then it has to offer access to such content. The paradigm only works if content creators not only feel there is an opportunity to rank well but if the user has the access points to find that content.
It’s for this reason that Google employs features like Interesting Finds or the Research carousel. The problem is, your average SERP doesn’t contain these features.
Take a query for my favorite baseball team, new york yankees:
There’s a ton of access points to all sorts of content, none of it the detailed content that Google is leaning on us to create. In the above, the red highlights are access points to all sorts of top-level content. Some properties belong to the entity, others to Google itself. However, in either case, Google is not offering access points to deeper content surrounding this topic.
As opposed to accessing all sorts of other sports teams, if I wanted to get into the finer details of the New York Yankees, I’d have to run a very specific query. In other words, Google is doing a fine job extending the user’s journey, so long as that means extending them to other instances of broad top-level content.
The deepest Google goes here is in offering a second form of media via the Video Box. In fact, Google is quite adept at showing video media on the SERP as a means of presenting the user with a secondary content format. My contention is, why not do the same with depth per se. As opposed to being satisfied with what is on many levels a surface-like attempt to offer content variety, actually offer content variety by creating a segue to deeper content.
In this particular example, Google could both offer access to a varied media type and offer access to a more prolific set of content. As an avid Yankees fan, there are quite a few good podcasts about the team’s doings that go into great depth and offer another media format (i.e., audio) to the user. The problem as I see it, and as will come up multiple times in my analysis, is that Google takes too shallow of a view of what it means to offer result and media diversity and what it means to extend the user’s journey.
I understand that my podcast example might be a bit hard for Google to get right. However, would a carousel of articles offering analysis on the team be too hard to fathom? (For the record, I am not referring to a news carousel, where only a limited number of sites are eligible to appear.) There are very few organic results on this SERP and many of the ones that do show up represent the juggernauts of the sports world. Where is the opportunity for the very content the SERP and the algorithm are advocating for? There have to be more access points to incentivize the creation of that content.
Google Is Sending Mixed Messages to Content Creators
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying Google isn’t trying. Certainly, the Discover feed and its placement on Google’s mobile homepage help users access all sorts of highly-specific content. The problem with Discover is, it doesn’t allow for the user to engage in that process. What you get from Google in the feed is what you get from Google in the feed, it’s not like you can explore a carousel of various options. To that, Discover is about amplifying what’s already popular, not about giving you an access point to get into the nitty-gritty of a topic.
Then there’s the filter issue. I mentioned, Google offers all sorts of filters to access additional content. The problem is, these filters and access points often lead to more top-level content.
Still, there’s a far bigger problem than too many access points to additional top-level content. Far too often the opportunity to access a deeper set of content is of limited visibility. The clearest example of this is the Interesting Finds feature, which only exists on mobile! To make matters worse, the Interesting Finds feature is pretty “vague” in that it doesn’t give the user a strongly directed access point towards a specific goal. It’s more like, “Hey, isn’t this interesting?!” – hence “Interesting” Finds.
More than that, the URLs found within Interesting Finds are often also shown within the organic results, so who exactly is that helping?
In the above instance, beyond the duplicate URL, even if it was a unique URL being used, the content in the results and the content in the feature are of the same nature and category. Why not, show content related to other aspects of hiking in the white mountains of New Hampshire (the query was hiking in the white mountains). For example, did you know some hikes have “huts” where you can pay to sleep over, isn’t that interesting?!
So on the one hand, Google does try to extend the user’s journey and it does try to push the user towards deeper content, it just limits those opportunities. That’s a bit of a conflicting message. To be fair, Google does at times offer access points on the SERP to deeper content. I am not saying that Google does not offer points of access to the targeted content it latently advocates for. I am saying that they are limited. Moreover, I am saying Google is sending a very mixed message by often limiting the visibility and accessibility of those access points.
Commerce: The Perfect Example of Google’s Mixed Content Messaging
If you really want to see Google’s mixed narrative around in-depth content, look no further than the commerce SERP. Here, Google often employs an access point to in-depth content via the Research carousel. Moreover, Google often places a nice set of in-depth informational content on the SERP for commerce queries. There’s just one problem, the access point to more in-depth content and the very organic results that reflect such suffer from limited visibility.
Google has a tendency to show informational results for “buy” queries, especially when the product is a bit “complex.” So it does for the query buy laptop:
Everything highlighted in the image above reflects a commerce intent. Everything not highlighted reflects an informational intent (excluding the Image Box, I did not check what pages are represented by those images, etc.). So, yes, Google does offer actual informational results as well as an access point towards exploring more highly-specific content via the Research carousel…. Except it’s all the way towards the very bottom of the SERP.
Now, you could argue that the informational content is all the way at the bottom because the commerce intent is so strong. You could say that and it is a valid argument. I can’t “disprove” it. I just don’t buy it. Do you really mean to tell me that in order to meet the commerce intent, not only does Google have to exclude any informational content from appearing anywhere near the top of the SERP, but it also means we need, six Search ads, a giant set of sponsored products to the right of the results, a Local Pack, a Discover More Places carousel, another product carousel, and five organic results where I can make a purchase?
That seems just a tad excessive. It seems to me to be Google trying to build up its image as a commerce hub so that it can get users to think of it as an alternative to Amazon. And it’s only going to get worse, as Google needs to offer an on the (main) SERP access point to its free product listings in Google Shopping. For if it does not, and sales on Google Shopping are not what the retailers expect them to be, the incentive to list products on Google Shopping will decrease accordingly. Google needs to find ways to integrate the Shopping SERP onto the main SERP to give its free products the visibility they need to produce sales. In fact, it already has started this via the introduction of organic shopping listings into the Product Knowledge Panel.
All of this means that the “commerce SERP” will lean even stronger towards commerce and less towards providing access points to in-depth content.
For the record, Google already is leaning too hard. Forget keywords like buy a laptop, look what we get for how to find the right lawnmower:
Clearly, my intent here was to find information, but the SERP above the fold is dominated by PLAs and a Local Pack! It certainly feels like Google is putting its thumb on the commerce side of the scale. The case here is not a one-off… Search for how to find the best whatever product and the first thing you’ll generally see are PLAs.
It all points to a situation where there are a lot of mixed messages. For starters, Google is all about targeting user intent, but in the instances I’ve shown here, it does so only to a point. Google wants to extend the user’s journey but pushes the opportunity to do so here to the bottom of the page. Google wants to offer top-notch information but that information gets upstaged by products (at times).
My point, for the record, is not to be critical of Google. I get it, they have a lot to balance. Still, mixed messaging is very problematic long-term.
Google’s Conflict of Content Messages Isn’t Doing Anyone Any Good
The problem that I think Google is facing is that it’s juggling multiple ambitions and that’s a hard act for any circus to pull off. I don’t envy Google in this regard. What’s happening is simply the evolution of having an end goal (i.e., revenue) that is being met at multiple and contradictory levels.
What do I mean?
Conflict #1: Authority vs. the Journey
Let’s start with the proliferation of answers on the SERP. As I see it, there are more answers on the SERP because they portray Google as an authority unlike any other on the web. The more authoritative Google is, the more likely you’ll return to it (as opposed to using Bing or whatever) and the more likely you are to click on an ad at some point or another. In truth, I personally think that Google is just aligning itself with the natural evolution of web content.
The problem is, when you do this it’s hard to meet another one of your goals… extending the user’s journey so that they have more chances to click an ad and so that the user feels like they are truly being directed to where they ultimately need to be.
Google offering as many direct answers as it can and Google’s ‘Search as a Journey’ are not compatible goals. The former depends upon the search engine being the be all end all of information gathering. Sending users off to a deeper set of content takes away from the search engine’s aurora of creating a SERP that makes Google appear as omnipotent.
Why send you off to deeper information if the SERP is everything you could want of information acquisition?
To do that, Google is going to need to be happy with a lot of authority via its answer oriented focus but not grabbing every inch of authority it can. It has to make the space needed for it to be a true portal to additional information, deeper information (not just a portal to more top-level answers as I discussed earlier).
Conflict #2: Product Revenue vs. Information Acquisition
Google has put a lot into its effort to compete with Amazon. It’s clearly something that keeps the upper echelons of Google up at night. So I understand why it’s hard to hold back. But the aspiration to ensure its products perform well and are visible enough will continue to put Google at odds with (you guessed it) Search as a Journey. In fact, nothing puts Google’s desire to do what’s good for the user in the line of fire than its concern over product revenue viability.
What’s good for the user is to have prominent access to secondary intents for commerce queries. What’s good for the user is to have prominent access points towards exploring a topic in greater detail. Don’t take my word for it, that is the entire notion of ‘Search as a Journey’ in its purest form.
In all likelihood, Google is going to go further down the product rabbit hole in order to support its organic shopping listings. But where does that leave the search engine’s messaging around user intent (because if you look at some of these commerce SERPs, they don’t adequately inform us of what intent really is) and content creation?
Content Creators Need a Consistent Message
All of this mixed messaging leaves SEOs and content creators in an awkward and often confusing position (it also helps to explain why there are so many diverging opinions at times… maybe). Think of what’s happening like a corporation. The top brass of the company puts out all sorts of mixed signals about what it expects from those within the company. What’s going to happen? Chaos.
It’s the same thing here (minus the hyperbolic “chaos”). Google is the top brass that sends its wants and desires down the line to us. When those messages are contradictory you get confusion and misalignment. In the end, no party is entirely happy.
I don’t really need to explain the negative impact of mixed messaging (even though I just did). It’s a pretty self-evident problem. I think the reason why it has yet to be addressed within the search marketing sphere, is that Google isn’t shouting its message from the rooftops. The directional push Google projects is often very subtle and latent. The consciousness of the messaging regardless, a mixed message is a mixed message and while the impact of that may not be easy to see, it is there.
What Google Should Do To Truly Incentivize the Content It Wants
The problem is the problem, but what’s the solution? First off, I think it pays to realize how complex of a problem this is for Google. I don’t think they’re sending mixed signals about what they want because they’re too occupied with their bottom-line or whatnot. It’s complicated. Might they be worrying too much about revenue? Sure, but please let me know the company that isn’t. It’s a hard line to walk.
That being said, I think there are some practical steps Google could take to mitigate the damage. See, I don’t think you’ll ever solve the contradiction. Each of the contradictory goals that I discussed earlier has its place within Google’s operations and overall strategy. The issue is not in creating complete directional harmony, it’s in minimizing the problematic dynamics that result.
Take the “commerce SERP” situations I outlined earlier. So Google is perhaps going too heavy with the product carousel and so forth. It’s not going to put its quest to compete with Amazon on hold (nor should it all things being equal). So now what? Mitigate the damage… provide parallel opportunities.
What do I mean by “parallel opportunities?”
It means providing simultaneous opportunities for whatever goal Google is going for and the chance for deeper content to be accessed. For the commerce SERP it is super-simple…. just move the Research carousel up. Literally, all Google would have to do is move its Research carousel from appearing way down the results page to be above the fold. Google can keep its commerce campaign going on full-blast and offer access points to deeper content. All it has to do it move a simple carousel up to the top of the SERP!
It’s really the same solution in all cases.
Instead of moving users to all sorts of top-level content on SERPs filled with “answers” (see the SERP for new york yankees shown earlier) with People Also Search For and whatnot… throw a carousel showing deeper content onto the SERP (above the fold).
Let’s run this through for a second. Take the SERP for recipe queries:
There is literally no segue to anything deeper than instructions to make whatever food item you searched for.
Personally, I screw every recipe up and have all sorts of problems in the kitchen. I don’t think I am alone here (though, I am worse than most). My wife is a great cook, but baking can be problematic at times. We’d both appreciate if Google would show a carousel of “Common Problems with Making X” on the SERP.
It’s not like there isn’t a lot of content out there around this sort of “cooking” issue:
You can apply this to any sort of SERP where Google goes exclusively top-level. Instead of showing unfocused suggestions in features like “Interesting Finds,” truly extend the user’s journey with simple carousels that offer a sub-topical view of a specific facet of the overall topic. In this case, sinking cake centers!
Search as a Journey Must Mature
When Google officially announced its Search as a Journey paradigm back in the fall of 2018, it appeared as if we were on the cusp of a major revolution in Search. While there have been major shifts in Search as brought about Search as Journey components such as the Discover Feed, the moving of the searcher along a multi-level and multi-funnel journey has not happened.
The epitome of Search as a Journey would be the unlimited opening of all new vistas that comprehensively expose the topic related to the query. That’s an ideal that may not be possible, but we’re not really anywhere close to it.
What we have now is essentially a few features that help the user understand some of the other topics that might be related to the one they searched for and a heap of access to top-level answers/content on the SERP. It’s a good start but when you get past the novelty of it (and it is novel) it’s all a bit surface-like.
I think Search as a Journey is a noble goal that is helpful to both users and content creators. I just think we’re very much in its infancy and that we seem sort of stuck at that stage of development. For Google to move Search as a Journey forward I strongly feel that true access to truly deeper content needs to be prominently placed on the SERP. To do this, Google might do well to think a bit less like a search engine and more like a marketer by analyzing the unseen needs of the user and meeting them immediately (my sinking chocolate cake would be a perfect example of this).
Whatever it is, however it is, I think it’s time for Search as a Journey to at least reach adolescence!