What is going on?!
What if I told you Google unleashed an algorithm update that pushed rank volatility to levels we haven’t seen in years, fixed bugs that weren’t really fixed while denying their cause only to have that cause accidentally revealed?! You’d think I was nuts, right? Well, that’s pretty much what happened in July.
Throw a stream of changes to the Knowledge Panel, Featured Snippets, and Image Search into the mix and you have one absolutely wild month on the Google SERP!
Google Goes Crazy with Rank Fluctuations in July
In mid-July, Google rolled out an algorithm update that brought levels of rank volatility to the SERP unlike the industry had seen for quite some time. Per the Rank Risk Index, rank fluctuations hit a whopping 113 on the 18th! Just for some context, since 2017, the highest level of fluctuations recorded on our index was 99 way back in March of 2017!
Rank fluctuations reach unusually high levels on July 18th
Obviously, it behooves us to ask, what drove rank to be so volatile?!
That’s an easy question to ask… a much harder one to answer, especially because there seemed to be an unusual lack of site-level patterns. Whether it be one of the core updates or just your run-of-the-mill unconfirmed update, it’s often possible to pull out certain site-level themes. For example, the core updates that began in 2018 often manifest a theme that shows Your Money Your Life (YMYL) sites being greatly impacted with sites that have poor or conflicting profiles taking the brunt of the ranking losses. Here, however, there was a lack of any sort of patterns that really “popped” out at me.
The only real patterns I saw (not to say there weren’t other patterns) were themselves a bit odd!
Specifically, there were two sets of “reversals” that revealed themselves during the July update. One had sites that saw slow and steady ranking gains since the start of July suddenly lose those gains during the update:
The other reversal of ranking fortunes had some sites making great strides during the first two days of the update only to have those wins either totally or partially wiped out during the update’s third and final day. That’s a bit odd since we normally expect to see ranking reversals with an update…. days, weeks, or even months later… not the next day!
Throw in the fact that the update, with its record highs, stopped completely on the 19th without any cooling-off period (we typically see moderate levels of fluctuations following a major update before things return to normal) and this update was just bizarre. Between the lack of any real patterns and the abrupt end of the update, something just seemed off about this update in my estimation.
In terms of what ranking shifts drove the insanely high levels of volatility, it was the bottom half of the page one SERP:
The levels of rank volatility at the top three ranking positions are pretty consistent with what we typically see during a Google update. However, once you look at the top 10 results overall the numbers are a bit disproportionate. Remember when I mentioned that the core updates typically hit YMYL niches harder than others? (If you don’t remember I just reminded you via my rhetorical question designed to do just that). Here, in July, once you hit the 4-5th ranking position the non-YMYL niches saw levels of rank fluctuations typically reserved for YMYL niches. Meaning, the July update was far more universal in its volatility than some of the core updates and therefore far more volatile overall!
[Read on for full data on the July 2019 Google Update]
What’s Bugging You? Google Deals with Another Round of Bugs!
I don’t even know where to start. There were so many bugs in July. Bugs that were fixed, bugs that were fixed but were not really fixed but then fixed again, bugs that were not fixed then fixed but not really fixed then fixed again but not really. You get my drift. It was a hot mess.
Here’s my best crack at it all:
1) Local Listings Removed, For No Good Reason: Circa mid-June reports surfaced that Google was pulling the plug on some local listings without there being any solid reason to do so. In other words, a Google bug caused the suspension of a massive amount of local listings. Almost a month later, and the issue had still not been resolved. Around the same time, folks started to notice that the needless suspension of local listings came as Google released the ability for a business to share their profile via a shortname. Thus, many speculated that the local listing suspensions were a bug that was brought on by the advent of the shortnames. Sounds reasonable. However, Google denied any correlation.
Shortname speculation aside, Google said the bug was fixed on July 15th. It turns out that this was not entirely accurate as SEOs were still seeing tons of suspended local listings. Not to worry, Google said they would resolve the issue! Actually, no they didn’t. Google insisted the issue had been solved on July 15th and that any remaining suspensions apply only to policy violaters. Not so said many in the local SEO community. They’re still adhering to the notion that the shortnames are the culprit. And as support to this proposition was a message sent by Google to a digital marketing agency specifically saying that the case of the missing local listings was indeed the result of the new shortnames! Go figure.
Oh, I forgot to mention, the form to request your local listing be restored also fell prey to a bug which precluded access to the form over the course of a few hours. Ironic.
If I were Robin from the 1960’s Batman TV series, I might say something like, “Holy local listing mess, Batman!”
2) Reviews Vanish Into the Ether: In early July, local SEOs started to notice that some of their Google reviews had vanished into thin air. Two weeks later Google said they were on it before reports finally surfaced a day or two after that the reviews bug had been fixed on July 23rd.
3) No Answers for You! Google’s Q&A Feature Breaks: Sticking with the world of local SEO, there was a bug that popped up in July that did not allow business owners to respond to questions asked within their Local Panel’s Q&A section. The Q&A lets users ask and answer questions about a business. At the same time, business owners can ask and answer questions as well. The bug was fixed on July 22nd giving businesses the ability to supply answers within the Local Panel’s Q&A.
4) Rich Recipe Bug Fixed: Not all of the ‘Google bug news’ was bad. A bug from way back in April that had recipes losing their rich results was finally fixed! Delicious!
5) No New News for Publishers (Again): July 25th saw news publishers shouting that their latest content was not being indexed by Google. The bug seemed to specifically impact news publishers and not your average everyday website. It should be noted, Google did have a similar ‘news indexation issue‘ back in April 2019.
6) Failure to Load Results Means Blank Space on the SERP: Towards the end of July, quite the odd bug hit the SERP. Reports, which Google later confirmed, showed that the mobile SERP would at times fail to completely render. As a consequence of this, you had results at the top of the SERP and a whole bunch of white space at the bottom!
The SERP Roundup for July 2019
Haven’t had enough yet? You’re just a glutton for updates to the SERP and its features aren’t ya? Well, this is your month. Here are about two dozen or so changes to everything from Google Ads to products on the SERP to Featured Snippets to the Image and News SERPs… and beyond!
Knowledge Panel Tests & Updates in July
Local Panels, Scholar Panels, and your plain old Knowledge Panel… July was very much a month that made keeping up with Google’s massively large SERP knowledge center a bit time-consuming!
Local Panels with Sticky CTAs
This is a great one! Say you bring up a local restaurant on the SERP. Chances are you will get a Local Panel that you can enter/see completely by clicking to expand it. When doing so, you may see a CTA to book a table for instance. It used to be the case that once you scrolled past the CTA it was gone and most likely forgotten.
Now when you scroll down the panel the CTAs stick to the bottom of your screen!
A Local Panel showing sticky CTAs that appear at the bottom of the user’s view
Business Summary in Tag Form Hits the Local Panel
Sticking with local features, Google has added ‘tags’ that serve as a summarization of a business. Called ‘Place Topics‘, these tags serve as a way of highlighting the main characteristics of a business. The ‘Place Topic’ tags appear within the Local Panel’s Reviews tab and are accordingly pulled out of the reviews that users leave. So, just in case you were wondering just how well Google can understand a user’s review of your business… you now know!
The new ‘Place Topic’ highlights as seen in the Local Panel (Image Source: SERoundtable.com via Joyanne Hawkins)
Local Panels Become Quotable
One more local update for you… quotes! The Local Panel now has the ability to contain a button that lets users request a quote. The instances where the button appeared were not instigated by the business owners. Meaning, Google seems to be testing this feature “at random” (for lack of a better word since we all know nothing with Google is random).
Interesting Finds Enters the Knowledge Panel
Interesting Finds, a mobile-specific feature that offers a box of related content (not available in all markets), was seen being tested as a tab within the Knowledge Panel. While usually a standalone feature that appears as a series of four boxes (with an option to see more content), this test had the feature as a carousel that was accessed via a mobile Knowledge Panel tab.
High IQ Metrics for Scholars in the Knowledge Panel
Google is going deeper with the information it provides for the scholar’s of our society within the Knowledge Panel. Scholarly folk may now see the number of citations they have accumulated among other “intelligent” metrics within the Knowledge Panel such as a carousel of their publications and so forth.
A Knowledge Panel that makes use of Google Scholar metrics such as citations, etc. (Image Source: SERoundtable.com)
More Tabs in the Knowledge Panel (This Time the Local Pack Finds a New Home)
Google’s Topic Layer keeps on chugging along. July saw Google add a bunch of new tabs from brand/corporate Knowledge Panels on mobile. The new tabs include Products (which basically offers you the SERP you would normally see, but with a product carousel leading things off) and Locations. The Locations tab creates a SERP feature collision of sorts as the tab features…. the Local Pack!
Microsoft’s mobile Knowledge Panel showing new tabs that include location and product information
The insertion of the Local Pack into the mobile Knowledge Panel coincides with Google rolling-out tabs within a branded Local Pack. In other words, Google integrated the Local Pack into the Knowledge Panel and the Knowledge Panel into the Local Pack. That’s way too much SERP feature synergy for me!
A branded Local Pack that contains tabs similar to those seen in the Knowledge Panel
Am I Missing Something? Google Asks You to Fill the Knowledge Panel
Google was seen asking the public to help bolster the Knowledge Panel in July. While most likely a very limited test, Google was indeed asking users to suggest information to include within the panel which is… peculiar, odd, uncharacteristic, bewildering… I could go on.
In one instance, Google asked us… me and you… to tell it, the knower of all things, the amount of energy in avocados:
Google Asks for Information in the Knowledge Panel [Image Source: SERoundtable.com via Brian Freiesleben]
As if Google doesn’t know:
Roll Twilight Zone music… now.
Product Listings on the SERP in July 2019
Two interesting ‘products on the SERP’ tidbits for you:
- Google was seen testing a new “Product Box.” The box had a button where you could see details about the product in question as well as a tab to see what shops sell the product.
- Google has been labeling ‘products’ within its Image Search results since 2017. However, as of July 2019, Google is ascribing the product label to products shown within the Image Box on the SERP.
An Image Box showing the ‘Product’ label typically found within Image Search results
Big Changes to the Image SERP
From images on the SERP to the Image SERP per se, here’s what’s changed in July when it came to all things visual:
Swipe Up for AMP Pages is Live!
At Google I/O 2019 the search engine announced its ‘swipe up navigation’ that lets you easily access the page an image is found on. So say you are utilizing Image Search, found an image but want to read the full article related to the image, all you would need to do is swipe up. This swipe up functionality on mobile is now live! However, it only applies to AMP pages as the functionality relies on Google caching the page in order for the easy “swipe up” navigation.
At the same time, Google also announced that new reporting on the navigation is coming. That is, Search Console will be getting “AMP on Image result” data.
The Spreading of Related Searches in Image Search
I stumbled on this one while looking for an image of the US women’s soccer team for my kids (who were stoked by their World Cup win). During my search, I noticed a visible increase in the number of Related Search boxes placed within the image results. It didn’t take me more than a few quick scrolls to find five Related Search boxes being offered to me!
That’s a serious amount of Related Search boxes on the Image SERP!
— Mordy Oberstein (@MordyOberstein) July 11, 2019
And I care because? Because it means Google is better at offering more and highly related topics to a searcher that can send the average user in all sorts of ‘search directions’.
The Image SERP Makes GIFs Shareable!
Let’s be honest, a good GIF is intrinsically shareable. However, with a bit of fairy dust, Google has made GIFs on the Image SERP actually shareable. Love a GIF you see on the Image SERP? Just click the ‘Share’ button to spread its glory to all of your online acquaintances.
Featured Snippet & Image Topic Expansion
Do off-kilter Featured Snippets get you excited and salivating more than usual? If so, I spotted an exceedingly off-kilter Featured Snippet in early July:
What’s odd about it? A few things. One, there’s what seems to be a video Featured Snippet that appears under the paragraph Featured Snippet. At the same time, you’ll notice a nice series of images that prompts you to see even more images!
Lastly, a Knowledge Graph favorite, the People Also Search For feature appears under the snippets’ URL.
Soon after seeing this, local search expert, Sergey Alakov, noticed that many ‘recipe related’ Featured Snippets were appearing with the People Also Search For feature attached to it. While there does seem to be a predisposition for the element to appear within ‘recipe Featured Snippets’ this is not a hard and fast rule (as demonstrated by the above example).
Again, it’s another example of Google being able to topically expand the content within its SERP features, an important trend to keep an eye on!
On another Featured Snippet note, it seems that Google is pulling YouTube descriptions and placing them within Featured Snippets! Let the YouTube description optimization begin (along with articles like 7 Easy Ways to Optimize Your YouTube Descriptions for Featured Snippets)!
Is the Green Google Ad Label Returning to Mobile?
A few folks out there on Twitter have seen instances of Google going back to its green ad label on mobile. As part of the mobile SERP’s redesign, which saw favicons come into play, Google went with a colorless ad label. Over the course of July, some folks were seeing the old Google Ads label in use. Google’s ‘search liaison’, Danny Sullivan commented that there are a few remaining green ad labels out there so that Google can test whatever it is that it’s testing.
I don’t think you’re going to ever see a more colorful ad label return to the Google SERP. Google is finally seeing some ad revenue growth and one would have to think the more “covert” and colorless ad label is a part of that.
What we did see return was a carousel of competitive ads appearing under a Google Ad. In June, Google was testing the same format with the only difference being the header used atop the carousel of ads. Here Google went with People Also View while back in June Google used People Also Considered.
A carousel of ads attached to a Google Ad was tested under the heading ‘People Also View’ (Image Source: SERoundtable.com via Valentin Pletzer)
You could argue that the current header, People Also View, is a bit less aggressive than People Also Considered which intrinsically implies the main ad under which the carousel falls is flawed and demands other consideration from other sources.
A New Look for Google News
After a bit of testing a new look for the Google News SERP is here! The new format is card-centric and means the cluster of links that used to show at the top of the News SERP is no more. As you move down the news results you may notice a series of carousels under the title People also search for which act as a segue to other content avenues related to the query.
In July, Google moved to a card-centric look for Google News
A First Look at FAQ/How-To Markup Data!
Last, but not least, I have a treat for you! Here’s your first look at display level data on the new How-to and FAQ schema markup on the SERP!
Basically, you have the markup showing up on about 5% of page one SERPs on desktop (US). More than that, the average number of page one results with the markup hovers around 1. Meaning, if you happen to show up on the page one SERP with that large and rich result… you, on average, will be the only one to appear as such. With an average of just one How-to/FAQ result on the page, you and your carousel or expandable tabs of How-to/FAQ goodness are the only such result to catch the user’s eye!
[For the record, the numbers of mobile are very close to that of desktop.]
A Stampede of Google SERP Updates, Bugs, and Changes!
We are back! After a slow start to 2019 that began to pick up a month or two ago, Google is back to its normal self! Ambitious and bizarre Google updates, changes and tests of all sorts to the SERP, and lots of bugs! July was a SERP news feeding frenzy! And that’s important to take stock of.
Tracking ‘Google news’ is seriously important. Aside from the actual changes and updates, which can impact your bottom line, keeping tabs on things gives us insight into where Google is heading and what it’s able to do. Want to get a sense of Google’s broad coverage of a topic? Seeing People Also Search For expand to the Featured Snippet is a small statement to that effect! While change after change to the SERP can be overwhelming (tell me about it) and while some of the changes can spell trouble for certain sites (or be a great gain), it’s a bit better than being in the dark and waiting for Google’s next move! When it comes down to it, it’s all a matter of perspective!
Thanks for reading this edition of the SERP News! I hope you’ll join me next month as I explore the month’s SERP yet again! (If you don’t want to wait until next month we put out a new blog post and podcast episode each week!)