Google SERPs Have Changed: Did You Notice Yet?

Published on
24-10-2023
Author
Product Minting
Category
Opinions
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I recently tested out Google’s SGE (Search Generative Experience), as the lite version was made available to Indians in September. My initial thoughts? It feels like experiencing ChatGPT all over again, minus the wow factor.


As a user, the convenience and speed at which I’m getting the AI-generated overviews are welcoming. The overviews are also accurate, and they answer the search intent very well. This just goes on to show how advanced and sophisticated the engine has become in answering the query within the context instead of relying only on keywords.


But as a content marketer, I’m a little concerned with one more Search Engine Results Page (SERP) feature being added to Google’s roster of click-eating features.


Case in point: Google shows the following knowledge panel for the keyword phrase “techniques” or “methods” in it. With the answers at the front and center of the SERP, the likelihood of someone clicking on a link to learn more goes down significantly.


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Or rich snippets for queries like these:

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I’ve sounded the alarm before in my article, Google Doesn’t Want Your Content to Succeed, about how Google is slowly killing organic search. Some key takeaways from my article:


  • PPC and sponsored Ads are usurping Google SERPs.


  • Google has become an “answer” engine, wherein it’s answering queries with rich snippets at the top of SERPs.


  • As a result, there has been an increase in zero-click searches.


  • In the future, getting content in front of a targeted audience will be expensive.


However, not all is lost. Some of the new features might prove to be a blessing rather than a curse. Let’s look at the recent SERP changes and how they affect organic content performance.


Note: I’m going to stick to my guns here and talk from the B2B/SaaS content point of view.

Key SERP Feature Changes in the Recent Times

First, let’s have a look at some of the commonly seen SERP features.


  • Source: SEO PowerSuite

    Source: SEO PowerSuite

Most of these show up “above the fold” or at the top of the SERP. This is a huge disadvantage for organic results. Why? It’s simple math. When the number of SERP features goes up, the space for organic content in the SERP comes down. This lowers the number of clicks on organic content.


For example, certain branded keywords are biased towards SERP features. These include keywords like "tools,” “software,” and "platform" -- all of which have heavy buying intent and are central to many SaaS brands.

Knowledge Panels for Branded Keywords

I looked up “email marketing tool” and got the following knowledge panel and sponsored results.


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  • Above the fold, I don’t see any organic results.


  • Sponsored results take the top spots, and “popular” tools get a spot on the knowledge panel.


  • Notice how the knowledge panel contains results “from sources across the web.” Now, if you click on one of those tools, here’s what you get.


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  • On the brighter side, organic results are featured in the drop-down section for each option. Getting featured here could definitely improve impressions, but getting a click from the user will still be a shot in the dark.


  • On a much, much brighter side, if you could get a brand feature on the knowledge panel itself, you can get in front of the audience quicker. It’s still a better shot than being stuck on page 2 of the SERPs.

Continuous Scroll for Desktop Users

In case you didn’t notice, SERPs have now become pageless for desktop users. You can now scroll through the results just like you scroll through Shorts and Reels. This update was made available in December last year.


Since the update, users can scroll up to six pages worth of results before they need to hit “See More.” Now the question is, does this change from pagination to continuous scrolling on the desktop change anything in content performance?


Most users never go beyond page 1 of Google to look for information. Can the continuous scroll really give visibility to content hidden in the deeper pages of the SERP? Unfortunately, there was no major difference for branded keywords.


  • Analysis of the organic traffic data from before and after the continuous scroll showed no change. 99% of the users were still clicking on the top 3 results.


  • Even for non-branded keywords, the majority of traffic and clicks went to the top 3 positions. That includes 50% of impressions and 88% of clicks on desktop.


Source

Source


This only highlights the importance of scoring a high rank on the SERP.  Yes, CTRs for results beyond position 6 did improve after the continuous scroll update, but it was only 4% of the total clicks. With SGE now, the numbers will likely go down further. Here’s why.

Search Generative Experience

I ran a bunch of branded and non-branded queries to check the difference in responses. Here are my observations.


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  • SGE doesn’t display AI-generated responses for all queries. Users can decide whether to generate a response or not.


  • SERP will display the knowledge panel even with the AI overview.

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  • The AI panel, if generated, takes up the entire screen.


  • It provides a contextual answer for the query at hand. Plus, you get small arrowheads (toggles) to check the source cited for the answer.


  • In the top right of the panel, you also get a carousel of 9 organic results to browse from. If a user lands here and your content gets featured in the carousel, you still have a 1/9 probability of earning a click.


Now, for the non-branded queries.


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  • No rich snippet to answer the query.


  • Unlike the branded keyword, I got a little preview of the AI panel before I clicked on “Show more” to expand the result.


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  • By design, the user can continue “browsing” through the AI panel itself. They wouldn’t have to scroll down to see the organic results.


I also noticed something interesting.


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  • For certain queries, the AI panel showed an image result as well. And the order of the carousel at the top right keeps changing. But it’s mostly the top 9 organic results on the SERPs.


  • You’ll still see a featured snippet and other SERP features for some queries, along with the AI panel preview.


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  • However, for a vague query with no specific intent, the AI-generated response was even more vague.


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  • And for some queries, there was no AI-generated response.


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Overall, the AI-powered overviews provide a good starting point for more in-depth research. But here’s the thing: Who is looking for information beyond the first page of Google? Nearly 90.53% of the content online doesn’t get any traffic from Google.


Today, users are moving to platforms like Quora, Reddit, LinkedIn, and other social platforms and communities to look for answers and ask for help. Believe it or not, we’re well on our way to going back to a SERP-less world.


As Gerald Murphy, renowned SEO and Senior Solution Business Manager at Similarweb, shares in the Search SEO podcast:


What we’re now moving towards is things like voice-activated searches, for example, Alexa or Google Home, that’s bringing us into a SERP-less world again. So we’re moving away towards looking at a screen and just asking someone, and they’re talking back this time. But this time, it’s electronic rather than the neighbor on the street.


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