Google is changing which SERP features it prioritises: what brands need to know

Google is showing fewer organic listings compared to a year ago, with a heavier focus on carousel and shopping results. This doesn't mean SEO isn't working, but it does require a change of tactics….

Joe Hale, SEO & Digital PR Account Director at VERB Brands, argues that search doesn’t stand still so nor should your strategy.

When companies come to judge their organic search performance, they tend to be looking for a few standard indicators. How organic versus paid traffic is stacking up, keyword rankings, SERP (search engine results page) visibility, click-through rate and so on.

But what they’re missing, or perhaps not properly anticipating, is that even if they do nothing to their search engine optimisation (SEO) strategy, those results will change over time.

Why this happens can be down to any number of factors, including seasonality, introduction of highly competitive market entrants or wider economic conditions. There’s no escaping the fact that there’s a cost of living squeeze at the moment which means consumers are shopping around and there’s no shortage of challengers scrapping for eyeballs.

For any SEO strategy to be effective, marketers need to keep a close eye on how their campaigns are performing and take an agile approach, changing tack where necessary.

Take, for example, the highly competitive fashion sector. In analysing one company’s performance, it becomes apparent that its organic performance begins to wane significantly over time when it remains untouched.

Over a year, for a certain set of keywords its organic listings dropped from around 65% of total share of SERP to 44%, while carousel listings increased from 2% to 16%. Organic search is still a valuable tool, but this is a clear signal that the approach is overdue for a refresh.

Search for optimal performance

A typical way to track performance would be through clicks but even here, Google is evolving its own strategy so brands need to reappraise theirs. The search engine is making a concerted effort to show more information pre-click, meaning consumers don’t need to click through.

A restaurant, for example, may have all the relevant information delivered via Google Maps, with no further need for the consumer to click through. It has been a common feature of Maps for some time, but Google is extending this kind of rich information across SERPs too.

This has the advantage of keeping the user tightly within the Google universe, but makes it harder for the brand to understand how effective their SEO strategy is. The implication, then, of this ‘zero-click’ results pattern is that marketers need to look at changing their metrics and approach to keyword design to understand how performance changes across their website.

Typically, we’d look at traffic and revenue as the be all and end all of SEO measurement. But, should we perhaps also be looking to create content that isn’t necessarily there to drive traffic, but is instead complimentary and contributes to an overall approach that ultimately, drives sales. Is it as easy to track as a click? We have to be honest and say, no. But, it feeds into a holistic view of performance that, in turn, drives greater value through your SEO strategy.

Ultimately, does the change in how SERPs are behaving mean we really need to look at how we report cross channel, looking at the sum of all the parts and how they work together rather than individual SEO performance.

Do we in fact stop thinking about SEO as it is today, and think of it instead as another branch of content, and from a user standpoint? It would certainly dovetail nicely with Google’s latest announcement that website owners should be creating content that delivers for the user, not content that exists just to serve an algorithm.

For a cohort of marketers drilled on looking for instant metrics, this could be a hard transition. Three months is a good timeframe to see if there’s been any step change as a result of this new approach. In theory, you could make a change and see a positive uplift in a week. Trends are still a hugely valuable tool in your arsenal. But you have to start looking at performance on different levels and, overall, that takes time.

Perhaps, as we move away from a drive for clicks and towards a user-focused, content-driven SEO strategy, we may be changing our idea of what performance actually means.

By Joe Hale

SEO & Digital PR Account Director

VERB Brands