Posted by Emily.Potter
Google’s increasing dominance of their own search engine
results pages (SERPs) has kicked up a lot of panic and controversy
in the SEO industry. As Barry Adams pointed out on Twitter
recently, this move by Google is not exactly new, but it does feel
like Google has suddenly placed their foot on the accelerator:
I find it hilarious that SEOs are
suddenly annoyed that Google is aggressively taking over some
verticals with in-SERP features. They’ve been doing that for
What do you think the EU antitrust case is about?! Or do you
suddenly care because it affects your clients?
— Barry Adams (@badams)
March 15, 2018
Follow that Twitter thread and you’ll see the sort of
back-and-forth these changes have started to create. Is this an
ethical move by Google? Did you deserve the business they’re taking
in the first place? Will SEO soon be dead? Or can we do what
we’ve always done and adapt our strategies in smart, agile
It’s hard to think positive when Google takes a stab at you
like it did with this move on Ookla:
But regardless of how you feel about what’s happening, local
packs, featured snippets, and SERP features from Google, properties
like Google News, Images, Flights, Videos, and Maps are riding on a
train that has no plans on stopping.
To give you an idea of how rapid these changes are occurring,
the image below is what the SERP rankings looked like in November
2016 for one of our client’s key head terms:
And this image is the SERP for the same keyword by early
December 2017 (our client is in green):
Check out MozCast’s
Feature Graph if you want to see the percentage of queries
specific features are appearing on.
Who is this blog post for?
You’re likely reading this blog post because you noticed your
organic traffic has dropped and you suspect it could be Google
Traffic drops tend to come about from four main causes: a drop
in rankings, a decrease in search volume, you are now ranking for
fewer keywords, or because SERP features and/or advertising are
depressing your CTRs.
If you have not already done a normal
traffic drop analysis and ruled out the first three causes,
then your time is better spent doing that first. But if you have
done a traffic drop analysis and reached the conclusion that you’re
likely to be suffering from a change in SERP features, then keep
But I’m too lazy to do a full analysis
Aside from ruling everything else out, other strong indications
that SERP features are to blame will be a significant drop in
clicks (either broadly or especially for specific queries) in
Google Search Console where average ranking is static, but a near
consistent amount of impressions.
I’ll keep harping on about this point, but make sure that you
check clicks vs impressions for both mobile and desktop. Do this
both broadly and for specific key head terms.
When you spend most of your day working on a desktop computer,
sometimes in this industry we forget how much mobile actually
dominates the scene. On desktop, the impact these have on traffic
there is not as drastic; but when you go over to a mobile device,
it’s not uncommon for it to take around four full scrolls down
before organic listings appear.
From there, the steps to dealing with a Google-induced traffic
drop are roughly as follows:
- Narrow down your traffic drop to the introduction of SERP
features or an increase in paid advertising
- Figure out what feature(s) you are being hit by
- Gain hard evidence from SEO tools and performance graphs
- Adapt your SEO strategy accordingly
That covers step one, so let’s move on.
Step 2.0: Figure out which feature(s) you are being hit by
For a comprehensive list of all the different enhanced results
that appear on Google, Overthink Group has documented them here. To figure out
which one is impacting you, follow the below steps.
Based off of your industry, you probably already have an idea of
which features you’re most vulnerable to.
- Are you an e-commerce website? Google Shopping and paid
advertising will be a likely candidate.
- Do you tend to generate a lot of blog traffic? Look at who owns
the featured snippets on your most important queries.
- Are you a media company? Check and see if you are getting
knocked out of top news results.
- Do you run a listings site? Maybe you’re being knocked by
sponsored listings or Google Jobs.
From there, sanity check this by spot-checking the SERPs for a
couple of the keywords you’re concerned about to get a sense for
what changed. If you roughly know what you’re looking for when
you dig into the data, it will be easier to spot. This works well
for SERP features, but determining a change in the amount of paid
advertising will be harder to spot this way.
Once again, be sure to do this on both mobile and desktop. What
may look insignificant from your office computer screen could be
showing you a whole different story on your mobile device.
Step 3.0: Gain hard evidence from SEO tools and performance graphs
Once you have a top level idea of what has changed, you need to
confirm it with SEO tools. If you have access to one, a historical
rank tracking tool will be the most efficient way to dig into how
your SERPs are evolving. I most frequently use STAT,
but other great tools for this are Moz’s SERP features
report, SEOmonitor, and SEMRush.
Using one of these tools, look back at historical data (either
broadly or for specific important keywords) and find the date the
SERP feature appeared if you can. Once you have this date, line it
up with a dip in your organic traffic or other performance metric.
If there’s a match, you can be pretty confident that’s to
For example, here’s what this analysis looked like for one of
our clients on a keyword with a regional search volume of 49,500.
They got hit hard on mobile-first by the appearance of a local
pack, then an events snippet 10 days later.
This was the clicks and impression data for the head term on
mobile from Google Search Console:
As this case demonstrates, here’s another strong reminder that
when you’re analyzing these changes, you must check both mobile and
desktop. Features like knowledge panels are much more intrusive on
mobile devices than they are on desktop, so while you may not be
seeing a dramatic change in your desktop traffic, you may on
For this client we improved their structured data so that they
showed up in the event snippet instead, and were able to recover a
good portion of the lost traffic.
How to adapt your SEO strategy
You may not be able to fully recover, but here are some
different strategies you can use depending on the SERP feature. Use
these links to jump to a specific section:
- Accelerated Mobile Pages
- Featured snippets and PAA
- Local packs
- Paid advertising
- Knowledge panels and
- Google Jobs
Have you tried bidding to beat Google?
I cover what to do if you’re specifically losing out on organic
traffic due to paid advertising (spoiler alert: you’re probably
gonna have to pay), but paid advertising can also be used as a
tactic to subvert Google SERP features.
For example, Sky Scanner has done this by bidding on the query
“flights” so they appear above the Google Flights widget:
Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP)
AMP is a project sponsored by Google to improve the speed of
mobile pages. For a lot of these challenges, implementing AMP may
be a way to improve your rankings as Google SERPs continue to
If you’ve noticed a number of websites with AMP implemented are
ranking on the first page of SERPs you care about, it’s likely
If you are a news website, implementing AMP is absolutely a
Featured snippets and PAA boxes
If you’re losing traffic because one of your competitors owns
the featured snippets on your SERPs, then you need to optimize your
content to win featured snippets. I’ve already written a blog
post for our Distilled blog on tactics to steal them before, which
you can read
In summary, though, you have a chance to win a featured snippet
- The ones you’re targeting are pretty volatile or frequently
changing hands, as that’s a good indication the owner doesn’t
have a strong hold on it
- If you rank higher than the current owner, as this indicates
Google prefers your page; the structure of your content simply
needs some tweaking to win the snippet
If you’ve identified some featured snippets you have a good
chance of stealing, compare what the current owner has done with
their content that you haven’t. Typically it’s things like the
text heading the block of content and the format of the content
that differentiates a featured snippet owner from your content.
At SearchLove London 2018, Rob Bucci shared
data from STAT on local packs and search intent. Local SEO is a
big area that I can’t cover fully here, but if you’re losing
traffic because a local pack has appeared that you’re not being
featured in, then you need to try and
optimize your Google My Business listing for the local pack if
you can. For a more in depth instruction on how you can get
featured in a local pack, read here.
Unfortunately, it may just not be possible for you to be
featured, but if it’s a query you have a chance at appearing in
local pack for, you first need to get set up on Google My Business
with a link to your website.
Once you have Google My Business set up, make sure the contact
and address information is correct.
Reviews are incredibly important for anyone competing within a
local pack, and not just high reviews but also the number of
reviews you’ve received is important. You should also consider
creating Google Posts. In a lot of spaces this feature is yet to
have been taken advantage of, which means you could be able to get
a jumpstart on your competitors.
More queries are seeing paid advertisements now, and there are
also more ads appearing per query, as told in this Moz
If you’re losing traffic because a competitor has set up a PPC
campaign and started to bid on keywords you’re ranking well for,
then you may need to consider overbidding on these queries if
they’re important to you.
Unfortunately, there’s no real secret here: either you gotta
pay or you’re going to have to shift your focus to other target
You should have already done so, but if you haven’t already
included structured data on your website you need to, as it will
help you stand out on SERPs with lots of advertising. Wrapped into
this is the need to get good reviews for your brand and for your
Similar to paid advertising, if the appearance of Google
Shopping sponsored ads has taken over your SERPs, you should
consider whether it’s worth you building your own
Google Shopping campaign.
Again, structured data will be an important tactic to employ
here as well. If you’re competing with Google Shopping ads,
you’re competing with product listings that have images, prices,
and reviews directly in the SERP results to draw in users. You
should have the same.
Look into getting your pages implemented in Accelerated Mobile
Pages (AMP), which is sponsored by Google. Not only has Google
shown it favors pages that are in AMP, better site speed will lead
to better conversion rates for your site.
To see if implementing AMP may be beneficial to your business,
you can read some case studies of other businesses that have done
Knowledge panels and carousels
Knowledge panels such as the one below appear for broad
informational searches, and rarely on highly converting keywords.
While they are arguably the most imposing of all the SERP features,
unless you’re a content site or CelebrityNetWorth.com, they
probably steal some of your less valuable traffic.
If you’re losing clicks due to knowledge panels, it’s likely
happening on queries that typically can be satisfied by quick
answers and therefore are by users who might have bounced from your
site anyway. You won’t be able to beat a knowledge panel for
quick answers, but you can optimize your content to satisfy
affiliated longer-tail queries that users will still scroll to
organic listings to find.
Create in-depth content that answers these questions and make
sure that you have strong title tags and meta descriptions for
these pages so you can have a better chance of standing out in the
In some cases, knowledge panels may be something you can exploit
for your branded search queries. There’s no guaranteed way to get
your content featured in a knowledge panel, and the information
presented in them
does not come from your site, so they can’t be “won” in
the same way as a featured snippet.
To get into a knowledge panel, you can try using structured data
markup or try to get your brand on Wikipedia if you haven’t
already. The Knowledge Graph relies heavily on existing databases
like Wikipedia that users directly contribute to, so developing
more Wikipedia articles for your brand and any personal brands
associated with it can be one avenue to explore.
Search Engine Journal has some tips on how to implement both of
these strategies and more in their blog post
Google Jobs has taken up huge amounts of organic real estate
from listing sites. It will be tough to compete, but there are
strategies you can employ, especially if you run a niche job boards
Shifting your digital strategy to integrate more paid
advertising so you can sit above Google and to generating content
in other areas, like on news websites and advice boards, can help
For more details on how to employ some of these strategies, you
can read Search Engine Journal’s
Google Jobs survival tips.
Look, I’d be lying to you if I said this was good news for us
SEOs. It’s not. Organic is going to get more and more difficult.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. As Rand Fishkin noted in his
BrightonSEO speech this September, if we create intelligent SEO
strategies with an eye towards the future, then we have the
opportunity to be ahead of the curve when the real disruption
We also need to start integrating our SEO strategies with other
mediums; we need to be educated on optimizing for social media,
paid advertising, and other tactics for raising brand awareness.
The more adaptable and diverse your online marketing strategies
are, the better.
Google will always be getting smarter, which just means we have
to get smarter too.
“If you define SEO as the ability to manipulate your
way to the top of search rankings, then SEO will die. But if you
define SEO as the practice of improving a website’s visibility in
search results, then SEO will never die; it will only continue to
Search, like nearly every other industry today, will continue to
come against dramatic unanticipated changes in the future. Yet
search will also only continue to grow in importance. It may become
increasingly more difficult to manipulate your way to the top of
search results, but there will always be a need to try, and Google
will continue to reward content that serves its users well.
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