Gotta Catch ‘Em All: Except When You Can’t
I’ll admit it now: I can be a bit of a cynic from time to time. However, I pride myself in not being a “glass is half empty,” tinfoil hat-wearing, veering into the nihilistic abyss-level cynic, unlike my co-worker Taylor, who believes that “the inevitability of death casts a pitch-black shadow over us, from which even the brightest light can neither enter nor escape.” While others may get wound up about Google Homes being the equivalent of “Big Brother” listening to your conversations or Facebook suddenly delivering ads about something we were chatting about in the vicinity of my iPhone, I usually laugh it off with a snide comment about how “I hope that they can start predicting when there’s not going to be enough toilet paper in the washroom, and refill the roll before anyone’s caught without.” But yesterday, Google decided to test me with the Deduplication Update:
If a web page listing is elevated into the featured snippet position, we no longer repeat it in the first page of results. This declutters the results & helps users locate relevant information more easily. Featured snippets count as one of the ten web page listings we show….
— Google SearchLiaison (@searchliaison) January 23, 2020
Can you hear that? That’s the sound of my inner cynic growing both stronger and angrier. Let me explain why.
What is a featured snippet?
Google claims that they are constantly tweaking their search algorithm for “the good of the user.” On a search engine results page (SERP), Google often implements “user-focused” widgets intended to help the searcher find their answer in the quickest method possible—and yes, those cynical quotation marks are well-deserved. The most prominent of these widgets is the featured snippet, which shows up ahead of the normal blue link organic results, and usually looks something like this:
The featured snippet shows up right near the top of the SERP, and is most often only displaced by Google search ads in either text or carousel form. Because Google reports any clicks that may have come from featured snippets in Analytics as though they were any other blue organic link, it is extremely hard to track the specific success of featured snippets in terms of click-through rate (CTR). Jumpshot, a clickstream data provider, estimates the actual CTR for these features to be low; this is a completely logical conclusion, since the answer is often provided to the user straight away on the SERP—leaving no reason for the user to click if they’ve already found their quick answer. I do this often when I’m double checking internal temperatures for cooked meat, or want to confirm I’ve been using the word “cynic” correctly in this blog post. (That’d be ironic, don’t ya think?)
Last summer I shared how and why it is important to capture these featured snippets, due to the increase in zero-click SERPs. As I’ve said in the past in both webinars and blog posts, it’s a completely logical conclusion that Google would want to keep users on the SERP for two primary reasons: control and money. Keeping the user on the SERP ensures Google has control over their potential user experience, with many websites cluttered with bloated, unhelpful content showcasing what the business wants, not what the user wants. Keeping the user on the SERP also helps Google increase the number of ads delivered to the searcher, thereby increasing the likelihood that the searcher clicks on said ad triggering a “ka-ching” sound effect, as the marketing budget of the business who placed the ad is bled dry so Mountain View can add another organic-topping-only frozen yogurt stand for Google employees. Now, I can appreciate the need to make that choice from a business perspective. After all, they didn’t build a business that earned an estimated $140 billion USD last year—primarily from advertising revenue—from blue link organic traffic and sending clicks to other websites for free. But from the business perspective of those populating the internet with content? Well, a quick Google search for “raw deal phrase” should give you your answer.
What is the deduplication update?
As a concept, deduplication is where repetitive or redundant things are eliminated in an effort to provide a more streamlined experience. On January 23, 2020, Google announced that in order to “deduplicate” the SERP, any websites that capture a text-based featured snippet position will no longer be repeated in the first page of blue link organic results. This update also includes deduplication for a desktop featured snippet variant for Knowledge Panel results (usually shown at the right side of the screen), as they are moving inline with the rest of the organic results to match mobile SERPs within the following week. In an attempt to soften the blow, Google confirmed this update wouldn’t affect video featured snippets—how generous of them! With little fanfare (as is tradition), these changes were launched on January 22, 2020 to all SERPs globally. It’s important to note they’re not reflected in Google Search Console performance reporting, meaning you won’t see featured snippets being reported in Search Console as the #1 position. In other words, without using additional tools or (gasp) googling yourself, you won’t see anything other than what is likely to be a substantial increase in impressions, and a substantial decrease in clicks.
Has Google deduplicated the SERP before?
Yes, but they called it something else. On June 6, 2019, Google launched their Site Diversity update where they deduplicated the SERP in a slightly different manner. You used to be able to create multiple pages on a site that all ranked for the same query, filling the SERP with results from the same website. In the interest of “fairness,” Google did away with this for the most part, capping the number of results shown in the first page from the same domain (including subdomains too). In general, they’ve said you usually won’t see more than two results from the same domain, but in true Google fashion they’ve left the verbiage to be just ambiguous enough that if they decide it suits their needs, there may be the odd SERP showing more than two results from the same domain.
What does the Deduplication Update mean for the average dealership website?
Well, it’s not great news. It means that if you’re targeting for the (likely) possibility of a searcher having a zero-click search experience, and have successfully created content that is both optimized for and answers a question to, capture a featured snippet, you won’t have an organic blue link on the first page in results. It means that if you capture the featured snippet (that looks like a Knowledge Panel on desktop) for your dealership, you also won’t have an organic blue link on the first page in results. Many sites that have been affected are finding their blue link on Page 2 of the search results, but Google has confirmed that this is neither intentional nor guaranteed, long-term. You could lose your organic blue link from search results entirely; which, from an idealist’s perspective, is really frustrating. From a cynic’s perspective, it kind of makes me want to reallocate a chunk of my marketing budget to gift Google a new glitter bomb every day until they meet my demands.
What are the benefits to the Deduplication Update?
Depending on how full you see the glass, this isn’t entirely bad news. It should, in theory, help with narrowing down click attribution in your reporting and SERP tracking (even if the featured snippet isn’t showing up as “position 1” in Search Console). If you use a SERP tracking tool, it should generally be able to tell you the average ranking position for any given page, and can also usually track whether or not a featured snippet is present (depending on the tool, and if your website captures the featured snippet). It probably doesn’t aggregate that data with the featured snippet holding a ranking position right now, but developers often change their tools, in an effort to combat the evil monopoly that Google is sometimes mistaken for. By this logic, if you are tracking clicks you’re receiving in Search Console—for a query you know you own the featured snippet for—you now know those clicks are definitely from the featured snippet and not an organic blue link (since one doesn’t exist on page 1). This obviously isn’t infallible, since there is a possibility that a searcher went diving into the depths of page 2 to find their answer; though the cynic in me puts the likelihood of this lower than the odds of Google donating all their profits to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Can we prevent this from happening? Should we change our search strategy?
The alternative strategy is that you can say “we don’t care about participating in zero-click SERPs” and block each page from being chosen for featured snippets entirely. You’ll retain your blue links, and carry on your merry way. My gut instinct says that this isn’t the wisest strategy, especially with the rapid growth of zero-click SERPs we mentioned earlier. If you focus on Google’s algorithm tests and updates in the past year, they’ve given us all the clues in the world that this was coming:
- They changed the SERP on a mobile device to show icons next to blue link organic results. The labels for ads were updated to eliminate the green box, simply showing a black, bold Ad marker, (making ads less noticeable and more likely to be clicked).
- They openly announced they would support specific structured data markup to capture featured snippets, but noted that this doesn’t affect blue link organic results (intended to increase the number of people who are intentionally optimizing for featured snippets).
- They started reducing the number of times a single website can show up in organic blue link search results (indicating that they don’t want SERPs to show the same site multiple times).
- They updated the desktop search results to match the mobile search results, thereby starting to show favicons next to organic blue links, while the new Ad marker took over for the old green ad marker (continuing to make ads less noticeable and, yet again, more likely to be clicked on).
And to top it all off, they offer the exact same directions every time they launch a broad core algorithm update:
Each day, Google usually releases one or more changes designed to improve our results. Some are focused around specific improvements. Some are broad changes. Last week, we released a broad core algorithm update. We do these routinely several times per year….
— Google SearchLiaison (@searchliaison) March 12, 2018
They continue to tell us to focus on creating quality content and providing answers to user queries: no more, no less. They’ve even likened it to how “Top 100” movie lists change year to year, because new movies come out and bump others out of place. And what happens when someone creates a better movie than your last one? You either write a new one, or release a bloated Director’s Cut you make an update to the old one. In the case of a content strategy, my recommendation is to stay the course—even if the depths of my dark and cynical heart knows that this update does nothing to help small businesses, just the greedy corporate overlords hoping to make more money in ad revenue. Some days the glass is half-full, and some days I feel those automatic toilet paper refills can’t come soon enough.