From ‘fake news’ to the move towards a mobile-first index, a lot has happened and changed in the world of search in 2017.
Pretty much every week in 2017 brought a new update or piece of news which could affect your SEO or digital strategy.
Here’s a round-up of some the most important updates and changes from 2017 to bear in mind and to take forward into your 2018 digital marketing campaigns.
Key Google updates:
Google actually announced its plan to start ‘mobile-first’ indexing in late 2016, but much of the discussion and detail around the change has come about this year.
In essence, Google is in the process of changing its website evaluation process from desktop to mobile content, meaning that your website’s rankings will be determined by how well your mobile site performs, rather than your desktop experience.
In October, Google spokesman Gary Ilyes confirmed that the new mobile-first index had already started to roll out for a few sites with a strong enough mobile experience, which suggests that the new indexing process is beginning to slowly roll out.
As long as you have a responsive website and you’ve focused on a positive mobile experience for users, there’s nothing really to worry about.
If you don’t have a responsive site, Google has just posted advice around how to correctly link up your sites and what exactly needs to match, but the key component most separate mobile sites are missing at present is content: metadata and structured data should be present on both versions of the site.
HTTPs & web security
At the beginning of this year, the Google Chrome browser started to mark HTTP pages which collect personal information through forms as ‘not secure’.
This signal is displayed by the URL bar on a non-secure page as follows:
Users are likely to be put-off entering private information such as payment or address details on these pages, in turn decreasing your website’s conversion rate if you are still using HTTP rather than HTTPs.
Adopting the secure protocol is often seen as a bit of a ‘no-brainer’, as Google has actually stated that websites using HTTPs are often awarded a small ranking boost in organic search results. Despite this, migrating a website between protocols needs to be done carefully, as simple mistakes can cause catastrophic damage to a website’s organic performance.
It’s also important to think carefully about which SSL certificate you purchase or own, as recently Google has announced distrust in certificates issued by Symantec prior to June 2016. Starting in March 2018, the Chrome browser may alert users who land on a HTTPs website with an SSL certificate issued by Symantec during this period, or one of their subsidiary brand names: Thawte, Verisign, Equifax, Geotrust and RapidSSL.
If you have one of these certificates, then prior to the release of Chrome 66 in March 2018 you will need to replace the existing certificate with a new one from any certificate authority trusted by Chrome.
How have SERPs changed in 2017?
In 2017, search results pages had a real shake-up, now encompassing far more than the previous organic and PPC divide. Cards, carousels and packs now feature in the majority of search results. Here are some of the biggest changes and trends from this year:
More carousels in search results
Throughout 2017, Google has been testing and increasing the amount of carousels present in search results, on both desktop and mobile. These carousels are most prevalent in ‘Top Stories’ results on mobile, displaying news results around a query from publishers supporting accelerated-mobile-pages (AMP):
These carousels often dominate the top of mobile search results, meaning that organic search results can suffer from a decrease in click-through-rate if a certain keyword starts to generate a ‘top stories’ carousel.
New sitelinks on mobile
Google has also rolled out a carousel-style sitelink design for both organic and paid search results on mobile devices:
New carousel sitelinks on mobile
Previously, sitelinks picked up a reputation for an unfriendly design and only tended to show for branded queries in a list format. Now, non-brand queries will show relevant sitelinks in a carousel format - meaning that these subsidiary pages can often also benefit from an organic ranking position or paid search ad.
Job search feature directly in the SERPs
‘Google for Jobs’ was announced in June, a new job search feature which allows you to search job listings across the major job boards within Google Search:
This new feature is currently most prevalent in the US but is expected to be rolled out worldwide very soon. Google pulls in data from job sites such as LinkedIn, Monster and Glassdoor, allowing you to search across multiple websites at once. If you are a recruiter you can mark-up your job listings using structured data to give them a better chance of appearing in the job search feature.
Instant hotel booking through Maps & Search
Similarly, you can now book a hotel without leaving the search results through Google’s new hotel finder tool, which was launched in August:
Hoteliers can appear in the hotel search feature by using Google Hotel Ads, or by being listed on an online travel agency like Booking.com or Lastminute.com.
It’s pivotal to ensure that your hotel is listed in this space, as often lazy users will attempt to find the easiest way to book a hotel as possible - booking directly through search results couldn’t be easier.
Shopping results by rival comparison services
Shopping ads also saw a big change in 2017: in an attempt to appease the European Commission’s ‘anti-trust’ ruling, Google started allowing comparison services to bid for space used in Google Shopping ads in September.
A line of text has been added to the bottom of each shopping ad to show which comparison service won the advertising auction:
It’s possible to see other comparison services occupying this space, where an advertisement will have a different label than ‘By Google’. In reality however, this is incredibly rare, with many people suggesting it’s just too expensive for comparison services to bid on this space.
Knowledge graphs vs featured snippets
‘Featured Snippets’ grew steadily in visibility from 2015 until mid-November 2017, when many of the major SERP tracking tools reported a significant drop in these snippets in favour of ‘Knowledge Graphs’.
Anyone who’s tried to optimise towards gaining a featured snippet will know that they very regularly change in appearance and whether they show at all - generally, these instant answer style results can be seen as one of Google’s biggest tests over the last couple of years.
Featured snippets are still very prevalent in search results, but have dropped off by about 25% in the last few weeks according to industry tools.
More recently definition knowledge graph results, like this one on ‘job hunting’, have been taking the place of featured snippets - often for results where you wouldn’t necessarily expect them to appear.
For example, you wouldn’t expect people searching ‘job hunting’ to be confused about what the term means and require this knowledge graph result.
Google seems to be testing the panels it shows across search results, using user signals to determine which is most relevant and useful for the searcher’s intent.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see these definitional results change again if user signals suggest that they’re not useful in search results. Who knows what results we will see in 2018…
Over the course of 2017, it’s clear that Google has changed its search results to really pick up on audience behaviour, making liberal use of carousels and interactive cards to engage with audiences beyond those on a desktop computer.
Carousels now feature across mobile search results, through images, shopping ads, news stories and sitelinks. Getting your website into one of these carousels can be a real opportunity if you’re a publisher, as they tend to dominate above-the-fold content on a mobile device.
Google is also clearly attempting to reward websites which provide a great user experience for their audience - which, in the majority of times, tends to be weighted towards using a mobile device.
Making your website as ‘audience-first’ as possible, whilst having a secure and friendly experience across devices will be the key to digital success in 2018.