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Google's 20th Anniversary Search Updates - What Do They Mean for the Future of SEO?


Digital Tree

Change is coming. Well, technically some change is coming, some change is already here as Google took its 20th anniversary as an opportunity to hang a pinata of search updates that have already begun to rain down on us. From "topic layers" in what is an all but transcendental Knowledge Panel, to Google pulling site content to create its own version of AMP Stories, the updates announced at Google's 20th birthday bash event are set to change the way users interact with search. 

I don't mean that hyperbolically. I literally mean that the changes will alter how users go about search, which means they will also change how we think about SEO. There is a clear pattern within a lot of the updates Google announced that's driving this "belief" of mine. Here's what I think the common denominator is between some of these changes, what it means for search, and what you might want to do about it! 




What Changes Did Google Announce at Its 20th Anniversary Event? 



This is the obvious and most logical place to start. Much has already been written covering what I will henceforth refer to as the "20th-anniversary search changes." Accordingly, I'm going to briefly get into the changes and new features announced by Google, but only those that are applicable to this analysis. Google made numerous changes to Image Search, which deserves an analysis of its own, for our purposes, I'm going to leave them aside for now (as well as some of the smaller changes that were announced).

Forest Door



Topic Layer Knowledge Panel SERP Format 



The epitome of what these changes signify is represented in the new "Topic Layer" that has been added to many mobile Knowledge Panels. Rather than continue to throw SEO lingo at you, let me simply describe what we have here. 

Google has added more tabs to many mobile Knowledge Panels. However, I hesitate to call these "Knowledge Panels" anymore. In the vast majority of instances, the new tabs have moved away with what you would expect to see in a Knowledge Panel tab. That is, the new tabs steer away from the Google constructed elements as seen on a mobile Knowledge Panel's Overview. Instead, what you basically get is a "regular" SERP that falls under the Panel's sticky header. Meaning, the new tabs contain a heap of organic results interspersed with features like the video carousel and even Featured Snippets. 

Simply, the new tabs are not new parts of the Knowledge Panel. Rather, they are new SERPs that have been placed within tabs thereby removing the need to conduct an actual search. 

Have a look at what you get for pugs


Pugs Knowledge Panel


Most of the tabs here are regular SERPs that start off with a Featured Snippet at the top. The only difference, as I mentioned, is that the SERP now falls under a tab which makes a separate search unnecessary. 

But wait there's more. The tabs that a "panel" gets is entirely dependent on the entity. Different dog species get different tabs. That is, Google is targeting users by providing a series of SERPs aligned to the specific nature of the entity. 

Observe. 

What I got for the classic movie The Big Lebowski is not the same as the tabs I got for Forrest Gump. In the former, I got a one time showing of the movie (which is 20 years old at this point and shows just how far Google is taking this whole tabs thing).


Big Lebowski Movie Knowledge Panel 

Big Lebowski Mobile Knowledge Panel


The latter showed me a tab listing works of fiction about the movie as written by fans. 


Forrest Gump Movie Knowledge Panel


Forrest Gump Mobile Knowledge Panel


Both tabs were not included in a Knowledge Panel for the Oliver Stone classic Platoon, which showed me a tab for Deleted Scenes. 


Platoon Movie Knowledge Panel

Platoon Mobile Knowledge Panel


I would personally love to know how Google decided on the different tabs for the various movies, but the point here is clear... Google is going heavy on user intent in a highly specific manner. Well beyond what we've seen from Google previously in this regard (in my personal opinion).


Related Activity Cards & Updated Collection Cards 



One of the big "themes" coming out of Google's 20th-anniversary updates is this idea of search as a "journey," to quote Danny Sullivan. In this instance, via what is being referred to as Related Activity Cards, Google is reminding you what pages, from previous searches, you have already visited (when such pages relate to your current search).


Activity Cards

A September 2018 test showcasing Google's upcoming Activity Cards (Image Source: SERoundtable.com


The cards are a perfect companion to any extensive research users undertake. How often have you come back to a research project thinking, "Did I already search for this? Did I already see this page? What did it say?" With the cards, you can pick up where you left off, revisit previously viewed content, and so forth.  

Activity Cards are meant to be integrated with the previously released Collection Cards. The two will become intrinsically tied to one another. How so? You'll be able to add the pages shown via the Activity Cards to the Collection Cards so that you can organize your search research accordingly (and seamlessly). 


Google Discover and the Mobile SERP 



You may have heard of Google Feed. Well, it is no longer. Google Feed is now Google Discover and whereas 'Feed' only existed within the Google app, 'Discover' is set to hit the mobile SERP. 

What does that mean? It means that like 'Feed' did within the app, 'Discover' will place a slew of content that Google thinks you're interested in right on the mobile homepage. So before you ever get to the search box, you'll have access to a nice amount of content that Google picked out just for you based upon your prior activity. 


Google Stories 



As part of the 20th-anniversary search updates, Google has taken AMP Stories to the next level. AMP Stories, for those who are not familiar with them, are basically Instagram Stories for the SERP that utilize AMP pages. As part of the 20th-anniversary search updates, Google has taken the "Story" format beyond AMP. 

How so? 

Google is using machine learning to scour the web for content related to either celebrities or athletes in order to create highly visual Stories that are almost exactly like AMP Stories, minus the AMP. 

Here's one on famed NFL star Joe Montana: 

Joe Montana Google Story




The Common Theme Between Google's 20th-Anniversary Search Updates 




Are these just a random set of updates (again, excluding those related to Image Search & some of the more minor updates) or do they reflect a certain theme? Should the latter be the case, and a certain theme emerges, what problem might Google be trying to solve? 

In other words, if we get past the "excitement" and the novelty of these changes and follow my 3rd-grade teacher's advice by putting on our thinking caps, is there something deeper going on here? What's Google trying to do? Because if we can be certain of one thing, behind the hoopla is a very strategic course of action.

With that little introduction of sorts let's return to the updates listed above, but apply a bit of good ol' critical thinking to 'em.


Digital Thumbprint


Topic Layers or Search Prodding? 



Keeping to our order from above, let's tackle the topical layers within the new "Knowledge Panel." At first glance it would seem that all Google is doing is offering the user a broader set of content to work with. But is that the full story here?

Let's consider what user behavior we can expect to see here by looking back at the panel on pugs. I myself had a pug as a kid and have a nostalgic affinity to them, which makes me the perfect test case. 

I'm a very nostalgic person. Heck, I spend my time listening to a ton of terrible 80's music simply because it makes me feel nostalgic. I would personally do a search for pugs just to learn more about them, in order to revive that nostalgic feeling. In doing such a search, adopting a pug wouldn't even enter my mind. 

Yet, the tab that follows the dog's "characteristics" is none other than Buy or Adopt. Now you know that once those nostalgic juices are flowing I'm going to click on that tab!

Stop right there. 

Did you catch it? Did you see what just happened? Google isn't offering me "more" content. Google has just adjusted my entire search trajectory. They've changed the search path I would have otherwise taken. A whole new set of sites just became click-worthy within my search universe. 

Google just guided, albeit subtly, my entire search journey. 


Related Activity - The Deeper Truth



Moving right along, let's delve into Activity Cards. 

Again, at first glance Activity Cards are a nice way to tie various searches together for a more comprehensive search/research experience. Indeed they are that. That and more. 

There's another way to think about Activity Cards... as another set of organic results that would not have otherwise appeared on the SERP. Imagine you're a site that appears for the newly entered query. As enticing as your site may be, the user may head back to a page they previously visited. 

Don't think so? Say I have $100 to spend on new clothing. Yesterday I searched for some new sneaks (sneakers for the less cool or tennis shoes if you're from America's Midwest). I didn't buy anything, I thought maybe I'd buy some 'fly' fedora hats (or 'cool' fedora hats for those of you not stuck in the 90s) instead. 

I enter my search term for buy fly fedora hats but before I even see the results I'm hit with the Activity Cards showing pages filled with the sneakers I looked at yesterday. And in a moment of second thought, I abandon my quest for fedora hats and buy the sneakers I was looking at the day before! 

Hmmm .... Another case of my search journey being altered by Google's new updates?! 

(Oh, by the way, the updated Collection Cards will also contain search suggestions... so there's that too!)


Discover More and Forget What You Came to Search For



This one's a bit obvious. What does content specifically geared towards your interests do to Google's mobile homepage? It makes it the ultimate distraction to executing a search. 

Think about it in slightly different terms. By taking Google Feed and plopping it onto the mobile SERP (albeit with a new name, Discover) Google is offering you what you may very well have searched for without having to search for it. No need to search for last night's score, Google has it for you right on its mobile homepage. But what about all of those results you would have seen had you done the search? No need for those either. It's like an organic result competing with a SERP feature just minus the organic result. 

Conversely, and this has happened to me, if your intention was to head over to Google so as to search for something specific, having handpicked content appear alongside the search box can change your behavior. Instead of executing that search, you may very well tap on something that interests you and get sucked down the rabbit hole. 

The point is, having the new Discover element on Google's mobile homepage is a way for the search engine to guide you, to alter your normal search journey. 


Google Stories for a New Search Journey 



Nothing to see here folks. At most this is but a momentary distraction as you go about your search journey, right? After all, this is just a machine learning created AMP Story. You watch it, and you leave it.

Right... except that unlike AMP Stories, these new auto-generated Google Stories are pulled from a variety of sites. That is, the story reflects content from multiple sources, unlike an AMP Story where the content comes from the site which created it. 

So? 

Nothing... it's just that the majority of frames within the new Story format contain the source of the quite appealing content. What I'm trying to say is... you can click on that source to get a deeper perspective on the frame's subject-matter. 

Go back and look at that Story on Joe Montana. The first three sources are: 

  1. notablebiographies.com
  2. kansascity.com
  3. people.com

That's a wide variety of sites. More than that, it makes the new Story format more than a quick trip through some visual content. With an AMP Story, I see the Story and I have no real choice but to head back to the SERP (unless I click on a related story shown after the current one has finished). Here, however, I could easily get caught up clicking on a site within the story and who knows where things go from there... though they most likely don't go back to my original SERP, at least not right away. 

Yet again, Google's hand is felt as my search journey is guided in new directions.



Google's 20th-Anniversary Updates - Altered Search Carbon




Digital DNA


It seems pretty apparent that to a large extent, the 20th-anniversary search updates are about guiding a user's search journey. In fact, my repetitive use of the word "journey" is no accident. Describing Google's new Activity Cards, Danny Sullivan said, "Search is a journey, where we know people are picking up over time." 

When announcing the cards, Google's VP of Product & Design, Nick Fox, entitled the post "Helping you along your Search journeys" - fascinating. 

This new emphasis on "journeys" is perhaps best characterized by Google VP of Search, Ben Gomes, who referred to the cards as a "shift from answers to journeys."

Isn't that interesting? What perchance is Mr. Gomes talking about? What does he mean by a "shift from answers to journeys"? 


From Search Engine To Content Provider To Search Sherpa 



Google started out as a search engine. However, over time, and as I've been squawking about for the last 2.5 years, Google has gone from search engine to content provider. Google has gotten far more energetic in how it deploys its SERP features to meet user intent and as such has become a source of answers (which is a problem for many sites that is difficult to solve). 

When Mr. Gomes says "from answers" that's what he's talking about. Shouldn't he have said, "from search results to journeys?" No, because Google has evolved into a content source, a provider of answers. (As an aside, let us appreciate the profundity of Mr. Gomes' statement as it all but officially confirms what we've known for quite some time.) 

Now Google is undergoing yet another metamorphosis. Google is transcending its role as a content provider and is ascending towards being a "search guide." Content provider or not, as things stand Google is in a reactionary role. The user executes a search and Google responds. In that regard, nothing has changed in the last 20 years. Whether that "reaction" is to provide 10 blue links, or whether that "reaction" actually answers the user's question, Google is the respondent.  

That's not the case when taking on the "guide" role. Why should Google react to users when it can make users react to it? Why not grab hold of the reins and put your thumb on the search path scale? If Google can figure out what you want, why not try to push ever so gently towards that? 

But why? Why is Google so intent on prodding users down a certain search path? Sure being in control is a great existential quest, but this is search, not philosophy 101. What was Google unsatisfied with? What problem was not solved by Google evolving into a content provider? 

The answer? Users and their very own inadequacy. 



How the 20th-Anniversary Search Updates Helps Google Fix Its Users 




Brain X-Ray


There's one problem Google giving away all of the answers in the world won't solve... users. No box telling me how big Michael Jordan's feet are will solve my search shortcomings. No matter how many answers Google gives its users, it can't stop searchers from poor query execution. Google as a content provider can't stop people from searching for the wrong terms in the wrong ways. 

There are only three possible reasons why a searcher is left feeling unsatisfied: 

  1. The content they seek doesn't exist or doesn't adequately exist.
  2. Google is showing inadequate results.
  3. Google is showing relevant results, however, the searcher's query is off the mark.

Searcher inadequacy is a real problem, particularly with the less tech-savvy. One stat from 2017 sheds a tad of light on how significant it might be. According to Jumpshot, 18% of users, upon seeing the results offered to them, clicked nothing and opted for a new search altogether. Obviously, that could go either way. It could be the query is correct, but the results were off the mark. However, I greatly suspect that upon revising the search term, users find what they are looking for. This would seemingly indicate that a poor choice in search terminology may be the root cause of a lot of that 18%. 

What I can tell you is that Google very strongly feels it's not them. If they did, would it make sense to try to guide users? How would that solve anything? If Google has an issue meeting user needs, then it's attempt to guide them would presumably fall on its face just as badly as their results do. The fact that Google is going out there with the hope of influencing a user's journey tells us where Google thinks the problem lies... in the user. Thus, the 18% of all searchers needing revision is a statement about searchers, not search engines (at least not Google). 

It's not like Google hasn't been trying to rectify this problem until now, by the way. Google's behavior up until this point also indicates that Google places the search revision onus on the user, not on itself. (Personally, I might agree. Google has made great strides in meeting multiple intents on the same SERP. The chances that none of the results match the user's wants seems hard to fathom to the extent that it constitutes anything near 18% of all searches.) On top of that, some research indicates that less tech-savvy users actually do more harm than good when reformulating a query. That is, less tech-savvy users, when reformulating, move away from their intended topic, not closer to it. 


Google's Best User Correction Efforts Still Fall Short 



Google has always been aware that users may not be using the exact terms needed to find what they are looking for. That's why it has Related Searches. In fact, in the more recent past, Google has added a "Related Search box", actually multiple boxes, in addition to the traditional links that appear at the bottom of the SERP under the heading Searches related to...

Google doesn't solely rely on Related Search to help users move in a new query direction. The search engine also gives us Related Questions, also known as People Also Ask. While the feature, which dynamically loads literally endless questions related to the search query, often functions as a way to extend a search to the next logical topic, it's also a method of query refinement. That is, the feature is a way to open up a topic and to take a vague/general search term and offer the user a path towards a specific and more focused search topic.   

But wait, there's more! In February 2018, the People Also Search For feature got a nice new look. In a nutshell, and unlike how the feature functions in say the Knowledge Panel, the People Also Search For boxes that appear within organic results became "responsive" in that it considers the content found within the page it appears with. In fact, the organic showing only presents itself after you hit the back button. In other words, you first have to go to a site and return to the SERP before the organic People Also Search For box appears. When it does appear, the results within it align to the content on the page you just visited. 

Think about that for a second. The results within the People Also Search For box only appear after you visit a site and return to the SERP. If this is not a move to help users refine their query without having to do a new search, I don't know what is. Google here, as I think is obvious, is trying to communicate that it may not be the results that are "faulty" or unsatisfying... it might be the query the user entered! 

So what's the problem? Why aren't these efforts enough to guide users and compensate for their search shortcomings? 

We can spend hours discussing the effectiveness of the SERP features Google uses to help users refine their queries. However, such an analysis is only pertinent if users actually make good use of them. Which they don't. At least according to a 2014 study undertaken by the University of Massachusetts and University of Pittsburgh. The study found that users generally don't make use of related search suggestions noting, "... we found that users have limited direct use of query suggestion (i.e., adopting a query suggestion for search). 

I understand that the data is four years old, an eternity in the digital age. I'm also fully aware that the study doesn't take into account clicks on features like People Also Search For. That said, an elementary look at Google's behavior fills in those gaps. If features such as People Also Ask and Related Search are meant to help refine a user's query, then Google's behavior vis a vis those features speaks for itself. With an ever-increasing effort to provide users with multiple ways to refine their queries, Google is all but saying that the 2014 study is all but accurate! 



What Do SEOs Need to Consider in this the Era of Guided Search 




Compass on Keyboard


Now that we know not just what Google is doing, but why they most likely are doing it (at least in this author's usually well-informed opinion) we're in good position to get a handle on what to do about it.

So what should the "SEO response" be to a new Google, a Google who aims to take an active role in guiding users towards their undisclosed search desires? 


Keyword Research Focused on Related Topics



In such a search scenario, the idea is to predict where Google might take a user. That means a substantial focus on discovering related topics/keywords. As opposed to finding the top keywords from a traffic perspective, find the right keywords from a topical perspective. In other words, finding keywords that exactly match the term you're looking to optimize for, or contain that phrase and whatnot, is going to be less important going forward (to an extent of course). 

In an environment where Google is taking searchers on a topical journey through search, you'd probably want to focus on questions related to the keyword you're optimizing for, or topics that extend out of that keyword. The idea is pretty self-evident, it's to be in a position to create content that is not just query relevant, but topically relevant. 

From a conceptual perspective, that's the shift here. Whereas before SEO was query focused (to varying extents, I'm of course speaking as if the process was zero-sum), now SEO is headed towards a focus on topical relevancy. Meaning, is your page relevant to a specific keyword or set of keywords, or is relevant to the full spectrum of a given topic? With Google going guide on us, I assume the latter is what you would want.  

Let me give you an actual example of what I mean, at least at the practical level, by using Google's own example of "pugs" that I referenced earlier. In that case, Google placed the following tabs on the initial SERP users now see (excluding the Overview that displays without any further action): 

  • Characteristics
  • Buy or Adopt 
  • Videos 
  • Names 
  • Health 
  • Similar Breeds

For our purposes let's leave aside Videos since that's less a topical addition than it is about presenting varied media formats. 

What I'll do first is show you what we get via a more traditional keyword research "run" by using our Keyword Finder. Here are the top keyword suggestions as organized by search volume for the keyword pugs


Keyword Results - Pug


A lot of good info here, however, let's take it from a topical perspective. By looking at the top keywords that contain the phrase pugs what topics have I unearthed? Not much. The only topical theme I can pull out from here is purchasing a pug, which indeed is one of the tabs Google now shows for the keyword. 

But let me show you what you get when you access interrelated keywords that rely on behavior within the People Also Search For and People Also Ask features. In other words, let me show you what you get when you look at keywords from a topical perspective. For this, I'll use our Keyword Research report which will soon be in beta and which relies on an interweaving of keywords based on topics. 

Here are the questions I got back for the term pugs: 


Keyword Research - Pug Questions


This is a different beast entirely. Firstly, there is a clear theme telling you that buying a pug is of high topical relevance. However, you also have results like, do pugs make good pets or do pugs bark a lot. You know what those are? Those are the Characteristics tab within the new "panel." 

Now, look at results such as do pugs have a lot of health problems and what kind of health problems do pugs have... and there's your Health tab. Excluding the Videos tab and we've knocked off 3 out 5 tabs and we're not even done yet, because here's what we get when analyzing keywords as related topics: 


Keyword Research - Pug Related Topics


Well, would you look at that? A whole host of other dog breeds. That makes 4 out of 5 tabs. The only tab we have not broken into via this method is the Names tab. Not too shabby. 

I think I've made my point. Linear keyword research, within the context of Google as guider of search, doesn't work. Within the topical environment, keyword research should be a bit more dynamic. 


Build Broad-Based Topical Content  



Keyword research is but of course a means to an end, that end being content creation. To put this new search dynamic within the content generation context, I would say the goal is equally clear... to create comprehensive content both horizontally and vertically. Meaning, each piece of content you create should be of solid quality, it should more than adequately explore and explain the subject-matter. However, with Google expanding the topic layers users will see, it's not enough just to drill down into a topic, you have to drive across it as well. That means a content strategy that aims to cover a topic from A - Z sort to speak. Speaking hyperbolically, as opposed to covering one topic really well, and leaving the breadth of the topic aside, your strategy would do well to cover the entire spectrum of the topic. 

In the case of pugs, that means if your site does a great job discussing the health of the dog breed, you may want to consider expanding your coverage a bit. If you want to become relevant not only within your vertical, but across the content Google is shoving in the face of the user (I don't mean that in a bad way), then you need content on how the dog behaves, and so forth. 


The Problems Sites May Face 



I will offer a bit of caution here though. Going wide with your content is an easy way to stray away from your site's core profile. And as we learned from the August Google update (aka the Medic Update), Google may not be fond of ranking you well if your site has a conflicting or even diluted site profile. In the case of pugs and a site that discusses their health, writing about how the dog behaves is not a far stretch, it's a topic still related to and relevant to the site's "core intent profile," whereas listing tons of info on pug adoption, may not necessarily be. Obviously, I can't speak to that, it all depends on the site's purpose and construct. I'm merely pointing out that some topics are more and some topics are less related to a site's core content. 

My point is, consider a broader content approach, just watch your step a bit (like with everything else). 
  


Playing Follow the Leader 




Ducks Following


With Google defining themselves as the precipitator of search journeys the stage is set for another seismic shift within the world of SEO. To what extent you might ask? I would venture to say the winds of change will be as dramatic as when Google went from a plain ol' search engine to the great provider of answers. 

If you're expecting some sort of discernible and demarked shift in SEO, don't. Was there any clear-cut line in the sand drawn as Google became a content provider? Don't expect anything different here. What we have here is the very beginning of a change in course, of a new road ahead of us. It's a road, though, that doesn't have many sharp turns, but a gradual move towards a new destination. 

After all, search, like life, is a journey. 





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