Candour

Episode 45: Desktop favicons and featured snippet update

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What's in this episode?

In this episode, you'll hear Mark Williams-Cook talk about Google favicons on desktop and how these favicons are impacting users. Mark discusses the studies that have been completed so far. Mark will also talk about the featured snippet update including what you need to know about Google removing duplicate listings from search results and how you can work with and around it.

Show note links

The Verge Google coverage https://www.theverge.com/tldr/2020/1/23/21078343/google-ad-desktop-design-change-favicon-icon-ftc-guidelines

The Daily Mail coverage https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-7922103/Google-faces-claims-deliberately-making-ads-appear-identical-normal-search-results.html

Yard Digital study https://weareyard.com/our-blog/google-blurring-the-line-between-natural-and-paid-search-results/

Google search liaison twitter thread https://twitter.com/searchliaison/status/1220403696363700224

Kevin Richard https://twitter.com/512banque/status/1220285974988697601

Transcription

MC: Welcome to episode 45 of the Search with Candour podcast! Recorded on Friday the 24th of January 2020. My name is Mark Williams-Cook and this week we are going to be having an in-depth dive into the desktop favicons change on our SERPs. So this is talking about the changes brought about by Google where they have now put favicons against every single search result on desktop.

We'll also be taking a deep dive into the changes to featured snippets because there's actually a really really big change that Google snuck out there without an announcement and we're just going to talk about the ins and outs of that, what it means, what you can do, how you can work with it, how you can work around it, so lots of stuff for you today. Hope you enjoy.

So, favicons, they've come up more in SEO over the last few years than I ever thought they would. Back in 2019, so last year, Google made some changes to the mobile SERPs, the search engine result pages when they put these favicons against the different search results so they're visible. So favicons used to be only visible when you visited a webpage at the top of your browser, it was the tiny little icon in the top left-hand side, Google started showing these in search results and now, about seven days ago, Google has rolled out this change to desktop search results as well. So this means that now as you can all see if you do a search, you have at the top the Google ads, normally which will have the tiny ads symbol next to them and then in the same kind of format you'll have the normal organic listings, each their own favicon next to it and this consistency in format is has created a bit of controversy.

So it's really rare that anything to do with SEO is interesting enough to the general public that it gets talked about in mainstream media, news outlets that kind of thing and this is actually something that has picked up mainstream interest. So both The Verge, Daily Mail and actually quite a few publications have talked about this change. Initially, I think because users were saying they didn't like it, the narrative has now really come down as to whether this is a move by Google to blend in their ads into organic. So as you know like 80, 90 percent of Google's revenue comes from ads and this amount of money, we're talking over a hundred billion dollars a year, so as you can imagine even making a small percentage change in the number of people that are clicking on ads is literally a billion-dollar kind of prize at the end of doing that.

The process of Google blending ads into organic results arguably has been happening for quite a few years now. If you can remember around 2013, 2014, 2015, and earlier the Google ads at the top of the page and at the time down the right-hand side actually used to have entirely different colour backgrounds. So they experimented with a pastel yellow and pastel green backgrounds, so it was super clear that this is a block of adverts and over the years it's, I think it's fair to say, that those ads at the top of the search results now have become harder to distinguish them between organic results. So most recently we had a green tiny box that said ad in it and that change to a small green circle that said ad and now we've just got the little black text that just says ad, which is the same size and format as the favicons below.

So that’s the narrative that's going with this now. So the headline for The Verge article, which I'll link to in the show notes - so the show notes are at search.withcandour.co.uk, so you can get all the links that we mentioned in this episode. So the headline for The Verge article was “Google ads just look like search results now” and the headline for the Daily Mail was “Google is accused of conning users after it makes paid-for ad links look almost identical to organic search results” - I think it's quite easy for those who work in search, who work in SEO, who work in PPC or any digital marketing, to overestimate how easy it is for general users who aren't involved in that industry to pick out what is an ad and what isn't an ad.

Yard Digital did a really nice, quite small but interesting study on this, again I'll link to this in the show notes, and they were asking 250 users if they could identify if ads were present in an image of some search engine result pages and they used a nice different range of, different types of search results. So by that I mean some with maps and the shopping, on different devices and for different types of query and I'll just read out the conclusion of their test; if you want to actually read through the methodology and exactly what they asked people, how they asked them, as I said I'll link to their study at search.withcandour.co.uk but their conclusion was this, for Google Desktop Search: “Our study shows that typically around 40% of users are unable to identify PPC adverts in natural search results on desktop. This changes little, whether the query is transactional in nature or a brand query. This rate is significantly higher than the same test for older search result formats.” So this is saying that 4 out of 10 people couldn’t identify what was an ad and what wasn’t on a result and that’s a much higher result than the old Google search engine result pages without the favicons. They go on and say, “Additionally, users appear to have a problem in identifying when no adverts are present at between 27% to 39% depending on which features are shown e.g. featured snippet, maps etc.”

So this is saying the outside of the ten blue links when you start getting these boxes of information, whether it's maps, featured snippets, these confuse matters because I guess again if you're not familiar with what is ads and what isn’t more, they can look very similar to things like Google Shopping which is obviously paid for. They have a section on Google mobile search, they say Google's new favicon result appears to show an improvement in user advert recognition, however, there is also a large increase in the percentage of users who think that natural results are adverts. Where the advert market changes from the normal version eg in maps adverts, recognition decreases significantly. The outcome of Google's new mobile format seems negative for the user. In an ideal world, every user should know which results are adverts and which are natural results with little or no ambiguity. Advert recognition appears to improve with the new format but this seems to be because users still think adverts are more widespread than they actually are; ie they think natural search results are adverts and still don't identify the actual adverts. So the overall conclusion is, decreasing differentiation between paid results is a trend which has been ongoing in Google search results since the early to mid-2000s, the trend appears to have increased in pace since 2015. Previous format changes have focused on making adverts appear more like natural search results. This change takes the opposite and potentially more damaging approach of making natural results look more like adverts.

So I found this to be really interesting study. I also just put out on Twitter, just before I started recording this podcast if any PPC managers have seen any results. So it's only been seven days and any results we do see now as well will likely adjust in the future because as people are using the new layout more, they will become attuned to it, they will start to learn what ads are them and what aren’t, so we will probably see the most pronounced results now. we've actually looked at our own PPC data for this and I want to leave it one more week, so I'll probably have Rob on with me next week and we'll talk through what we've seen change in click-through rate. I did have one reply saying they’ve seen their account move from click-through rate from four to five percent which is a record high for the entire length of their account, so that's actually a 25% increase, obviously a move four to five percent which is massive.

Interestingly though we have seen some reports today, just to confuse things even more, that people are seeing desktop search results without favicons again. So again it may be that Google has listened to this feedback and they're doing some more split testing; well, split testing is definitely happening, so it will be interesting to see whether they stick with this change or not and it'll be really interesting to see what other results we start seeing from PPC account managers over the next few weeks.

Okay, I wanted to go a little bit deeper into the Google featured snippets update we've had over the last couple of days because it's actually a really big update and there's a lot of different facets to how it might affect you and things you can do about it. so if you're not 100% sure what a featured snippet is, I'm sure you've seen one, it's when you do a search in Google and you have the box appear at the top of the search results that have essentially scraped information from a webpage that Google's kindly showing you that will answer, hopefully, the query you've typed in. It's labelled as a featured snippet and it has a link to the source website below that you have the natural organic results and historically we've referred to the featured snippet position as a position zero result and then the first, “normal organic blue link” result under that as position one. so you've probably all seen features snippets before. They've been really useful in terms of marketing for people that work in SEO because sometimes it can be very quick to get a featured snippet result and the great thing that we found, until today, until yesterday, is that it was possible to have the featured snippet position at the top of Google in position 0 and for the same webpage to then have the number-one organic position, so you could essentially take up twice the amount of real estate for a search term which obviously was really really good, really helpful, made you look really authoritative and made sure you got the majority of traffic.

Over the last couple of days, there were people reporting that their organic number one ranking was disappearing basically and they were ending up at the top of page two and they were keeping their featured snippet. So I don't think this change was handled as well as it could have been from Google; it didn't look like they're very proactive, but they did start getting involved in some threads on Twitter to explain to people what's been happening. so I'll read out this tweet thread from the Google search liaison account to give you some context as to what's happening.

So on the 23rd of January, the Google search liaison accounts said: “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 result and helps users locate relevant information more easily. featured snippets count as one of the top 10 web page listings we show.” So this is quite interesting now, so if you are now in position one or position 0 if you like, that's now position 1 Google's counting that in that search result. So we're seeing already tools like SISTRIX have pushed updates to count now if you have a featured snippet, that's now going to count you as ranking number one. The tweet that goes on to say, “This change launched yesterday for 100% of our search results globally. there's no change to the overall set of web results we are showing, there are still 10 unique listings as before. deduplicating simply means we're no longer showing any of those unique listings twice. deduplication does not happen for video featured snippets, it does for a featured snippet variant that may resemble a knowledge panel on desktop to the right-hand side of results. This will likely stop later this week and resume when those move in line with the main results.” So this means we've had some featured snippets on the right-hand side that look a bit like knowledge panels of the results and at the moment they've just vanished, they will come back but they're going to be changing the position of where they're going to appear on the page, as I understand it.

“Deduplication does not happen with other features, such as top stories or interesting finds. deduplication also only happens for the exact URL in the featured snippet and only within the first page of results.” That to me is really interesting and I actually saw Bill Slawski from SEO by the Sea post a nice example of this and it was for the search term reasonable surfer model, I'll pop a screenshot in, and what you will see if you do this Google search, you should see that the SEO by the Sea website actually has the featured snippet result at the top for this search term and they still have the number one or number two now ranking in the organic results and that's because essentially they have two pages ranking for the same term. So we'll come back, we'll put a pin in that and we'll come back to it because normally SEOs might be thinking, now listen to it or hang on isn't that cannibalization, so we'll come back to that.

We'll just finish this search liaison thread first. It goes on to say, “Some have noted that a deduplicated URL may appear on the second page of results. this is not a guarantee position nor by design, nor might it stay that way.” So what's been happening, a lot of people reported when they were losing their number-one organic position because of the featured snippet, they were immediately just appearing at the top of page two and that seemed to be quite consistent. by Google saying it's not a guaranteed position, nor by design, I think that's Twitter speak for “whoops, that's a bug” and the “nor might it stay that way” is yeah, we're going to try and fix that. So you're not necessarily guaranteed to appear at the top of the second page if you do lose that ranking.

They go on to say, “Deduplication does not purposely move the deduplicated URL to the second page” and then they just go on to answer more questions and one of the questions I did see crop up a few times, so I think it's worth just covering on the podcast - there were a few questions about how these changes will affect Google search console reports and things like average position metrics is worth bearing in mind, but basically they're not going to. So those metrics like average position were always based on the topmost ranking per query, so you shouldn't actually see any change in this data.

So going back to Bill's example, where he has the two rankings, the featured snippet and the number one result. I think this is really interesting and might, if this change stays about, give birth to a new SEO strategy here. So yes there is the potential for you to cannibalise yourself and target the same stuff on multiple pages which could make your life hard, but to me and I think what Google's aiming for is cannibalization is about intent more than it is exact keywords. so without giving it lots of thought, there could be some SEO strategies whereby you have, for instance, a page of like quick answers around a topic that you mark up nicely with header tags, that use schema ROM to give quick answers for common questions, you know it's like an FAQ and then those themselves link to a longer form article, whereby you are then targeting with that longer format a very similar search term but you want to get the organic number to result and don't forget that Google gives you the ability to use the no snippet tag if you don't want a page to be eligible for featured results. so this strategy could work whereby you have this page of instant answers that are marked up nice and easy structured for a machine to understand and they link off to longer-form articles, where you don't want them to appear in featured snippets so you use this no snippet tag.

We talked about the nuances of that no snippet tag and the extra options Google had added to that in episode 29b in Search with Candour, if you want to go back again, I'll link to that within the show notes. There's also quite a lot of talk about click-through rates for the featured snippet results versus organic results under it, lots of people talking about a href data floating around. as far as I could see I think that was a 2017 study and it didn't seem to have context, I haven't read it in detail for the type of terms used so I'm still sort of waiting to see the results in terms of how this is going to affect traffic ie if you have to choose, is it better to have a featured snippet or is it better to have the number two position? You know we can always fall back to our SEO answer of “it depends” because it probably does depend what the search term is as to whether you're going to get click or not and which result is better for you and better for the user, however, if you did want to make that decision so say you had a featured snippet result and you decided actually this isn't good we would actually think the number two, the organic ranking below, this is gonna give us more traffic, what should you do if you're worried that if you remove the featured snippet, how can you guarantee you're going to actually rank for that?

I saw a really smart tweet by a guy called Kevin Richard, who again I'll link to, and I recognised his name, I'm pretty sure I linked to something else he did on one of the early episodes of Search with Candour, so keep doing what you're doing Kevin, it's good stuff. Kevin's pointed out, we've all known for a long time you can add the query parameter and num equals onto a Google search to control how many results you see, so when people used to do early rank checking they would do a Google search and you could add and num equals 100 to show 100 results on a page without having to click through the pagination set and what Kevin’s pointed out is if you have a result now with a featured snippet, if you add at the top in the URL, the parameter and num equals 9, it will actually remove the featured snippet and it will reset the results to show you where that site that was having the featured, that was providing the featured snippet, where it would rank if it didn't provide that snippet. So it gives you the ability to check, ok if we use the know snippet tag on this page and we removed it, it looks like we're going to rank number 1, number 2, number 3, or just hey number 2, number 3, number 4, because the featured snippet isn't now number 1 but it does give you some insight there and much better information, hopefull, on making that decision. I haven't tested it myself, I doubt anyone's tested that yet, but that looks to be an interesting way to see where you might land if that happens. So this is going to be really interesting to see how this rolls out, how we're probably now going to see people focusing a lot more on getting the data for their sites about which is better for them to have and it will, I imagine, pull into a lot more focus the benefits for users, the benefit for Google, and the benefit for site authors, about who's gonna win by having these featured snippets.

That's all I’ve got time for this episode. I hope you've enjoyed it, I hope it's been helpful. As usual feel free to ask us any questions we do some Q&A; every now and again on the podcast, if you do like it, you can subscribe as well. if you're listening online it's available on Spotify, on Apple Podcasts, on Google podcasts, pretty much everywhere I could find to put it. I hope you all have a brilliant week and I will speak to you next Monday.

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