If you perform a search on Google today, the results page will look significantly different than it did a decade ago.
Now, instead of just Google’s standard list of blue links, there are several other features Google has added to increase value for its users. Some examples include featured snippets, knowledge panels, or predictive autocomplete features.
In order for marketers to craft a successful SEO strategy, it’s important to gain an understanding of how these different features are approached by Google.
To help shed some light on this topic, Danny Sullivan, Google’s Public Liason for Search, wrote a blog post last week dedicated to how Google’s algorithm makes decisions on what appears in Search, diving into the key differences between features.
For more information on how marketers can leverage these insights to strengthen their SEO strategy, read on!
The state of Search in 2019
As many digital marketers know, Google is consistently evolving its algorithm, features, and tools.
With more complex algorithms and new ways to gain front-page exposure, it’s increasingly more competitive to rank on Google, and this can cause a lot of confusion.
To provide clarity on these questions, here’s how Google ranks in the various different features its search engine offers.
Organic Search Results
While this isn’t technically a “new” feature, it’s important to note how much the process for ranking organic search listings has changed.
A decade ago, you could achieve a high rank fairly easily by simply adding some relevant long-tail keywords into your web pages and blog posts. Today, that approach won’t get you as far.
Changes are consistently being made to Google’s algorithm. Sullivan stated that in the last year alone, more than 3,200 changes were made to Google’s search result systems.
According to Google:
“Some of these were visible launches of new features, while many others were regular updates meant to keep our results relevant as content on the web changes. And some are also improvements based on issues we identified, either via public reports or our own ongoing quality evaluations.”
Two things are important to note here. One, Search is always changing. Rules are updated and attributes are added to ensure that Google is delivering the best results to each of its users. As such, digital marketers need to consistently stay up to date on all new trends and SEO features out there, as what worked for you last year may not be as successful today.
Second, while Google’s algorithms are advanced, they’re not perfect. If you notice something is off, you can report it to Google to see if it's an ongoing issue. It’s possible that it is a mistake with the mechanics, not your strategy. However, by following the first point, you have a better chance of avoiding this issue by staying on top of all developments.
Featured snippets are also commonly referred to as “ranking zero” in Google.
A featured snippet is a short piece of content Google pulls out of existing webpages that its systems feel provides the best quick answer to a question.
For example, if you search “website redesign process,” you’ll see that the definition is pulled directly from an IMPACT blog post (which you can read here!)
Being selected as a featured snippet can be even more valuable than ranking #1 for that same term.
However, you could be in the top position for a competitive keyword term and still not be selected for a featured snippet.
This misalignment between how Google’s ranks its search engine results page (SERP) and its process for choosing what website gets its page highlighted as a featured snippet has confused many site owners.
After all, if you’re ranking number one, that means Google is essentially saying you’ve checked all the boxes, right?
While that may be true, Google uses an entirely different system to select featured snippets. IMPACT already has existing resources educating site owners on steps to take to increase chances of being selected for a featured snippet, so I won’t dive too much into the specifics in this article.
Still, it’s important for site owners to know the following:
There’s no way to “guarantee” your web page will be selected. Even if you’ve done all the recommended steps.
There are things that can prevent you from having a featured snippet, or risk having an existing one taken down. This mainly comes down to if your content violates Google’s publishing standards for featured snippets.
The knowledge graph is another feature that may appear in Google Search listings for specific terms.
Generally, these pertain to people, places, specific subjects, or other relevant topics where Google determines a set of “quick facts” may be relevant to the user.
For example, if you search “Inbound Marketing,” you’ll see the knowledge panel to the right:
One thing site owners should know about these knowledge panels is where Google pulls this information.
According to Google:
“The Knowledge Graph automatically maps the attributes and relationships of these real-world entities from information gathered from the web, structured databases, licensed data and other sources. This collection of facts allows us to respond to queries like "Bessie Coleman" with a Knowledge Panel with facts about the famous aviator.”
In other words, the knowledge panel, like the featured snippets, is not selected using Google’s standard ranking systems. As such, if you’re trying to get your content featured in the knowledge panel, it's unlikely you’ll be successful.
This is because Google pulls its information from databases, or other reliable sources like Wikipedia, so your website's blog post is unlikely to make the cut.
However, you can “report” panels you feel are inaccurate, or “claim” a knowledge panel listing if you feel your business should have ownership over it.
All in all, the important information here is that businesses should understand that the goal should not be getting featured in this panel as a way to gain more organic search traffic. Instead, focus your SEO efforts on ranking high in SERP listings, or for a featured snippet.
What can cause a page to be de-indexed by Google?
Lastly, while Google has particular standards in place for ranking or penalizing certain listings, it will rarely de-index a page from appearing in SERP listings entirely (meaning the page is no longer able to be found on Google).
Even in cases where a featured snippet listing is found to violate Google’s publishing standards, it will typically still remain indexed in Search — just taken out of the featured snippet slot.
However, are circumstances where Google will take action to de-index a page. These situations mainly fall into two major categories:
When required by-law: Pages that violate child abuse laws or copyright infringement laws will no longer be indexed by Google in order to follow laws surrounding these cases.
Listings that violate Google’s policies to protect people: These are narrow situations that don’t necessarily violate any federal laws, but they do violate Google’s own policies to protect sensitive personal information.
In these cases, Google will remove results for specific searches, like someone's name, event, or anything else that is related to the situation. Google further clarified that these cases are not attempts to “fix” poor results, but rather, adjust searches to comply with legal and policy standards to help keep people safe.
So, if you’ve noticed a page is no longer being indexed (or fallen significantly), the cause is likely not Google de-indexing your page. I’m sure if you’re in one of the two situations listed above you would be notified in some other manner than your SEO metrics!
If you find yourself having a page de-indexed (or not indexed in the first place) make sure you evaluate your sitemap, send your pages to Google to crawl or re-crawl, and make sure you don’t have any pages hidden from Google somewhere on your website settings.
It’s no secret that Google can be hard to master.
Even the most advanced SEO professionals still get stumped with issues here and there.
While there will never be a “foolproof” method to get to #1, by educating yourself on the different features within Search and how Google tracks each of them, you can approach your SEO strategy with a heightened understanding of what exactly Google looks at as it crawls your website.