How to Get More Clicks in Google's Evolving SERPs

The famous data leak by AOL in 2006 is well known for providing click-through rate (CTR) numbers. This data was used as parts of formulas in some SEO tools and was a subject of much debate within the community. Since then, several more studies were done on CTR distribution in the SERPs.

A lot has changed since 2006 - the mix of what appears in the SERPs has seen a qualitative shift both with the rise of universal search, among other seismic changes, including most recently Search Plus Your World. There are a wealth of opinions about the value of these changes for webmasters; although this is a fascinating debate, it is far beyond the scope of what can be covered in one article.

However, parties on both sides of the fence will concede that Google is granting webmasters new methods for featuring their brand in search. This post will explore the impact of traditional methods such as optimizing text snippets and new methods, such as Google+, rel=author, and self hosted videos on increasing CTR.

Green Leaf

A Word of Caution

Many of the suggestions may be effort intensive to implement and may require some maintenance. On the face of it, if you're an in-house SEO or a website owner looking to take one specific domain to the next level, many of these suggestions will be simple to achieve. For scenarios involving multiple sites the complexity of implementation will increase and closer communication and co-ordination will be necessary.

We'll take a more in-depth look at how recent presentational changes have affected CTR, and look at the overall impact of these changes on SEO, and give ideas to new places to focus energies toward as we move toward a brave new world.

Text Snippets in SERPs and CTR

This is the old fashioned way of trying to improve your CTR from a lower positions. Recently, Tom Anthony of Distilled discussed this on his blog "Introducing SERP Turkey: A Free Tool to Split-Test and Gather CTR Analytics of SERP Entries" Anthony explained how he conducted some split testing by building a dummy page for the SERPs and created multiple instances of the SERPs for a given keyword before using Mechanical Turk to drive users to these pages to get measurable clicks. The data was then analyzed in Analytics.

One of the tests conducted was if a "bad" meta description has a negative impact on number of clicks relative to a really good meta description. According to Anthony, "...this experiment did not go how I expected at all..." According to his study,

Bad meta description outperformed the good meta description, according to Anthony's study. The reasoning for these results were explained by the structure of the experiment itself with the conclusion statement:

"The workers for this came from worldwide, and may not be aware of the Sonicare brand. I can only imagine that when I entered my 'improved' description it became clear that this wasn't an informational page but a commercial/brand one, but that workers had interpreted the search as an informational one."

The important point here is that although it seems intuitive to say that a better meta description will improve CTR, the reality isn't so clear cut as one would initially believe. Some issues that arise seem to indicate that the nature of the query, that is, whether it's informational, navigational, or transactional comes into play as well as the type of user that is clicking.

Something else to consider: Google will change the way your pages titles appear in the SERPs with their own formulations in some cases. These may not include some of the messaging that you may want to have presented in the SERPs for visitors.

What You Can Do Right Now

Run some of your biggest phrases that you are on the first page of results for on Google and ask yourself the following questions:

  • How do your title tags and meta descriptions stack up next to your competitors? 
  • Has Google reformulated the text snippets featured on SERP pages? 
  • Do you feature your "purple cow" for your most important pages?

Also, make sure to check Google Webmaster Tools, and see if they're trying to alert you of any duplicate title tags and meta descriptions.

Explore Rich Snippets As a Way To Get More Eyes On Your Results

This issue has some debate surrounding it, which we won't cover in this article in depth. Overall, it is widely acknowledged that rich snippets are helpful, depending on the nature of your site and especially if your implement them before your competitors do.

Google supports rich snippets for a variety of content types including, businesses and organizations, reviews, people, products, and events. It's definitely worth considering whether this could benefit your company.

Get in With Google+ and Rel=Author Before Your Competitors

The value of having Google+ and creating an author was huge even before Search Plus Your World. Now it's even more important.

Since last year, we've been reading about the +1 button and its impact in rankings. Last year, Jonathan Allan discussed a experiment on the topic in "Google +1 Increases CTR in Organic SERP's Ranking Boost Likely," which is just one article illustrating this. There has also been a lot of discussion about the power of having a verified author appear next to your SERP's in Google. One such example is discussed by Douglas Karr in "Our Verified Author Links Result in a 484% Higher Click-Through Rate."

Another hint to the importance of author to Google as an organization is that they're even sacrificing some valuable ad space to feature authors for certain queries, as you can observe in the screenshot below.

google-spyw-cars

Glenn Gabe discusses other ways that Search Plus Your World may be a catalyst for change in AdWords in "AdWords, Plus Your World - 7 Examples of How SPYW Could Impact SEM."

All of the aforementioned serve as signs that Google+ and rel="author" is something that is here to stay.

Getting a Google+ business page and setting up an author for your site is a limited window of opportunity in terms of a bump in CTR, since some of the value in having a author set up lies in the fact that your competitors do not. Once you have set up a Google Plus Business Page and an Author, start building them up. Particularly for your author, make sure that trusted content is attributed to them. It is important for them to be authoritative in your space.

What You Can Do Right Now

If you haven't created a Google+ account, set up a business page and set up rel="author" for your site, you're late to the party! As Google ramps up their efforts to fit search and social into the same pants, take advantage of these limited opportunities as they present themselves.

One thing to note with setting up rel="author" is that there have been lots of recent changes for what needs to be done on site to get it set up, so factor in some tinkering time before you get it going. Once these are set up, it's time to hit the gas pedal on engaging in Google and building up your circle as you build up your author.

Google has over time become more brand focused. This is your opportunity to make your site a brand, at least in some sense.

Take Advantage of Self-Hosted Video In The SERPs

When search marketers think of video, they normally think of an optimization strategy using YouTube. This is an easy way to get your videos seen in universal search but it isn't without caveats.

Once a searcher clicks to view a video, they don't land on your site. They land on a Google property. As a result you're not getting the full value of video optimization.

The starting point for getting videos on your site ranked, is submitting a video site map in Google Webmaster Tools. Mark Deulisse discusses some of the other important steps in "Top 10 Video SEO Best Practices."

This self-hosted video demonstrates that just as you can use Google's products to increase CTR, you can also increase CTR by not driving additional traffic to Google's properties.

This is one recommendation that needs to be accompanied with a word of caution: it takes a lot of time before your videos will start showing up in Google SERPs. This takes effort to implement, since just like everything else you need to optimize correctly and you need to build up trust with Google.

What You Can Do Right Now

Self-hosting videos as part of your video strategy is a great opportunity to get more clicks from Google. It is important to keep in mind that some commitment may be required for start-up and it will take more effort and time to get your videos ranked.

Some Concluding Thoughts

Google now presents us with many options for how to interact with them in this changing landscape of search. There are a number of conclusions that we can postulate from the position we currently find ourselves in.

First, and not specifically related to SEO, is that the day of the semantic web has arrived, at least in some sense. At the least, search engines see the semantic web as an opportunity to get us to explicitly specify more then we've ever had the opportunity to do so before - for better or worse.

More specific to SEO, it's becoming important to integrate other traffic sources as part of the overall Internet marketing strategy. We're all aware of the aggressive changes Google are making to the way they rank websites for phrases. Diversifying your traffic sources allows you to maintain some control over your overall traffic, despite the ups and downs in organic traffic Google sends.

Finally, it's now critically important to diversify your strategy within organic search to take advantage of these changes. Create a Google+ business page, create an author, and use rich snippets, before your competitors do.