There have been a lot of changes the past 12 months in how Google displays search results. No longer is it 10 blue links combined with a few universal and local results. Google is continually experimenting with new ways to take your data and display it in their results and on their site.
Wait Google has a site? OK, just kidding, but whether site links, rich snippets, or the Knowledge Graph (to name a few) Google is experimenting with its display, where it places that data, and how it displays this data. Depending on your vertical your site is likely to show the effects.
What is SUX? And why should you care?
SUX = Search(er) User Experience
The first time I heard the phrase SUX was in Mark Monroe’s brilliant presentation on a panel we shared at SMX, it seemed important at the time, but application was limited because the SERPs were limited. Not any more!
Google has changed not only the SERP itself, but also the Google page intent, the links, the way it even collects data. But what does that mean for site owners? Whether you know it or not yet, SUX matters to you.
At first you are excited by the new Googly displays. Awesomely, you go after these new links in listings. Google Places, Rich Snippets, G+ or the “I am not even sure we have a name for it yet” displays. Thinking, YES! I am on my way to Google Nirvana! Rankings hear me roar!
Well sure, you may be getting additional Google Play in your ranking results, and in some cases even more clicks, but are you really getting any more value?
As Google changes the user search experience, it also changes how users interact or don’t interact with your site. Let’s see how this might affect you.
Rich Snippets SUX
The SERP link display is often courted, heavily desired and statistically proven to show increases in click-through rates. There are different ones from author links, to site links, and rich snippets. The ones that Google really likes though are the rich snippets. Why? They are your data, often provided by you through schema data.
Rich snippets are pieces of information that you help Google (and other engines) take from your website to display in their SERPs. In some cases it does a great job! Perfect even.
But what about when Google doesn’t do such a great job. What happens then? How does this affect your searcher’s user experience?
Well if you aren't vigilant, it can cause an increase in bounce rates, lower time on site, and decrease in engagement.
What? How can that be? Well in this case, for example, breadcrumbs, you might lose your user altogether.
Rich Snippets & Breadcrumbs
When a site uses breadcrumbs and Google determines the site worthy it can get a site listing such as this one for the Library of Congress.
See the extra links below the headline link? Awesome - it is like a mini-navigation on the SERPs. Well let’s take a closer look.
Of course, you would think Google would send these to the same place as the title link correct? Yet, they don’t. Why? Because it is a breadcrumb Google actually takes the last link in the breadcrumb trail from YOUR SITE and links it there.
Well what is wrong with that? Well most sites don’t link the last item in a breadcrumb trail, so …
So instead of seeing this page (the top link):
You are taken to this page (the last one linked in the breadcrumb trail):
This page is highly irrelevant (to the query) link page. So what is likely to happen in this scenario? Easy to guess right, your user gets a page with irrelevant information (usually a high level entry page) and your bounce rate goes up, engagement metrics go down.
Basically, when user intent doesn't match the search page, your SUX… well sucks.
So What To Do?
You can easily fix this right? Well yes and no. For the simple answer, you can link the last link in every breadcrumb link then you can use Google’s Rich Snippet Microformats and MetaData to help Google get it right. Only negative here is linking the last link in a breadcrumb trail violates other standards, but in this case there really is no choice if you want it to appear correctly.
So where else can we see these Googly SUX changes?
Google+ Local or Google Places - Local SUX
So in this case you have the new Google+ Local result, Google Places.
NOTE: Which by the way can show up for non-local. This is relatively new. If I am in Vegas, I can (and DO) get local results for a search that is not in my city. This goes a long way towards relevancy and user intent – again SUX.
So what could possibly go wrong here? Well, aside from the idea that Google is now ranking these pages at the top of the search for non-local results and for a broad array of keywords, it is the issue again between user intent and landing page.
If we click on the reviews the link takes us to the new slick G+ Local pages. Which for a moment might even be mistaken for your site page.
Now if we go back to the listing we can see, the title link takes us to the homepage. Phew right? They are on my site. This works! Well, this would be fine if the user search query matched this result, but in many cases, the user intent is going to be for a subpage and that page will not appear here and it is in the NUMBER 1 spot.
Now sometimes the local intent is obvious, but as in the case of this site you can see, it is the only result with this display and layout. This unique display, its appearance at the top of the results makes it much more likely to get a click, like in this case, than the relevant result lower on the page.
Positive / Negative SUX
Relevant result is where search query matches landing page = Positive SUX
Irrelevant result where a search query doesn't match the landing page = NEGATIVE SUX
Oh, one more thing: your site description is gone too. So your listing has no description, confusing links, and mismatched query/landing page result, not an ideal SUX.
So What Do You Do?
In the case of this site, the homepage has serious issues with guiding users through their site. How is yours? If a user hits your homepage, can they easily get to a non-related search query?
Revisit your homepage. Check it against non-matched search queries that bring your site high volumes of traffic. Is it easy to find these from the homepage? If not, revisit your homepage and make adjustments. Don’t let Google Places take your high value keywords and put users into a funnel that will more likely lead to a bounce than a conversion. Oh and make sure your G+ page for Google Places is exactly how you want it. Leading users where you want them, should they go there first?
Take Control of the SUX!
So what else does Google do to that can alter your site traffic? All of these SUX changes lead us towards the largest one of all, the Google Knowledge Graph, so let’s take Google metadata one-step further!
Google Knowledge Graph
The concept of the Knowledge Graph is too complex for the time left in this article, but simply put and in layman’s terms and because a true semantic web is out of reach right now (a web where the context of the user search query is just understood) Rich Snippet displays from Microformats, RDF tags (etc) came about to help give the web meaning and contextutality.
On the backend, the formats, or tags allow the site owners to label data in a more commonly understood way. For example an address is an address and not a div tag with text data.
This helps the Search Engines to associate data allows the engines to contextualize and derive relationships from the web in ways it could not before – in essence it gives an ability to imply “meaning”.
How Does it Do This?
Tagging (using metadata), take data and add context, say your review of a restaurant or directions. Before it was just text on a page in an HTML tag, now it is text on a page in an HTML tag with a microformat label that tells the search engine something like:
<HEY! THIS IS A REVIEW!>
Now this all sounds incredibly great for users all that information, at your fingertips, ready to give back to you with simple requests. SUX perfection! However what happens when Google takes this data off your page and displays it in their site? What happens to your visitors? What happens to your site? Your metrics?
SUX Giveth, SUX Taketh Away
So let’s take a peek at what can happen when Google displays the “Knowledge Graph”.
What about when Google seems to endorse a site, product or user? Let’s take the word “SEO”. Here is what the Knowledge Graph brings back.
(Knowledge Graph is always displayed in the right side ... for now at least.)
So for SEO I get back two faces with names in the Knowledge Graph, Danny Sullivan and Rand Fishkin.
Now taking nothing away from these two people who have certainly earned their place and prominence in the industry, isn’t there an almost implied reference from Google that these two people represent the term SEO? Sort of like the days when someone said hey go look up “Term HERE” in the dictionary I bet you see their face. Well in a way now you almost can, can’t you?
Of course this may not be the awesome windfall it seems for these two either. While it does seem to be an implied endorsement by Google for these two SEOs, it isn't a link to their sites.
In fact, clicking on the links only takes you to another result with a larger Google Knowledge Graph “widget” of either of the two from the previous page.
So, while a great bit of information on Sullivan, this isn't exactly getting traffic to Sullivan’s site either.
So I am not really finding anything about Sullivan he would get all jazzed about and I am probably already forgetting why I started searching in the first place, but cool I know when Sullivan was born and what his last G+ was about.
Now, what was I searching?
SUX to be You! (Unless You're Google)
Sadly, this is potentially the most damaging display change for your site because if your site provides information that Google uses in the graph why go to your site? Issue is there is probably very little you can do about it except keep a very close eye on your site for drop offs related to the implementation and then on a case by case basis strategically implement solutions.
Google SUX Data
Welcome to the new SERPs. A dizzying array of SUX changes that are meant to benefit who? You? Your site? Or perhaps… Google? Hmmm.
Whether it is the new rich snippets, local display or the Knowledge Graph, Google is changing how it displays the SERPs, but unlike in older times where the changes were to increase click through to you, or change the relationship between AdWords and organic, this time the changes are about Google displaying your info on their pages and guess where Google wants those visitors to stay, at least for a little while?
Now some will argue, it is Google’s site and you play in their space and users get cool data so no harm no foul right? And not that some of the information isn’t kind of cool, I mean heck I like seeing some of the info all wrapped in one and aren’t the new links in the SERP display helpful?
However, when Google gives you no real control over the display and has made it clear to keep playing you must add microformats to your pages, which they use to take your content and put on their site, who really benefits?
So What is the Downside of the New Google SUX?
What if your site is informationally based and that information fits neatly into those knowledge bytes on the right side? Sites that focus on weather, movies, travel data (to name a few). Google will be moving the data off your site and putting it where users never need your site to engage, never need to visit.
Google’s answer to this (as discussed by Matt Cutts at SES San Francisco) was that your site would probably have issues if you were relying on simple data points to engage users. Advice? Better make sure that is not your only value proposition.
But what if your site is about the weather, or movies, or travel, etc. Aren’t those little data points your visitors’ first and most likely engagement point? Sure people may love your pictures on the latest Haboob in Phoenix once on the site, but where do they start?
How Does the SUX Affect Your Traffic?
So you give your data to Google with microformats as part of the new algorithm changes, then one day you see your data on Google and your site never receives the visits (and other important site metrics). So possible it doesn’t seem quite as simple when you look at it from this point of view.
In fact going throw some controversy in the mix, if any other site did this, Google would be called “blackhatting” “scraping” or many terms usually reserved for “SPAM”, but this is Google and whatever you think of it, there is no getting away from it, barring federal regulation. Also to note much of this data you are willingly giving. Sure they made the rules, but you are playing.
There are no easy answers here, the best we can do is live with it, and monitor site metrics that represent SERP display issues and then strategize the best way to mediate those issues.
GooglePEDIA and SUX!
These are only a few examples of how Google SERP changes to the SUX, might be affecting your site visits and in the end your site metrics.
As an SEO you have always had this task, but the changes were always so minimal the task was easy to forget, SUX WATCH! Your Search Users Experience, well Google just stepped it up! You better too.
Watch your SERPs display, especially across your most important and highly trafficked pages. Watch for display changes that will affect your SUX. Then watch for changes here that cause visit leaks (where visitors are no longer using your site check for a Google SERP change), but getting their data at Google, or where Google is giving back data that will cause users to ignore their own search query altogether.
Search it, View it, SUX IT!
Being aware, identifying where your SUX issues lie, watching for down metrics and finding your data leaks will allow you to develop strategies that will recapture, reengage, redirect your site, so that you can minimize loss or possibly even discover larger audiences will become very important.
Whatever you do, make sure to keep an eye out because Google is in test mode and what is here today could be gone tomorrow, but it is likely to be a bumpy ride. To lose sight is to lose users.
SUX is a very real part of your user experience. Embrace it, live it, love it – because it’s here to stay!