It seems like the chances for sites to get their content into organic Google search results is continuing to decrease. In a recent article, we looked at some of the recent changes Google has made to its algorithm, including things to make it better at natural language, give it a decreased dependence on keywords, and giving users more direct answers, and therefore not having to direct them to other sites as much.
This, alone, makes a lot of webmasters uneasy, and highlights the need for sites to diversify their sources of web traffic. Google only wants to get better and better at this. Google wants to deliver the best user experience possible, and users want to go on about their business as quickly as possible. This is easier to do if Google can provide the answer itself. Lost traffic, however, could be an unfortunate side effect for content providers.
Wait, didn’t there used to be more search results on this page?
Now, there’s a separate, but related topic being discussed by the webmaster community. Google appears to be showing less organic results for SERPs that contain a result with its sitelinks feature. You know, the ones that look like this:
Specifically, for many SERPs that display these kinds of results, Google is now showing only a total of 7 organic search results (that’s regular results, not including any universal search results that might appear):
There has been discussion about this in the WebmasterWorld forums over the past couple weeks. “Google wants to get people to their answer quickly, and if the query has a history of being too ambiguous, they certainly have the ability to measure that and throw a tag to change from the normal SERP. Just as there was QDF (for query deserves freshness) they might have something like “QDD” or query deserves disambiguation,” said forum admin Tedster.
Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land shared a statement from Google about the matter, saying, “We’re continuing to work out the best ways to show multiple results from a single site when it’s clear users are interested in that site. Separately, we’re also experimenting with varying the number of results per page, as we do periodically. Overall our goal is to provide the most relevant results for a given query as quickly as possible, whether it’s a wide variety of sources or navigation deep into a particular source. There’s always room for improvement, so we’re going to keep working on getting the mix right.”
So this may be an experiment, but a lot of people are getting SERPs with fewer organic results, from fewer sites. It doesn’t bode well for organic SEO. It does seem to make sitellinks more important than ever.
Dr. Peter J. Meyers, President of User Effect, has put out some research at SEOmoz, finding that Google is showing way more SERPs with less than ten results than ever before, and for the most part, these results have 7 results a piece. Here are a couple of graphs he shared:
“SERPs with 7 results were an anomaly prior to 8/13, with the system tracking a maximum of one (0. 1%) on any given day. On 8/13, that number jumped to 10.7% and then, the following day, to 18.3%,” he writes. “Almost one-fifth of SERPs tracked by our data now have 7 results.”
You can read his article for more about the methodology, and his additional findings.
There has been some talk about this phenomenon being related to brand queries, but as Sullivan points out, there are plenty of examples of non-branded queries where this is happening, where the results contain one with sitelinks. It just so happens that a lot of brands do have sitelinks.
Taking Advantage Of Sitelinks
So, how do you get Google to display sitelinks for your site? Well, unfortunately, it’s not that simple. It’s pretty much up to Google.
“We only show sitelinks for results when we think they’ll be useful to the user,” says Google in its help center. “If the structure of your site doesn’t allow our algorithms to find good sitelinks, or we don’t think that the sitelinks for your site are relevant for the user’s query, we won’t show them.”
“At the moment, sitelinks are automated,” Google adds. “We’re always working to improve our sitelinks algorithms, and we may incorporate webmaster input in the future. There are best practices you can follow, however, to improve the quality of your sitelinks. For example, for your site’s internal links, make sure you use anchor text and alt text that’s informative, compact, and avoids repetition.”
If Google is showing sitelinks for your site, but you don’t like certain links it’s showing, you can demote those links, telling Google not to consider it for a sitelink candidate. You can do this in Webmaster Tools. Go to the “For this search result box” in “Sitelinks” under “Site Configuration”. You can demote up to 100 URLs, but Google says it may take a while to be reflected in the search results.
But that’s about as much control as you have over it right now. At least Google is hinting that it may give webmasters more control over sitelinks in the future. If sitelinks are having such an impact on SERPs these days, perhaps sooner rather later would be a good idea.
But back to the point at hand…
Search has been moving further and further away from the classic “ten blue links” format for years, but now Google is clearly giving you fewer opportunities to just rank on the first page in organic links than it used to, at least for a growing number of queries (and who’s to say that number won’t continue to grow?).
This probably means that you’ll need to put more focus on getting into Google’s other types of results more than ever, depending on what types of results Google is showing for the queries for which you want to be found. That could mean optimizing for image search, Places, YouTube, Google News, or of course paying for AdWords ads and/or Google Shopping results.
Interestingly enough, as Google wants to get users answers more quickly (and directly in many cases), the company still faces pressure from publishers who actually don’t want Google benefiting from their content without paying them. It seems pretty backwards, when you consider all of the sites who just want to show up in the results at all.