For about as long as Google has been around, 10-result search engine results pages (SERPs) have been the norm; in other words, each page of Google’s search results features 10 entries of websites that fit your search criteria on each page. Typically, the 10 entries on page 1 get all our attention.
But what if Google was planning for a very different future — one where the average SERP has zero results? What would that future look like? And should companies with SEO strategies be preparing for this outcome?
Threats From All Sides
First, you need to understand where these results are disappearing to. Google isn’t in the habit of giving its customers less value, so something must be taking the place of typical search results.
In reality, there are many things taking the place of typical organic search results:
· Knowledge Graph. Google’s Knowledge Graph is a program designed to give users more direct information for certain types of queries. When a user searches for a common, high-level topic — let’s say a movie — they’ll get a dedicated box to the side of the SERPs that features common information, such as the date of the movie’s release, along with cast and crew information. These boxes often provide sufficient information to forgo the need for traditional organic search results altogether.
· Rich answers. Rich answers are similar to the Knowledge Graph, providing users with direct information to their queries rather than forcing them to scour the SERPs, but with one crucial difference: they’re pulled from existing websites, rather than coming from Google’s own archives. These come in a few different forms, such as an excerpt of text pulled to directly answer a question you typed in, or a carousel of different historical figures associated with a certain period in history.
· Instant functionality. Google also provides some forms of direct, instant functionality. For example, if you ask Google how many quarts are in a gallon, it will provide you with the answer (4) within a conversion calculator you can use to find similar results. Google will also provide you with stock quotes, weather forecasts, and other types of information immediately, with traditional results getting pushed down.
· Ads. Google also needs to continue providing advertising — its main source of revenue. Ads historically take priority position over traditional search results, with zero, one, or more traditional results being cut off to make room. As Google pushes for more ad space, the nature of SERPs may be required to change.
Growth to Date
A decade ago, aside from ads, these organic result-stealing features were practically non-existent. So how fast have they been growing in significance?
A recent Moz article on the topic noted that SERPs with 10 results are still the norm, with about 25 percent of all results offering between 5 and 8 organic results. SERPs with 3 and 4 results were represented in the study as well.
Clearly, zero-result SERPs are still an extremely rare extreme, and even low- to mid-result SERPs represent a minority of cases — yet the trajectory leaning toward fewer organic results is present.
The Advantages for Google
Why would Google be pushing for these changes? Three reasons:
1. Control. With Google in charge of the content that users consume, Google has more control over user satisfaction — as well as the types of content that are listed in its search results. This can limit liability in some cases and provide interesting business opportunities in others.
2. User convenience. Users are increasingly impatient, so Google wants to give them valuable information as quickly as possible. Reducing the clutter of organic search results in favor of the most relevant content is a way of creating shortcuts for users.
3. Buying power. Clearing out organic results also puts steady pressure on business owners to invest in paid search advertising, simultaneously freeing up more SERP space that could be used for those opportunities. It’s a cynical view, but a realistic one for a company that’s under pressure to make a profit.
The Problems With a Zero-Result SERP
However, there are also some fundamental limitations of zero-result SERPs that should keep Google from favoring this outcome in the long term:
1. Applicability. Zero-result SERPs sound nice in theory, but they can’t possibly work for every type of query. Currently, only about one in eight queries feature a rich snippet, and even with improvements in Google’s algorithm, we might only get up to half. Think of it this way; how many of the queries you make could be quickly and easily answered with a single, concise result?
2. User expectations. Users have also grown to expect a certain format to their online searches. If it changes too drastically, or too soon, they may abandon Google in favor of a search engine that mimics the old style.
3. Alternatives for businesses. If businesses feel they can’t get the organic results they used to with Google, they may seek other, similarly cost effective strategies to get more visibility, such as relying on social media or competing search engines.
The Bottom Line
So is Google hatching some kind of master plan to reduce organic visibility and change its SERPs to offer zero results? The answer is “probably not.” Google is definitely investing in restructuring its SERPs to improve user friendliness and convenience, and part of that means squashing organic results in favor of new, more intuitive functionality.
However, there’s simply too much to lose by offering a zero-result SERP to make it a feasible possibility for the future.
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