Many people involved in SEO like to follow developments in terms of updates to the algorithm. For example, everyone often knows what the Web Core Vitals update is, what Google is looking at and when this update will be rolled out. But to my mind, we don’t pay enough attention to the changes in the SERP, because you hardly hear anyone about that. While the SERP determines how much success you can start having with SEO. Let’s take a look at the current developments in the SERP and how they affect SEO.
This page is updated regularly with new developments.
I also keep an article with what is happening in specifically the SERP USA.
1. The SERP is exploding
Below is an image of the SERP (Search Engine Result Page) on a top keyword, in this case electric bicycle. Above the fold you will only see one organic result, I have marked this result in the image below with a yellow dot. Although this phenomenon is not terribly new, it is important to keep track of it because Google regularly invents something new. The more things Google invents the more the organic results are pushed down.
Of course, on mobile this is even more problematic than on desktop, in the animation below you can see the first SEO results appear only after scrolling several times.
So a large part of the (mobile) SERP is reserved for ads. Not so strange of course from Google, after all that is what they make the money with. If there is a local intent to a search, the organic results are pushed even further down by results in a Google Maps module, you can see that too in the scroll above. And this is not all….
2. People also ask gets a lot of space
Popped up around april/may 2021 and conquering all different kinds of SERPs: People Also Ask. This features is often published right below the first SEO result en triggers a lot of attention.
Those who click on a question will find that it is a real rabbit hole. With each click, new questions are added. Below is a screenshot after 2-3x clicks. The SEO results are pushed further and further out of focus by this.
The content of the People Ask Also module comes from web pages and is selected by Google itself. It may be that Google grabs questions and answers from your website or uses them itself, see next point.
3. Google is pretty smart already and creates a question with random content on her own
While poking around in this module, I was shocked at how smart Google already is. Apparently Google is able to come up with its own question for a random piece of content they found on the web. You can read the entire report of my search here, but below you can see the piece of content that Google grabbed as an answer (it’s the content between the two dashes). You can see that Google is able to merge the content of 2 paragraphs into one answer. Totally striking is that the content is used in a question and answer model, while there are no questions and answers anywhere in the page. Google itself came up with a question for this content and in this case a good question too, namely: is skating good for losing weight?
4. How the PAA makes Google even smarter
In that same search through the People Ask Also module, I noticed something else. I was looking for skates, but in the ‘People also ask’ module I also saw the question ‘Is skating good for losing weight?’ If I were the only person to click on this, it wouldn’t be very interesting, but if a huge number of people do this, we suddenly make Google much smarter; apparently, in that case, people searching for skates are significantly often interested in losing weight. This is where Google could potentially make a huge amount of money with ads.
5. The People Also Ask feature offers chances to small players
My observant SEO colleague Bas Beijk was very sharp and noted that in the ‘People also ask’ you often see a lot of b-brands and small parties that can suddenly get huge visibility. Just look in the screenshot above, it’s not content from Aktiesport, Zalando or another big webshop but from a small player. In the example below you see the same thing happening with players within the field of cat food. Did you already know Celtic, Orijen or voerwijzer.com?
6. Google “stealing” your content
Google not only shows your content in the People Ask Also module, but also in featured snippets, see below. Only here it works out a little less favorable for you. Probably a content marketer at the companies shown has been working very hard to create this kind of beautiful content to attract traffic to the website. What does Google do with it? Right, thanks and goodbye. Because why would you even click through as a user if you’ve had the answer? It can’t be helped that Iphoned and Etos have lost SEO traffic to these pages in a big way.
Small detail: apparently Google is very smart and they can estimate that they can show a lot about the above subjects, but they don’t dare to burn their hands if someone searches for “symptoms of skin cancer” because then they are suddenly very short and seem to prefer to redirect their visitor to a website that is an authority on the subject:
7. Consequence: a growing share of zero-click results
In recent years there has been a huge increase in the proportion of zero-click results. A zero-click means that there is no longer a click through from Google to another website. Of course, the results above contribute to this to a large extent. SparkToro data shows that in 2016 “only” 41.57% of mobile searches led to a zero-clicks result. In 2018, that share rose to 61%.
June 2019 data from SparkToro shows that for desktop and mobile combined, about 50% of searches currently lead to a zero-click result.
The most recent data from March 2021 shows that things have only gotten worse. In 2020, nearly 65% of searches on desktop and mobile no longer led to a click. You almost have to start feeling this somewhere and take it from me that the hits will fall on SEO (after all, Google isn’t going to take any chances with ads; the goose with the golden eggs). It may be that in absolute numbers you have had a lot of traffic increase because more people have found their way to the internet, but look at your CTRs what is happening there?
On a cell phone, it’s really just one big drama, over 77% of searches already fail to lead to a click, according to SparkToro:
8. The ads’ share is growing insanely
The table below is from SparkToro and Jumpshot’s research covering the period 2016-2019. You can see that in 2016 the share of ads was still 2.10%, by 2019 it had grown to over 4%. It seems little, but it is a doubling of the number of clicks! It is striking that the share of ads in the above pie charts is considerably smaller. Possibly this is because the table below is about the US and the pie charts are global.
Some older research from Search Engine Land also shows that when paid ads are shown, the percentage of no-click results is much lower than when no ads are shown. In other words: ads above no-click results and that is not strange either. Google wants to help the user very well, but of course not at the expense of their own wallet.
The consequences are obvious: there are far fewer clicks to be had. It is almost inevitable that websites must feel this.
9. CTR on number 1 position drastically decreased
That fewer clicks are being made is also evident from older research by Search Engine Land. On branded search terms the average CTR is around 70%, on non-branded search terms the CTR of the number 1 position drops to an average of 20%. It is precisely these search terms that are so competitive and sought after. It is a logical consequence of the developments mentioned above.
From these developments, you can see, as far as I’m concerned, that the role of SEO on high competitive top terms will have to become smaller and smaller. Top terms are largely reserved for ads and other types of results. So if you are finally organically high on a top term, then you are actually still poorly off.
What are the implications of this for SEO?
All of these developments must have necessary implications for SEO, there’s almost no way around it. Go figure:
- On top terms, Google prefers to show ads rather than SEO results;
- The People Ask Also module is often prominently displayed;
- If there could be a local intention, the Google Maps results are also above the SEO results;
- So SEO is being pushed further and further down the page as a result;
- There is increasing competition from Google itself showing your content;
- If you manage to rank high organically, you are actually still quite far out of the picture;
- You will notice this in a CTR of approximately 20% on the number 1 position, which in practice will probably be much lower.
This has implications for your SEO strategy!
It is good to take all these developments into account. So ask yourself the following questions:
- Can I still compete in SEO with the big players and be visible on top terms? (= keywords with high search volume)
- How much traffic can I expect on top keywords and top positions if I am so far out of the picture?
- What does it mean for my SEO profits if I attract less and less traffic for these terms?
- Does it still make sense to focus so much on top keywords, keyword research and rankings?
- How attractive is SEO if you have to compete with other parties and with Google itself?
- How much traffic can I expect if Google shows my content in featured snippets?
- What is a display in a snippet worth to me if people don’t click through?
What will you do now that you know this?
You would almost think that this must be the end of SEO, that SEO is really dead now. Although I think the field is changing enormously, I do not think SEO is dead. We should perhaps let go of the old familiar methods and start looking at what is still possible.
In my e-book, “The End of SEO as We Always Did” (NL only) I elaborate on all of the above questions and paint a picture of how I see the future of SEO. And mind you, this is not too sunny. But there are still opportunities, provided you are willing to change your strategy!
Are you more practically minded and would you like to know how you can get more out of SEO?
Then I give you my e-book ‘Manual Horizontal SEO’ (NL only) enormously useful tips!