The Shrinking SERP on Google

The first page of Google’s Search Engine Results Page (SERP) is the holy grail of a valuable web presence. Even more so if it’s for a popular industry keyword. Websites, in some industries, can spend thousands each year optimising their pages, just to maintain their rank. And with each slip down the rankings, traffic can drop.

The release details on Google’s last algorithm update mentioned an increased focus on richer information in the results and sitewide links for simplified SERP navigation. It was an interesting development for Google’s usability, but all SEOs heard in the announcement was that there might now be less space on the first page.

7 Replacing 10

It has also been recently observed, and commented on, that some queries had been returning just 7 results on the first page rather than the historic 10. This isn’t for every search query, but generally rather ones that are either for branded keywords, or select generic keywords which have substantial subcategories.

A study by SEOMoz, using 1000 pre-selected keywords, revealed that the recent trend was affecting as much as 18% of those search queries. 7 results in the SERP isn’t exactly new, but before it only used to affect between 2 – 4 % of searches for that type of keyword. No one is sure what’s the exact keyword criteria for a 7-results page, which is what makes planning an SEO strategy around it so much more challenging.

Sitelinks and Single Site Results

The main culprits behind the crowding of the first page are sitewide links. This is when, in two columns below a result, there is a list of some of the other important sections of that page. This is usually only for the first ranked result. It appears to only show up when popular websites are ranked first or when a query returns multiple Wikipedia pages.

A much more problematic SERP trend for websites is when a single website dominates the entire first page of the results, particularly for branded keywords. Again, not a new thing, but the Penguin update has seen these instances becoming a little more frequent. Google defends this position, saying that certain keywords are an indication that users only want to see results form a certain page. Strange though, how this contradicts their policy of results diversity.

Changing SEO?

While the trend isn’t technically an SEO issue, it’s easy to see the SEO implications. With 95% of clicks occurring on the first page, those hanging between 8 – 10 of the ranks for generic keywords or shared branded terms, have now been squeezed out of the primary clickthrough zone. It may make the already competitive practice of SEO, even fiercer than before.

Google has stated however that they are just testing the waters. They are trying to return results which are more relevant to the searcher’s intent. So if their recent tweaks don’t satisfy these, they will likely just return to the old model.