Google has been extensively testing new search result displays recently. Perceived snippet length and increased prominence for the URL are the most interesting alterations. A previous study by Microsoft may give a clue as to Google’s intentions.
Increased advertising revenue will make Google the big winner if the reported changes go live. Strong brands and sites with good domains and URLs may also benefit whilst the average user searching for information could be worse off. Here’s why…
Moving the URL above the snippet
The current de facto standard search result format is older than Google and generally consists of the page title then a snippet of approximately 155 characters and the URL at the bottom. The most significant changes in the test results I’ve seen is moving the URL from its usual space at the bottom of a result to between the title and snippet and showing more characters on the first line of the snippet, making it appear shorter as a result. These are just the changes I am seeing, it’s worth noting that the first line snippet change does not appear to be happening for sbrana.com.
Why would Google suddenly decide to test these changes? I think there may be a couple of clues in past research as well as in comments from Eric Schmidt who famously said “Brands are how you sort out the cesspool”, the cesspool being, well, the internet. Strong brands would benefit from the URL appearing more prominently.
Previous research on search result formats
Microsoft publicly stated in an eye tracking study that it would be “interesting to verify whether or not moving the URL to above the snippet would improve users’ experience in navigational search”.
Microsoft’s eye-tracking study explored changes in the presentation of search results. It investigated how users react to different lengths of snippets depending on the type of query; navigational or informational.
The study showed that when the snippet length was increased, performance improved for informational queries but degraded for navigational queries.
We can see from the graphs above that showing shorter snippets, which Google is giving the illusion of by putting more characters on the first line, is likely to result in lower click accuracy and more time taken by users on informational queries but improved accuracy and no change in time taken on navigational queries.
According to Bing, around 30% of all queries are navigational in nature. We can also assume that from Google’s point of view, making brands more visible to users would improve transactional query results too.
Do searchers really use the URL?
In short – yes. Microsoft stated that users tend to URLs more than snippets when viewing results. They asked the participants whether they looked at the URL to help decide if the page will be useful and the same for the snippet. URLs came out ahead.
The report stated “We were particularly surprised to see the overwhelming endorsement of the URL because this is often characterized as a “power-user” feature that is used by only a small percentage of users.”
The outcome of the changes Google is testing seems to depend on the type of query being made. Presuming a roll out of the changes described here, evidence points to Google taking a hit on the performance of informational queries in order to improve navigational and transactional performance.
A few options Google could be considering
I’m assuming that Google is testing more variants than I’ve seen, so here are some ideas about their options. Please leave your thoughts in the comments.
- Changing the results across all search results, exactly as per the test results I’ve witnessed. If Microsoft’s study is correct, the benefit would be for navigational queries at the expense of informational searches. Transactional searches would also be improved as searchers should find brands more easily.
- Could the additional space between the results be designed to have longer snippets inserted? By adding longer snippets and more prominent URLs, maybe Google could have the best of both worlds – improved navigational, transactional and informational searches.
- Alternatively (and this is a bit leftfield), Google could tailor results to the intent of the query or even personalise for users or individual results. If the intent was judged as navigational they could show URL above snippet and vice versa for informational. They could also adjust the snippet size accordingly which could resolve issues with exact match domains. Is “cheap flights” navigational or transactional/informational, for example? Maybe a shorter snippet for cheapflights.com would help.
Removal of the Cached and Similar buttons
In the test results, the “cache” and “similar” links have been removed. I would guess these are not used by the vast majority of users. Creating more whitespace gives the results a cleaner, less distracting look, possibly freeing up space for social or other functionality. The snippet, whilst unchanged, appears shorter to the user as more of it fits on the top line.
Adwords land grab
Google’s Adwords land grab continues with the addition of another 10% or so of space above the fold going to paid results. The larger gaps between results also mean fewer organic results fit into the remaining visible space.