Evolution of search engine results

Remember how the search engine results pages used to look? Our SEO Manager, Ian McCartney, remembers it well. But how has Google changed the way it presents its search results?

Ten blue links. How simple life used to be. And how plain.

You used your phone for calls, texts, and maybe the odd cheeky game of Space Impact, Snake, or Johnny Crash Does Texas. You couldn't Uber a lift home with it, or Tinder a date, or flick unwanted chat heads into the spot marked X, or head out in search of some fresh new Pokéstops. Essentially your phone was a phone, with a bit of functionality bolted on to it. Now, you hold the whole digital world right there in the palm of your hand ... (as long as you're not on an underground transit system, that is!)

And how simple search engine results pages (SERPs) used to be, too. Essentially they consisted of what's now referred to as the Ten Blue Links. Years pass, meanwhile conjecture about the "death" of SEO comes and goes. But there's no indication that the Blue Links are going to disappear into the air like the Ten Green Bottles (sure, they now vary in number between 6 and 10 dependent on query, but that’s largely a structural thing).

That said, the Google SERPs have changed fairly extensively over time. Some of these changes have appeared as if by stealth, others have been more noticeable. Either way, though, one thing's for sure - the SERPs will continue to evolve and keep seeking newer and better ways to serve user experience.

Beyond the Ten Blue Links

So, SERPs are changing. And so too, it would appear, is the nature of search itself.

Google software engineer Paul Haahr summed it all up - very succinctly in my opinion - at the SMX West conference earlier this year, when he had this to say:

"We’re going more and more into a world where search is being thought of as an assistant to all parts of your life."

What this means is that where once search may have told you what a pizza was, search will now:

  • guide you to video tutorials on how to make them
  • show you a picture of a pizza, incase you didn't know what it looked like
  • show you the nutritional content of a pizza (nutritional content is king, after all!)
  • show you a map with knife & fork roundels planted into it indicating local pizza outlets
  • suggest related searches e.g. “dough” "cheese” “mozzarella”

What was once a fairly flat search has become a layered search. If the SERPs are a pizza, then the trick is in working out how many slices the user needs, with the right mix toppings to suit users' tastes (wherever they may be) and serve it all up as fast as possible. With some extra stuff on the side!

Three-dimensional SERPs

Essentially, what we are beginning to see is movement towards a three-dimensional SERP. A set of results that addresses intention, location, past time (user history) and future time (upcoming events). How Google goes about addressing user experience isn't entirely secret. The company puts the user first - and despite its advances deep into AI territory with DeepMind, it still uses actual human beings to rate the quality of the results it serves, based on a variety of metrics.

The other thing Google does - perhaps more often than many folk notice - is experiment constantly. Oftentimes you may hear of someone spotting a minor change in the SERPs and later see it roll out across the user base, sometimes not. Paul Haahr also stated at SMX that experimentation may actually be far more widespread than we realise:

“I should just mention that we run a lot of experiments. It is very rare if you do a search on Google and you’re not in at least one experiment.”

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose?

Some changes, then, may be temporary, others not. One big change of 2016 so far was the removal of ads at the right hand side of the page. While SEOs are concerned with organic search, paid search obviously affects SEO in one very simple way - its placement has a knock-on effect, meaning that rate of clicks through from SERPs may be affected. When the right-hand side PPC ads departed, there was quite a lot of uncertainty within certain quarters of the SEOsphere. Would the change wreak havoc, decimate organic visits, upset CTRs? In the end, none of these things happened.

Changes have of course meant that organic search is pushed further down the page in some instances. But while this is the case, it's unlikely that organic results will ever be 86’d the way right-hand ads were. Why not? Because organic search is what drives Google - and without it, the on-page real estate for ads would be severely diminished. It would be - in a way - like a commercial television station ripping out all of its factual and drama programming, and serving up non-stop ads. But it's not an opposition - the relationship between ad and non-ad content is symbiotic and mutually beneficial.

Upward mobility

So far, so desktop. But what about mobile? The two biggies here are location and voice. If you're on a mobile device, chances are you're out and about. Google's Venice update about 4 years ago sought to meet the challenges of mobile, enabling the search engine to be "better able to detect when both queries and documents are local to the user" and serve results specific to a location.

And they haven't stopped since, serving not just more geographically tailored results, but results that have been optimised for mobile devices. Currently the Accelerated Mobile Pages initiative is changing the mobile experience for the better – constructing pages that benefit from "various technical and architectural approaches that prioritize speed to provide a faster experience for users". And they look pretty neat in the SERPs too.

As for voice search, it remains to be seen just how big its take-up will be. Effectively we've been conditioned to search in a certain way, mainly by typing in a set of keywords, e.g. "bicycle repair Glasgow, "iPhone screen repair" and so on (or if you're me, "sharks" "ufo sightings" and "paranormal phenomena"). But when the mind is freed from the distraction of arduous two-finger QWERTY typing, it suddenly gets more demanding. Have you ever noticed how when you use Siri or Google voice search, you instinctively adopt a much more demanding and interrogative approach, along the following lines:

  • Where is the nearest bicycle repair shop to Mount Florida?
  • Does iPhone screen repair invalidate warranty?
  • Where are the worlds’ most shark infested waters?
  • What do ghosts eat for breakfast?

At the moment voice search still has novelty factor, but there's no doubt that Google will be learning a lot from what people say after they go "OK Google" and using it to serve an ever-more personal, tailored and intelligent set of results, regardless of the mode of input.

Content for context

And what about the future? Three factors, for me, that always loom large in search are context, linguistics and user experience. These are things that will only become obsolete when humans themselves are obsolete. The SERPs will evolve, but these are the factors that will drive their evolution. People will search more, not less. SERPs will become more intuitive and irrelevant results less intrusive. And the challenge of content will become greater - because as context becomes ever-more important, there will be a virtually limitless amount of opportunities to serve content that fits that context.

Oh, and apparently ghosts have "terriFRIED EGGS" for breakfast. Not the funniest joke that ever fell out of a Christmas cracker (or appeared in a search result). But hey, this is only really just the beginning. Organic search is still very much in the ascendancy.

By Ian McCartney, SEO Manager