SERP News: COVID-19 Means Major Changes to Google’s SERP
Where do I start? The whole world is “topsy-turvy” as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on our society. To be honest, it’s a bit hard to write about SEO at a time like this. So let me begin by saying I hope you are well and safe (and staying indoors as much as possible).
That said, there is a lot of news to get to, not the least of which is how the Coronavirus is impacting the search marketing industry. There are a significant number of changes to the SERP, to Google My Business listings, to Google Ads, etc., that arise from the current pandemic. So we’ll get to that.
At the same time, Google has made other serious changes to the SERP including the migration of right-side Featured Snippets and the release of stricter FAQ markup guidelines. So we’ll get to that as well.
This is the April 2020 edition of the SERP news.
Changes to the SERP, Google My Business, and Google Ads Due to COVID-19
There’s a lot to get to here. The Coronavirus has brought up a host of issues for Google to deal with which has subsequently brought more than a few changes to the SERP and beyond. I’m breaking up these updates into those that impact the SERP and what shows on it per se, those that change practices related to Google My Business, and those updates that impact the ads that appear on the SERP.
COVID-19 SERP Updates
Let’s start off with the important changes and updates Google has made to both make it easier for users to access information on COVID-19 as well as the updates meant to help sites deal with the crisis.
SERP Features to Make COVID-19 Info Accessible
To make obtaining critical information on the Coronavirus easier to access, Google has implemented the use of multiple features. The implementation of these features has evolved with time. As the virus started to spread Google was showing information on anything from its governmental warnings to a general summary of the virus within the SOS Panel.
A COVID-19 alert shown for a local health query
As the situation progressed for the worse, Google launched a specific COVID-19 website providing information on the virus. The site offers information on the spread of the virus per nation, indicates recent alerts, and even provides a segue to donate to relief efforts.
Google wasn’t happy with users having to access a specific URL to get a deep look at the virus (which makes sense because who outside of the SEO community knew the URL anyway). By the time late March rolled around, Google had all but transplanted its COVID-19 specific site to the SERP itself.
As of the writing of this post all sorts of ‘corona related’ searches bring up the following:
This is simply a prolific amount of easily accessed COVID-19 information. Really, kudos to Google. The sidebar showing anything from symptoms of COVID-19 to the latest stats is sticky and therefore follows you down the page. Clicking on a tab within the sidebar reloads a SERP related to that specific tab while keeping both the sidebar and the info at the right of the main results column visible. (See my thoughts on the long term implications of this format in the last section of this post.)
Speaking of the info to the right of the main results column, here Google shows a panel of stats (that indicates when they were last updated) atop a panel of basic information on the virus.
Clicking on the data panel brings you to a specific page that offers a deep-dive into how the virus has spread on a per-country basis.
All-in-all, this is a very streamlined way to find accurate info on the virus.
Search Engine Land’s George Nguyen put together a great resource showing how Google’s COVID-19 SERPs have evolved. This is definitely worth a read.
New Ways for Sites to Manage Their Organic Listings During the COVID-19 Crisis
Schema.org has released new structured data markup that will definitely help websites manage their organic listings amid the current crisis. The markup, which Google said it supports, includes formats that:
- Indicate if a website represents a Coronavirus testing facility
- Tells users that an event was either canceled, postponed, rescheduled, etc.
- Allow sites to produce a label that tells users the site presents a special announcement on it
Google’s Advice on How to Operate Sites During COVID-19
Google doesn’t generally hand out words of wisdom to site owners that tell them how to manage their sites. However, these are certainly not normal times. Accordingly, Google has released a set of recommendations advising sites on how to structure things should their site/business need to temporarily suspend operations.
Chief among these recommendations is not to disable your site. Google calls doing so an “extreme measure” but does give advice on how to do so. I think that disabling your site being a last resort should go without saying. Starting back up would be a nightmare and in the meantime, your client base has no idea what’s what.
Some better ideas offered by the search engine include:
- Disabling the shopping cart
- Creating pop-ups with information on the site’s status (be sure to follow Google’s guidelines for doing so)
- Excluding certain products from appearing
Google has also offered advice to advertisers, small businesses and medical clinics as well.
More than that, Google has gone so far as to offer specific advice to health sites. Such advice tells health sites that when talking about COVID-19 it is best to use language that is easy to understand, titles that accurately reflect the page’s content, etc.
COVID-19 Related Changes To Google My Business, Local Listings, & Local Search Results
Due to the economic fallout from the Coronavirus, there are a lot of changes for the world of local SEO to chew on. Local businesses have had their world turned upside down and with that comes changes to how they operate on the SERP and within Google My Business.
Updated Hours for Businesses Impacted by COVID-19
As many areas have shuttered large amounts of their local industry and with businesses that have remained open changing how they operate, Google has advised that such locations update their hours of operation within Google My Business. Further, Google is calling on such businesses to explain the current status of their operations within the business description.
Google Creates ‘Temporary Closed’ Status Inside Google My Business
Temporarily closed. Local SEOs have wanted it for a while and it only took the Coronavirus for them to get it. With many businesses having to close their doors until the pandemic passes, Google has enabled a ‘Temporarily Closed’ status inside Google My Business.
A Knowledge Panel for a retail store showing the ‘Temporary Closed’ status
There were some complaints on Twitter that Google was removing the entire listing when the status was enabled. As of the time of this writing, I do see Local Panel’s showing the ‘Temporarily Closed’ status out in the wild.
Local Listings May Now Contain ‘Takeaway’ Status within the Business Name
I like this one. Since many restaurants have gone to a takeout only model, Google is allowing such eateries to indicate as such within their listing’s title. That is, Google is allowing restaurants to add their delivery status to their business listing name. Adding “Delivery Available” to your listing name does not seem to be permanent but is a temporary exception to better adjust to these extraordinary circumstances. Note, Google did not officially update its guidelines to reflect this change.
To that, Google has begun automatically showing cards for delivery and takeout as the first two options within the Discover More Places carousel related to restaurants. This makes TOTAL sense since most folks are not meant to be out and finding places that deliver are the most relevant.
Discover more places showing ‘Takeout’ and ‘Delivery’ options as the initial cards for all eatery related queries
To this, Google has also begun showing attributes related to delivery and takeout within the Local Panel for restaurants, etc.
Google Reviews Other GMB Elements Not Functioning
As of the writing of this post, you cannot leave a review nor reply to a review. At the same time, you cannot create a new short name and all Q&A elements are inaccessible. Google has officially recognized these issues within its support documents. Per Google’s statement, these problems are directly connected to COVID-19.
Trying to leave a review results in a pop-up that never appears preventing any reviews from being left
These issues appear to extend beyond those reported by Google. To this, Google has said that it’s Google My Business support response time is far slower than usual.
Google Ads Policy Change in Response to COVID-19
No advertising face masks on the SERP. As of March 11th, Google put a stop to any ads offering face masks. This was done to prevent what Google calls “misleading” content from appearing. This basically means that Google does not want anyone pushing face masks that have no or limited medical benefit as some sort of COVID-19 panacea.
You have to be some sort of special person to do that to begin with, but it appears the world is filled with all sorts of these ‘special’ people which means Google had to act accordingly.
Further, Google has updated its ad policy to prevent ads that “potentially capitalizes on or lacks reasonable sensitivity towards a… public health emergency, or other tragic event.” Per Google, this includes price gouging supplies vital to fighting the crisis, etc.
Good on Google!
Google Moves Right-Side Featured Snippets to the Main Results
Back in January 2020 (which seems like forever ago), Google duplicated Featured Snippet URLs. One of the hiccups at the time surrounded Explore Panels, or ‘right-side Featured Snippets’. These fellas were sort of a hybrid of Knowledge Panels and Featured Snippets and like their name implies appeared to the right of the organic results. At the time of deduplication, the URLs that represented these right-side snippets were also deduplicated. Doing so became a major problem for sites. Deduplicating these URLs meant that there was no representation within the main results column. The only time such URLs appeared was within the Explore Panel at the right of the main results. Accordingly, CTR for these URLs fell off a freaking cliff.
To their credit, Google reinserted the duplicated URL for right-side Featured Snippets with a plan to move these snippets into the main results at some point. That point is now. Last month, I reported that Google had halved the number of right-side Featured Snippets that showed on the SERP. At the time, I speculated that this may be the beginning of the end for Featured Snippets to the right of the results (as in, why move what shouldn’t be there to begin with…). That narrative seems to have played itself out.
On March 18th, our SERP Feature Tracker showed that Explore Panels were no more:
After looking into the data at the keyword level I saw that these had, in fact, moved to the main results column, just as Google said they would. What’s interesting here is that unlike your typical Featured Snippet, the Explore Panel does not necessarily rank at the top spot on the SERP.
An Explore Panel/Featured Snippet that at one time appeared to the right of the results now shows in the main column on the SERP
The SERP Roundup Covering March 2020
Despite the fact that Google has been busy dealing with COVID-19 the search engine still gave us the gift of updates and tests to the SERP and its features. In fact, contrary to what you may have expected there are plenty of items to discuss!
Here’s what changed over the course of the month.
NoFollow Now Officially a Hint for Indexing Purposes
Well, the day has finally arrived. As of March 1st, Google is now treating the nofollow directive as merely a hint vis-a-vis crawling and indexing. This means that a link that has nofollow status, may actually be followed with the page linked to being crawled and then indexed.
Does this practically change anything? Not really.
Google to Go Full-on Mobile-First by September
Google plans on moving every site over to its mobile-first index by September 2020. The announcement was made before the whole COVID-19 mess we’re in so who knows if Google will stick to the date as Google often changes these sorts of deadlines even without there being a global pandemic.
Does this practically change anything? Not really.
Stricter FAQ Guidelines Released
Sites abusing the FAQ markup has become well known over the past few months. On March 2nd, Google announced that you cannot apply the markup for the same FAQ over and over and over and over again. Meaning, if you have the same FAQ on multiple pages, you can mark it up… once.
The FAQ markup as implemented on the Google SERP
Does this solve the FAQ ‘spam’ out there? No, but it’s a great start!
Google Will Not Limit Paywalled News Content
Google said it will continue to show news content that sits behind paywalls on the SERP. This comes amid pressure for Google to stop doing as such so that users looking for info on COVID-19 only find what they can actually access.
On the one hand, I understand where Google is coming from in that it wants to best news to show on the SERP. But let’s be real… how many people are going to buy a subscription just to read one article when there are plenty of free sites out there? So in all practicality, Google is only making it harder for the vast majority of people to access important information. Is that what’s really good for the user?
Key Moments Come to Multiple Videos
For the past few months, Google has been giving its mobile users a breakdown of what’s in a video (at times). That is, Google has been breaking down some videos on the mobile SERP into ‘key moments.’ These key moments were only shown for one video on the mobile SERP at a time. Until now. It’s been reported that Google is now showing ‘key moments’ for multiple videos on the same SERP.
Wowsers, Key Moments (AKA “in this video”) on steroids in this test.
Previously, this feature would only show in position #1 in a video carousel on mobile.
Now being triggered in all sorts of areas, but now with the ability to hide/expand results.
cc YT SEO guru @aleyda pic.twitter.com/LVOsAEafSW
— Brodie Clark (@brodieseo) March 10, 2020
There’s a strong case to make that a user would skim these key moments to see which video is more relevant. This would be all the more applicable if the user is after a highly-specific piece of content and is not interested in watching the entire video.
At the same time, a Featured Snippet for a YouTube video with timestamps was found on the desktop SERP. The Featured Snippet appeared with just the timestamps, i.e., there was no video. Does this mean ‘key moments’ are coming to desktop? I don’t know. What are you looking at me for?!
Car Dealerships Get Multiple Listings while All Photos and Videos Must be Reviewed
Two interesting updates to Google My Business (that are unrelated to COVID-19):
- Google says that any image or video uploaded to Google My Business will be reviewed before it gets published. The review process can make use of both machines and human review. Note, this is not referring to user-generated content.
- Google has said that a car dealership can now have separate listings for every brand it sells. In other words, if Dave’s Dealership sells Hondas and Toyotas the business can set up one listing for Dave’s Dealership – Honda and one for Dave’s Dealership – Toyota even though both brands are sold at the same physical location. (For more information I recommend you check out Greg Gifford’s take on the change.)
Number of People Mentioning Comes to Reviews
Google was seen testing reviews that indicated how many people mentioned a specific term within the listing’s reviews. In other words, let’s say that a review for a car mechanic mentioned the word “cleaning” in it. The test would have had the word “cleaning” bolded with the total number of other reviews that mention the specific phraseology indicated as well.
Reviews showing the number of times a term has been mentioned by other users (Image Source: SERoundtable.com via Andy Simpson)
Mobile Health Knowledge Panels Gets a “Specialists” Tab
Google updated its mobile version of the Health Panel by adding a ‘Specialists tab’. The new tab lists the relevant specialists related to the panel’s health condition. Clicking on a specific specialist takes you to a new SERP that shows a Local Pack for such doctors.
The Health Panel on mobile now contains a tab for ‘Specialists’
Similarly, I found that the desktop SERP now sports a sub-category of a specific health topic. Here, clicking on a variation brings up a new SERP that showcases a Health Panel on that specific health condition.
A new form of Health Panel lists variations of the condition with each tab leading to a new SERP
Accident Lawyers Get Local Service Ads as No Ads to be Allowed for Government Docs & Services
Some interesting news in the world of ads on the SERP (again, other than what was discussed above in relation to COVID-19). First, personal injury lawyers (you know the kinda sketchy fellows that target seniors with daytime TV ad spots) can now appear within Local Service Ads. Yep, that is bizarre as these ads are “guaranteed” by Google. That is, Google ‘guarantees’ the providers listed in these ads. I didn’t know that there was a personal injury lawyer that was upstanding enough to qualify for Google’s guarantee but I guess I am wrong about my perception of such lawyers.
Also, come May 26, 2020, Google says that it will not allow ads that help expedite governmental documents and services to appear on the SERP. The expedition of any form of document (i.e., a passport) that a person can obtain directly from the government themselves will no longer qualify for Google Ads.
A Sticky Situation
It’s even harder to end off a post like this than it is to start it. I don’t want to rehash all of the finer points that I already went into above in some sort of attempt at a quick summary. I just want to say two things:
1. The sticky side menu that Google is using on its “COVID-19 SERPs” is a great way to segment results, cater to multiple intents, or extend the user’s journey. I would think Google has realized this themselves. I think we could see various incarnations of it in the future. I’ve talked about the problem Google faces in offering personalized results while aiming to show a diverse set of results at the same time, a mutually exclusive goal. The multi-tabbed sticky menu could be a way to segment results in all sorts of ways and as a result, offer both personalization and diversity at the same time!
2. Stay healthy, stay indoors, and stay in contact with people (remotely).
I hope everyone reading this is well and that they and their family’s stay as such.