Google’s featured snippets what do they mean?

The use of snippets is important for many websites.

Google uses featured snippets to make it easier to connect us to the information we want, but in doing so could they be endangering the basic model the entire web relies on? We get free information and in return, we used to get served a couple of adverts on the site we look at. But without being able to serve those ads, there’s less incentive to create that content.

Featured snippets explained

Featured snippets are intended to make it easier for you to access the information available on a web page by bringing it directly into the search results.

Sometimes when you do a search, you’ll find that there’s a descriptive box at the top of Google’s results. We call this a “featured snippet.”

https://blog.google/products/search/reintroduction-googles-featured-snippets/​

Here’s an example from the Google blog post where they ‘reintroduce’ them:

So in short it’s taking the text from a page and then featuring it prominently in the search results.

#Google’s shift from connection engine to information engine

#Google has always been a connection engine. However, there appears to be a continuing change in the way in which Google sees itself. The model has always been:

•I enter a search term and Google provides a list of links to content that best answers that search

•I click on a paid or free result

•Google gains money from paid results and advertising on publishers’ sites

•Publishers get paid by the advertising on their sites

Google is increasingly moving towards just showing me the information, lifted directly from the content it indexes. The shift is subtle but it is destroying that model. So now the relationship looks like this;

•I enter a search term and Google provides me the information that best serves the search

•I read the information on Google

Not only is this chain a lot shorter, it also removes the publishers and so Google’s own methods of monetization. The key though is that Google only shows snippets for certain types of results. Results for searches with a clear purchase intent would be naturally less likely to show a snippet but more likely to have PPC ads. Whilst some results do also feature PPC results, in every search I did these were shown above the snippet, with the organic content below.

The potential effects of snippets on websites

When your business relies on traffic from providing specific or niche information then snippets can be devastating. Take the case of Celebrity networth.com as detailed in The Outline. If you want to know what someone famous is worth, you look it up on their site and they give you a number and breakdown of how they reached it. The most important thing is the number, that’s the key information people are looking for.

Back in 2014 Google emailed the owner of the site, Brian Warner, and asked for permission to use the data from the site in the knowledge graph, Brian was not keen…

“I didn’t understand the benefit to us,” he said. “It’s a big ask. Like, ‘hey, let us tap into the most valuable thing that you have, that has taken years to create and we’ve spent literally millions of dollars, and just give it to us for free so we can display it.’ At the end of it, we just said ‘look, we’re not comfortable with this.’”

https://theoutline.com/post/1399/how-google-ate-celebritynetworth-com

However when snippets were introduced Google just went ahead and took the information anyway. The information that Brian had said he didn’t want being used by them.

The result was a loss of 65% of traffic year on year and having to lay off staff as the profitability of the site took a nose dive. That’s the very real impact of Google’s change from connecting you to the information to delivering that information right there on the page. The sites that provide that information, the ones that have actually put the time and effort into creating the content, are the ones that lose out.

#Snippets likely won’t affect all websites as badly as in this example, it is just one example. But other studies consistently show featured snippets reduce clicks on other results, in effect cannibalizing traffic. Take this study from ahrefs:

Why did snippets need reintroducing?

Snippets just weren’t that bright, and there were several high profile examples of them failing. Some snippets appeared to have been removed, especially on more controversial topics.

The problem came about through a combination of not understanding the user intent and not being picky about where information was pulled from. Google’s failure to properly understand intent is something they have got in trouble with before, like with the ‘Unprofessional Hair’ problem.

As Google shifts from connecting to content, to connecting to information directly, intent becomes even more important. Of course without the context of the rest of the content we’re even less able to judge the validity of the information shown. Especially when these snippets also serve to provide information for Google Home Assistant. So there is little context available, beyond the name of the site, to evaluate the information against. It’s simply a case of being told an answer to a question as if it’s ‘The Answer’ rather than ‘an answer’.

This also leads to problems such as the case highlighted by Danny Sullivan in his own announcement post for the new feature:

Source: Google blog

Here we have two queries where the intent is the same. The suitability of reptiles as pets. However in a glass half full / half empty kind of way different people phrase this question differently depending on their initial bias. Google has then served each with a snippet that reinforces that bias. In effect two different answers to the same question depending on the searcher’s expectation of the result. For my results at least, Google appears to have put in a speedy fix for this by stopping the snippet showing on one set of results. Replacing reptiles with goats replicated the effect though, so it doesn’t look to be a fix for the wider issue.

This might not appear to be a big problem when it comes to reptiles or goats but things could potentially get out of hand quickly as they roll this out across more queries and cover more topics (for example politics). Searching around at the moment it looks like political or controversial topics are more restricted, especially in terms of the search content.

It’s not just snippets either

It’s not just content publishers that need to watch out. Google appears to be developing their own tools for popular queries and placing these directly in the search results. This is the result I get for a search on ‘internet speed test’:

I guess for the rest of the sites offering a speed checker it’s just tough. This is different from snippets as it’s not using anyone else’s information. But in this example at least Google appears to be creating a tool and then placing it at the top of the search results above competing tools. I personally feel that sets a bit of a dangerous precedent as this could potentially spread with Google creating more tools, in partnership with more companies, so harming the competition. Competition and diversity are good, but people will be less likely to innovate and create new tools if Google is going to just step in when something gets popular and publish their own tool above everyone else’s in the results.

Google has got into trouble before for placing their own services above competitors. In July of 2017 it received a record-breaking $2.7 billion fine from the EU for antitrust violations with their shopping comparison service:

Google has systematically given prominent placement to its own comparison shopping service: when a consumer enters a query into the Google search engine in relation to which Google’s comparison shopping service wants to show results, these are displayed at or near the top of the search results.

Google has demoted rival comparison shopping services in its search results: rival comparison shopping services appear in Google’s search results on the basis of Google’s generic search algorithms. Google has included a number of criteria in these algorithms, as a result of which rival comparison shopping services are demoted. Evidence shows that even the most highly ranked rival service appears on average only on page four of Google’s search results, and others appear even further down. Google’s own comparison shopping service is not subject to Google’s generic search algorithms, including such demotions.

So Google put their own service higher up in the results than competing services and didn’t make their own service subject to the same ranking algorithms as their competitors.

Source: TechCrunch

What will this mean for content?

The trouble with snippets is that the places this might hit hardest are those which invest more in the creation of their content. Or in other words, the content which has higher editorial standards. If you’re a journalist, someone needs to be paying you to write the content, an editor needs to be paid to sub the content, designers and photographers paid for graphics and images.

So the content which stands to lose the most is arguably the most important, whilst the lower quality, recycled, poorly researched and quickly written content, which needs to generate less revenue as it costs so much less to churn out, remains profitable.

This creates a vicious cycle: as there is more low-quality content it therefore captures a greater share of the audience, higher quality content gets more drowned out and so gets less revenue and diminishes even further.

Mobile users want information delivered more quickly and concisely. We have shorter user journeys on mobile with less time on site and a higher bounce rate. Capturing these visitors with properly optimized content is important as mobile is a key part of Google’s revenue as it continues to dominate the mobile search market.

It does also mean, however, that the user is less likely to visit a site which is funded by ads ironically likely served through Google’s own platform. However Google might be less concerned about this depending on how much importance they are placing on their Home Assistant product. The snippets are used by the AI to provide answers for your questions. Ads don’t factor into this and they could perhaps have calculated they stand to gain more from better information here than the loss from fewer ads served on those sites.

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Google Bulletin Enhances Local Search

What is Bulletin?

Bulletin is a new app published by Google, which allows everyone quickly to create and post news stories which will appear both in the app and on the web…

“Bulletin stories are public and easy to discover: on Google search, through social networks, or via links sent by email and messaging apps”
Source: Google
Bulletin App

Bulletin is currently on trial in two locations in the US: Nashville, TN and Oakland, CA.

Google has termed this new type of news ‘Hyperlocal’ and it’s aimed at people being able to create posts quickly about what they encounter in their immediate area.

Why?

Between Facebook and Google local news has truly suffered. Print media in general has experienced large financial losses and this has been very severe for smaller local news media outlets as well. Online players in this space such as The Gothamist have also collapsed leaving a vacuum in the area.

The bigger question here should really be why Google would want to fill that space. Call me a cynic but I think it’s unlikely that it’s due to some altruistic need on Google’s part to fill the space which it helped to destroy.

If this was the case, if Google was seeking to help replenish local news, then it could instead promote local news sources more heavily over national ones, as Facebook has recently announced it will be doing. Instead Google has seen an opportunity, reinforced by the rise of other locally focused sites such as NextDoor.com.

nextdoor.com

Google has been part of the undoing of a media format and there is now the opportunity to step in and fill that void. But that still creates the question…

Why should Google care about local news at all?

The more personalized the advertising, the more likely we are to respond to it. This includes the source of the advert. You’re more likely to listen to the advice of a friend about their experience with a company than the information on the company blog. This goes for local news ads as well.

According to Local Media Works local media is not only the most trusted source of information but also the best at driving customer interaction. In other words ads served on local content are more effective.

It combines personalization (adverts tailored to you) and contextualization (ads shown at the right time) for incredibly effective advertising. It also, importantly, gives Google an additional data collection point.

Each story you post provides key information beyond just geo-targeting. For example, post a story which shows an event at your local pet store and you might start getting shown ads for dog food.

Even without posting a story, but by just interacting with the content, this provides additional data, showing businesses and geographic areas you’re interested in without Google ever needing to record your physical visit to those places.

What’s the harm?

Some existing sites which specialize in the ‘hyperlocal’ have already encountered issues in how different sections of the same community interact. For example Nextdoor.com has had problems with neighbors ‘racially profiling’ people within their own communities.

It takes more than geography to make a community and there are often existing divisions within a small or ‘local’ area. This could be exasperated by the ‘echo chamber’ problem we already see across search and social platforms. Through personalization of content we don’t see outside of our own world view. In other words the content we see serves only to reinforce rather than challenge our beliefs.

Picking up your local newspaper or reading their stories online is more likely to show you information from across the full demographic of your community. In the case of hyper localization of online content, however, it may serve only to provide us with information from a subsection of our community rather than representing its full diversity.

Editorial standards and fake news

We also need to stop pretending that everyday people are as good of a source for information as trained journalists. Bulletin celebrates the quickness and ease of posting on its platform. It does not, from what I read in the promotional material, mention editorial guidelines or validity of content. Any journalist with a news organization has to adhere to editorial standards, research what they are writing and will at least attempt to convey news with some depth.

If Google chooses to show Bulletin stories in the same section as they show other news stories, – and I’m not sure where else it would show them – then it’s promoting them to the same level as actual editorial content without any of the checks and measures.

My final thoughts on this

I don’t think Google has deliberately set out to replace local news, I certainly don’t think they intended to harm the industry. However it would appear that local news is in decline and there is a gap in the market for Google to step into with Bulletin. The way it’s done this is typically clever, moving yet more content off proprietary sites which can show advertising or generate revenue in whatever way they darn well like, right on to a platform owned and controlled by Google (ahem AMP, cough cough).

Google has also embraced the idea that we can all be part of the news. We can all share events locally and connect with each other through our local postings. After the failure of Google Plus I’m not sure how far the ‘connecting’ side of things will go but we’ll have to wait and see on that one.

On the surface it sounds like a good idea, but the ramifications for local news sites could be severe, especially if Google prioritizes content from its own service over that of other providers. It’s also creating further problems with placing equal or even more weight on unverified and unchecked content compared to that of a reputable publisher.

This could end up as little more than another version of Yell, mostly used only by businesses to promote events, or it could really take off like a localized version of Twitter with people in masse connecting and sharing within their communities. The crucial thing is that it doesn’t become a replacement for all local news.

#ABCO #Technology teaches a course for web development, which includes social media strategies. Call our campus between 9 AM and 6 PM Monday through Friday at: (310) 216-3067.

Email your questions to: info@abcotechnology.edu

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ABCO Technology is located at:
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Los Angeles, Ca. 90304

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