Gavin Hirst - Monday 27th July 2020


How does Google’s SERP layout affect searcher behaviour?

The ever-changing landscape of SEO means that anyone working in our sector must keep abreast of those changes and adapt our strategies to meet the ever-growing demands of the searcher.

Google is the biggest driver of change within our sector.

Over the past five years, the way search results pages (SERPs) are laid out and presented to the searcher has changed dramatically.

Remember a time before featured snippets? No, us neither.

Featured snippets were officially rolled out around 2016 (although quick answer boxes had been spotted for specific search results as early as 2013 although these were not widely rolled out) and have since become a focus of a lot of attention for SEOs.

They are of course just one of hundreds of changes that the search giant has made to the way the SERPs are laid out over the past 5 years and those changes can have a huge impact on your rankings and the rankings of your clients.

But just how much does the layout of the SERP affect user behaviour?

The changing face of the SERPs

Unfortunately, we simply do not have the resources here at Digital Hothouse to answer those questions ourselves. Thankfully, there are plenty of companies out there that do.

There have been countless studies (and lots of data) out there to show how people use Google’s SERPs. They typically focus on things like what people focus on and what people ignore.

These studies will often focus on things like ‘the impact of paid results on organic clicks’ and ‘how local map pack results impact on click-through rate’.

These studies can tell you all sorts of fascinating things and definitely help to shape the strategies we are putting in place for our clients.

However, we recently came across an excellent study carried out by Stephen Job and his team at Moz. Instead of the usual type of study, they wanted to measure the actual user reaction to and behaviour with SERPs.

They set out with a plan to “assess the impact that SERP layouts and design have on user searching behaviour and information retrieval in Google.”

You can read more about the methodology and over in this excellent blog. What we wanted to take a closer look at were the results of their testing.

The results of biometric testing

Using biometrics, Stephen and his team were able to analyse the way people actually engaged with the SERPs which were included in their testing and some of the results seemed to flip other outcomes on their head.

Featured Snippets

Featured Snippet Example 2020

One of the SERP features that SEOs are most interested in are featured snippets. According to a study by Ahrefs, featured snippets get 8.6% of clicks while 19.6% go to the first natural search below it, but when no featured snippet is present, 26% of clicks go to the first result.

When Google announced that sites that held the featured snippet would no longer also have a place within the organic ‘blue links’, this set SEOs off in a panic. Would this mean that SEOs would actively start de-optimising pages to try and avoid the featured snippet?

The results of Stephen’s research seems to suggest otherwise.

“In the information-based searches, we found that featured snippets actually attracted the most fixations. They were consistently the first element viewed by users and were where users spent the most time gazing.”

This suggests that featured snippets are still an extremely valuable piece of real estate, especially if you are targeting question-based keywords with a more informational search intent.

People Also Ask (PAA)

PAA Example 2020

Another area of real estate that SEOs are often interested in is the People Also Ask element. These tend to enjoy a high position on the SERP for question-based queries and they seem an attractive option for SEOs to target.

But does anyone actually click on them?

Other than SEOs carrying out keyword research, potentially not.

Stephen’s team found that after viewing the featured snippets, most people scrolled straight past the PAA section to the organic results. Whilst some did gaze back at them, clicks to the PAA element were extremely low.

This is not to say that you still shouldn’t target them with the keywords you are targeting. They are still highly relevant to the initial search query, however what Stephen’s research found was that the addition of a PAA element does not distract users as they journey through the SERP.

The study also looked at the knowledge panel and there were some interesting results here, especially when pricing became visible. Make sure you check out the full blog for more info on this.

Location searches

Local Pack Example 2020

When we came across this brilliant piece of research, one of the key areas we were interested in was the location search results. For us, local SEO has become one of the key areas we focus on for a number of clients where location searches are highly prominent within the sector.

We have always felt that location map pack results are incredibly important to the overall success of our SEO strategies.

In order to deliver a location search results, Stephen and his team included ‘near me’ in the search query.

In their initial keyword search, they found that the majority of a searcher’s time was spent on the local listings and not the map and organic listings. This resonates with our own feelings at Digital Hothouse about the importance of appearing in those all-important local listings (appearing in the top three is crucial).

Interestingly, they conducted another search which delivered a product slider above the local listing and this had a big impact on searcher behaviour and sentiment.

Users still spent more time on the local listings, however, the map section now drove more clicks. The product ‘row’ was found to be less engaging, drawing no clicks and less gaze time than other elements in the SERP.

It appears that in this example, the layout of the SERP has a negative impact on the searcher’s emotions as they perhaps deem the product row to be irrelevant to their search query and gets in the way of the information they are trying to find.

Summary

We found the results of Stephen and his team’s research extremely fascinating and we urge you to head over there and spend 10 minutes reading over the complete findings of the study. For us, it confirmed a lot of what we are focussing on is correct.

Featured snippets still hold a lot of value for information-based search queries and local listings are extremely important for businesses with a local focus.

Here is the summary of Stephen’s findings:

  1. The nature of the search greatly changes the engagement behaviour, even when similar SERP layouts are displayed. (Which is probably why they are so heavily split-tested).
  2. Featured snippets are highly effective for information-based searching, and while they led to some 33% of users choosing not to follow through to the site after finding the answer, two-thirds still clicked through to the website (which is very different from the data we have seen in previous studies).
  3. Local listings (especially when served without a shopping bar) are engaging and give users essential information in an effective format.
  4. Even with the addition of Knowledge Graph, “People also ask”, and featured snippets, more traditional PPC ads and SEO listings still play a big role in searching behaviour.

One thing to remember is that these results are not conclusive. They provide us with some great insights from a sample of people used as part of the study. What we need to remember as SEOs is that the behaviour of searchers is all about context. What do users expect to see when they search in a certain way and how does the layout of the SERP impact the actions they take?

One thing to ensure is that you are analysing the SERPs for all the keywords you are targeting. It’s important to understand their layout so you can better understand and predict the expected user behaviour on that SERP.

We love that there are guys out there like Moz (and Stephen and his team) that are carrying out this awesome research, helping us all to get such great insights into searcher behaviour. Cheers guys!

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