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Google’s shifts from authority to content diversity on the SERP

Author: Mordy Oberstein

A graphic representation of the “other sites say” google search feature on top of the traditional featured snippet format, with an image of author mordy oberstein in the bottom left corner

For a while now, I’ve considered Google to be a search engine with a strong bent on becoming what I think of as an “authority engine”—sure, it wants to provide results that you can visit to find the information you need, but at the same time, there’s a clear desire on Google’s part to become the go-to authority.


Google wants to be the resource that people rely on not only to direct them to the information they’re seeking, but also to be the authority that actually provides that information. If you search for things like “what is the weather in nyc” or “yankee game score,” for example, you can find the answers without ever clicking on a single result.


Google is not just a search engine—it’s an answer engine. To me, that’s ultimately why it’s the “authority engine.”


But, I think that’s been changing recently and will change further. In this article, we’ll go over:


Google: From search engine to information provider to authority


Fundamentally, a search engine is a facilitator. As a pure construct, a search engine does not provide you with any information, it merely leads you to sources that do.


Sometime around 2015, Google changed that paradigm: In 2013, we saw the launch of a carousel presenting a listing of local establishments. In 2014, Google introduced the featured snippet, a box that appears at the top of the results presenting a snippet of information found on a web page, along with a link to that page.


A screenshot of the google search results for the query “what is the serp” with a featured snippet answer
An example of a featured snippet on the Google SERP.

Then, in 2016, Google presented us with the direct answer, which does as it says—provides you with the direct answer to your question:


A screenshot of a direct answer on Google Search for the query “how old is google”

In the years that followed, Google has only increased its investment in SERP features and the information they contain. Featured snippets started to take on multiple forms, including video featured snippets and a snippet that basically functioned as a direct answer.


Screenshot of a google search result showing a video featured snippet for the query “how to tie a tie”

As time went on, Google’s Knowledge Graph vastly improved and all sorts of information became directly available in knowledge panels. Now, it’s to the point where these SERPs resemble what SEO veteran Dan Shure calls “micro-sites.”


A screenshot of the Google results for the query “the big lebowski”
Google’s knowledge graph has allowed it to offer an experience on the SERP that almost resembles a website.

The point is, we have been living in an era where Google has turned the SERP and, subsequently, its own identity into something other than that of a facilitator. Google has become a very powerful provider of information.


Google is no longer exclusively a search engine and it hasn’t been for a long time. It has become a knowledge provider and, in being a provider of information, it has become a knowledge authority.


Why Google became a knowledge authority


Many search marketers will tell you that Google started providing information directly on the SERP so as to keep users within its ecosystem. The prevailing theory is that Google wants to keep users on its properties, moving them from one set of results to the next, because it affords more opportunity for ad placements, which generate revenue for Google.


Let’s run through an example: Say, I run a query for “yankee stadium.” I might (and did) get this:


Google search results for the query “yankee stadium”

Notice the ads that dominate the left side of the results page. Now, if I scroll down a bit, I would see the “People also search for” feature at the bottom of the knowledge panel:


A screenshot of the the people also search for section of the Google knowledge panel for yankee stadium

I might then click on the option to scope out another New York stadium, Citi Field, only to move to a new SERP with new ads:


A screenshot of the google search results for citi field, with an ad in the knowledge panel

The more information on the page, the more I stay on Google, the more opportunity to move me to another set of results, and the greater the chance I will eventually click on an ad. That’s the theory.


Sure, this sort of construct will lead to more ad placement and more revenue, all other things being equal. What bothers me about this theory is that myopically engineering its user experience to drive engagement with search ads is not entirely in Google’s character.


I’ve always found Google to play the long game. Take Google Search Console, for example: Instead of creating a data vacuum (that would surely be filled by third-party tools), Google offers free data that becomes the primary tool of all SEOs, thus allowing them to create better sites and content. That’s a long-term, “big thinking” play.


Offering more entry points to more SERPs for the sake of more ad placement is not a long-term, “big thinking” strategy and, to me, isn’t how Google typically operates.


So, why double down on providing information right on the SERP if not to keep users within its own ecosystem to generate more ad revenue? What’s the long-term play here?


It’s authority.


Google providing users with information directly makes it the authority and not the sites it would have otherwise facilitated.


Providing others with knowledge—moving them from helplessness towards empowerment—is an extremely potent relationship. By sending you to other sites, all Google was doing was facilitating you feeling that powerful dynamic with whatever website you landed on. “Why shouldn’t we get in on that?” decision makers at Google might have thought. And they did. Google started to provide a slew of information, creating the association that it is directly the knowledge provider and the authority.


That’s a very important association to create for a search engine. The entire idea of a search engine is that users trust them to provide a path to the most substantial information. What fosters that sense more than actually providing that sought-after information?


In the business context, the logic was likely that users would be more inclined to return if they felt they could come to one place with expedited access to the information they were seeking, from a platform they trust as the purveyor of that information. Google decided to reinforce a far deeper and far more powerful latent association amongst its user base (i.e., as an authoritative knowledge provider) because doing so fosters a unique bond. This bond, in turn, creates and subsequently reinforces that latent notion that Google is where we should go for information.


Google’s association with information (and not just information retrieval) urges users to seek out the platform for all of their information needs. The play here seems to be that the more users think of Google as the go-to source for information, the more they will return to the platform and the more ads Google can serve them.


Google is a for-profit company. However, the move to show more information on the SERP itself (which may downgrade the urgency for clicks to websites) is not primarily about the immediate return on investment. It’s about Google creating a certain identity for itself so that, long-term, users will view the platform a certain way—all of which leads to increased use, which ultimately leads to more ad clicks.


Google’s featured snippets have been a very important part of this construct. However, they are quickly moving away from being a part of the “pure authority paradigm” and perhaps it says a lot about the state of the world’s most popular search engine.


How Google leveraged featured snippets for authority


Google stores information about entities in its knowledge graph. This enables it to offer information without any connection to a URL.


However, most of the information out there in the ether that is the web exists on web pages. This presents a bit of a problem for a platform looking to become the source of information.


A screenshot of the google results for the query “who won the world series 1998”
An example of Google’s direct answers which presents information without connection to a URL.

The solution? Featured snippets.


Featured snippets enable Google to directly answer users’ queries while not actually owning the content. While still somewhat controversial, in many ways, it’s a win-win.


Sites get their URL prominently displayed at the top of Google’s results which, in many cases, could positively impact clickthrough rate. Conversely, Google gets to position itself as a knowledge authority by presenting a snippet of information on the SERP.


How exactly does Google use the featured snippet to position itself as a knowledge authority if the content within it belongs to a specific website? For starters, the content belonging to a website and the content being perceived as belonging to a website are two different things.


When content is displayed within the featured snippet, while the URL that hosts the content is present, it’s not exactly prominent. The content itself almost seems to exist separate from the URL, at least initially.


A screenshot of the google results for the query “which laptops are the best,” showing a featured snippet with a list of laptop models
Within a featured snippet, the content is dominant, whereas the URL is far less prominent.

Moreover, Google employs methods with which to directly answer the user’s question. One such method is bolding the most relevant text within the snippet:


A screenshot of the google featured snippet for the query “was babe ruth good”

There is also a featured snippet format that is essentially a direct answer with an accentual snippet of content:


A screenshot of a featured snippet showing when babe ruth hit his 714th home run

For the record, I’m not saying Google is doing anything nefarious. Again, I think what you see here generally works for both Google and site owners. Moreover, the formats shown above give users what they want: quick and immediate access to information.


But, featured snippets show Google moving beyond the authority dynamic


It all sounds perfect: Google, features your content prominently so that your sites earn more traffic. The search engine gets to position itself as the market leader, bringing in more searches and more potential ad revenue, and you get more clicks (in theory).


It was all going so well until some folks spotted a few tests to the format of featured snippets. Google runs hundreds (if not thousands) of tests on what it shows in the SERP and how it shows it. What makes these limited tests noteworthy?


The answer is diversification within the featured snippet.


Here’s the first test of featured snippets that got me thinking that things may be changing:



Gone is the big bold lettering telling you the answer before you get to the snippet of content. Instead, there is a header that says “From the web.”


Explicitly telling users that what they are about to read comes from sources across the web stands in sharp contrast to Google positioning itself as the author by using the featured snippet to directly answer the query.


Moreover, if you start reading the actual snippet of content, not only do you see multiple URLs further diluting the featured snippets’ focus on authority, but the content itself addresses the query from different angles. Each section on the snippet (with its corresponding URL) is a unique review of a product. The content is not cohesive. It doesn’t all come together to form one flowing paragraph that represents the one true answer.


This same concept is reflected in the second test of featured snippets that was discovered around the same time:



In fact, in this instance, Google is explicitly sharing the “authority wealth” with a header below the main snippet that reads “Other sites say.”


Coincidentally (or not), less than a month later Google was seen displaying a new feature termed the “More about” feature. Here again, Google presents a diverse set of content snippets attached to URLs. Seeing this live (not merely as a test to the SERP) made me think the sands have significantly shifted.


A screenshot of Google’s “More about” SERP feature for the query “how to apply for a small business loan”
Google’s “More about” SERP feature.

This is interesting because the query that brings up the carousel (shown above) would be prime material for a featured snippet that rattles off a list of things you need to do in order to apply for a loan, much the way it does for most other queries of this nature, as shown below.


A screenshot of a featured snippet showing a list for the query “how to apply to college”

Clearly, something has changed. For the record, it’s not as though the ability to focus on content and URL diversity within the featured snippet is a new development—Bing has been using this very model for its version of featured snippets for years.


A screenshot of the bing featured snippet for the query “is fish good for you,” showing two snippets and sources.
Bing has long shown multiple snippets of content along with multiple URLs in its version of featured snippets.

Furthermore, Google itself has been using this very model with its “Sources Across the Web” feature for a few years now.


A screenshot of Google’s “Sources across the web” feature
Google’s “Sources across the web” feature.

So, it’s not that Google couldn’t prioritize content diversity over content authority. Rather, it’s that it chose not to. This isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing—each construct has its own positives and negatives.


What a shift towards more content diversity says about Google and the web itself


Practically speaking, Google moving towards a more diverse showing of content and URLs within featured snippets could mean more potential traffic for sites. That is, at least, if you were not already the sole URL being shown within a specific snippet.


More broadly, I think this shift represents how the web itself is maturing.


Every time another CEO goes before Congress to discuss data privacy, more people become more skeptical about what’s out there in the digital sphere.

Semrush data indicates that Google searches related to data privacy are up over 100% since 2017.


This is an important part of the maturation of the web.


Relying on a tech provider such as Google for the one true answer stands in contradistinction to this maturation process. User skepticism can be, and as it currently stands, is, integral for a healthier web.


While full-on authority may have been what garnered trust in the past, it’s my belief that Google realizes that there needs to be a stronger element of transparency in the mix. Again, this speaks to how we as online content consumers are “wising up” and pushing for a safer, more mature web.


Google’s departure from positioning itself as an authority by presenting users with the “one true answer” speaks to how it, as the leader in search, sees the state of the web and the state of those who use the web.


It’s a marked shift in what it means to be a healthy operator and leader within the digital space.


Moreover, there’s increased pressure on Google to get it right. Recently, there have been an increasing number of major publishers questioning Google’s ability to serve quality results (take this article from the New Yorker as just one example).


Showing a more diverse set of content within its answers helps to portray Google as providing a better and more accurate content experience. Whereas in the past, Google may have been better served by providing “the” answer, today’s user is more receptive to having a more holistic and well-rounded set of content (and is fundamentally better served by it).


For the record, I think Google is ahead of the curve. Since about 2018, it’s released a set of algorithm changes (referred to in the SEO industry as “core updates”) that I believe have injected new abilities to discern good content from bad. Meaning, Google has long been aware that user expectations around content are shifting and that it needs to move quickly to meet those expectations.


What’s happened in the more recent past, at least as I see it, is that people have become rapidly aware that the content out there on the web needs to improve (again, something Google has realized in a substantial way since 2018). At this juncture, the awareness of the user base around the lack of quality content has outpaced Google’s ability to sift such content out of the results.


Simply put, we’re far more aware of the lack of quality content on the web and are looking to Google to handle the problem without considering how far Google has come in this regard and without fully appreciating that much of the fault is on content creators, not just search engines. Google’s recently announced Helpful Content update echoes this sentiment, recommending that content creators evaluate whether “the content is primarily to attract people from search engines, rather than made for humans.”


In any regard, Google providing a more well-rounded set of answers creates a sense of topical transparency and therefore quality.


Expect more content diversity on the SERP in the future


Is Google going to kill off the featured snippet as we’ve known it? No, I don’t think so. Having one snippet of information can be quite useful both for how the search engine wants to position itself and to users looking for information (especially factual information). Sometimes you do just want a quick answer.


But, there will be an increase in instances of multi-sourced and multi-perspective features on the SERP. The Google results will, inevitably, contain an increasing number of features that give users entry points to multiple sources of information around a given topic.


Doing so helps optics. It also speaks to how Google’s algorithm around topics functions. Most importantly, doing so is simply good for people in search of information.


*Disclaimer: Mordy Oberstein is not associated with Google and Google was not involved in the writing of this piece.


 

mordy oberstein

Mordy Oberstein - Head of SEO Branding, Wix

Mordy is the Head of SEO Branding at Wix. Concurrently he also serves as a communications advisor for Semrush. Dedicated to SEO education, Mordy is one of the organizers of SEOchat and a popular industry author and speaker. Twitter | Linkedin

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