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Decoding Google's Search Components: How They Impact Your Website Traffic

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Originally published on Causal Signal, Substack, on April 21. 2024.

Research Reveals the Surprising Effects of Featured Snippets, Images, Ads, and More on Organic Clicks

Gone are the days when Google's search results were just a list of blue links. Today's search engine results pages (SERPs) are a dynamic, interactive ecosystem where traditional organic links vie for attention with extracted results, Google-owned services, and paid ads.

Features like featured snippets aim to directly answer searchers' questions, while components like image results and shopping ads compete for clicks. But how do these SERP elements actually impact user behavior and website traffic?

A recent study - Google the Gatekeeper- How Search Components Affect Clicks and Attention by Jeffrey Gleason et.al has harnessed advanced causal inference techniques to analyze a vast dataset of real Google searches and uncover the answers. The findings have far-reaching implications for any organization that relies on organic search traffic.

Source: Paper - Google the Gatekeeper: How Search Components Affect Clicks and Attention

The above figure showcases six examples of extracted results components that aim to directly answer searchers' questions on the SERP itself.

The presence of these components at the top of the SERP can significantly impact user behavior and click-through rates to third-party websites.
Source: Paper - Google the Gatekeeper: How Search Components Affect Clicks and Attention

The above figure shows seven examples of Google Services components - results that either link directly to Google-owned properties or that Google directly monetizes.

The prominent placement of these components allows Google to capture a larger share of SERP clicks and attention. For websites that rely on organic traffic, the presence of these components will pose a challenge.

Key Takeaways

  • Direct answers and featured snippets significantly reduce overall click-through rates (CTR). On average, direct answers decrease CTR by 12.1% points, while featured snippets reduce it by 6.5%.
When searchers can find the information they need directly on the SERP, they're less likely to click through to a website.
  • These extracted results also increase the time users spend on the SERP itself. Direct answers extend time on the results page by 10.9 seconds, while featured snippets increase it by 3.7 seconds, compared to SERPs without these features. Like a hummingbird extracting nectar before moving on, searchers absorb the information they need before navigating away.
  • Counterintuitively, knowledge panels did not significantly impact CTR or dwell time in this study, contrasting with previous research. The effect may depend on the specific implementation and content of the panels.
  • Image results and local map packs increase clicks to Google-owned properties, by 19.9% and 22.5% respectively. At the same time, they decrease clicks to third-party websites, with image results reducing them by 17.7% and local packs by 13.9%.
Google effectively captures a larger share of searcher attention and traffic.
  • Shopping ads substantially reduce organic clicks to third-party domains by 12.0% on average, but intriguingly do not drive many clicks to Google Shopping itself.
Source: Paper - Google the Gatekeeper: How Search Components Affect Clicks and Attention

The above figure shows the effects of Google Services on organic CTR to first-party domains (owned by Google) and third-party websites.

Website owners should carefully assess how these components affect traffic to their sites for important keywords and take steps to adapt their strategies accordingly.

Practical Applications

  • Conduct a comprehensive audit of your website's search performance using Google Search Console data and rank tracking tools.
    • Analyze which SERP components most commonly appear for your target keywords.
    • If many of your priority search terms trigger featured snippets, that may account for a lower than expected organic CTR.
  • Optimize your content to win featured snippets for relevant, high-value keywords.
    • Structure your pages to provide clear, concise answers to common questions in your niche.
    • The key is to provide a definitive answer that fully satisfies the searcher's intent without needing to click through, while still enticing engaged users to visit your site for more in-depth information.
  • Enhance your product images and associated metadata to increase your visibility in Google image results.
    • Eye-catching, information-rich images can be a powerful lure for qualified shoppers.
    • Ensure you're implementing schema markup, optimizing alt text and file names, and following image SEO best practices.
  • For local businesses, a strong presence in Google's local map pack is invaluable. Verify and fully optimize your Google Business Profile, implement local schema markup on your site, generate positive reviews, and follow local SEO best practices to maximize your chances of a top map pack ranking for relevant searches.
  • To offset organic traffic lost to SERP features,
    • Consider a strategic paid search campaign focusing on high-value commercial keywords that trigger extracted results or Google components.
    • Monitor your organic CTR and traffic for these terms, and adjust bids to ensure you maintain a prominent presence and capture high-intent searchers.
  • While the study found no significant impact from video results overall, they may still be important for certain verticals and keywords. Analyze your niche to determine if video optimization should be a priority.

Conclusion

The modern Google SERP is a complex, ever-shifting landscape in which organic results must continually adapt and compete with extracted answers, Google's own properties, and paid advertisements. Like organisms in a rich but challenging ecosystem, websites must constantly evolve their search strategies in response to the SERP features their target keywords and audiences trigger.

By deeply understanding how components like featured snippets, direct answers, image results, and local packs influence real-world searcher behavior, you can craft smarter, data-driven optimization tactics to maximize your visibility and capture high-quality traffic from search.

The cutting-edge techniques used in this research provide a window into how Google's SERP design choices concretely impact the websites and businesses that rely on organic search in the endless battle for clicks and customers. Armed with these insights, you can adapt and thrive in the dynamic world of search.

Beyond snippets, images, and localization, your spot on the SERP may depend on how quickly Google crawlers can index your content. Learn how PhotonIQ Prerendering can increase indexing and even reveal hidden content to improve your SERP in this demo, or chat with an expert.

The SERP is the front door to your business. If you don't appear, you don't exist.

Photo by Unsplash+In collaboration with Philip Oroni.

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