The Biggest Trend in SEO Doesn’t Affect Your Rankings

Share This
Andy Crestodina

At big conference halls and small conference rooms, you hear these things a lot:

“Google changes everyday…”

“The Google algorithm is updated 500 times per year…”

“You need to stay on top of your rankings…”

But what if the biggest changes in Google have nothing to do with rankings?

Yes, Google is constantly changing. And yes the changes affect your traffic. But no, the biggest SEO trends don’t affect your rankings. They affect your click through rates. There’s a big difference.

Travel back in time with me…

Years ago, the typical SERP (search engine results page) looked much different. In 2014, if you searched for skin care products, you’d have seen something like this:

google search results page from 2014

Ah, those were the days. The colors, the columns, the obvious ads. Even then, images and stars were starting to appear, but this was just the beginning.

Month after month, year after year, Google search results have kept changing. It is a slow but continuous evolution toward a more visual, more engaging experience.

Three years ago, I started collecting screenshots of Google search results pages. I already had an archive of old screenshots of SERPs used to create presentations and articles. But by taking regular, full-page screenshots of specific phrases every few months, the big picture became very obvious.

Here is a simple, visual analysis of this SEO trend. We’ll share the best examples from hundreds of SERPs going back 10 years. And at the end, we’ll share tips for adapting your marketing to these changes.

Search results are getting more visual

More searches than ever are showing images, videos, “People also ask” boxes, maps and featured snippets. Here we track the search results for the phrase “How to write a headline” over three years…

Editors note: Apologies to those on mobile devices. To view these properly, switch the slide viewer to full screen mode or you can view it here. Sorry about that!

Over just a year and a half, the SERP transforms from “ten blue links” to a richer, more interactive page with three SERP features filling the viewport above the fold: images, a featured snippet and the “People also ask” box.

This both reduces the need that visitors need to click on anything, and increases the likelihood that if they do click, they’ll click on another Alphabet/Google product (images, ads, maps, YouTube).

Let’s look at the performance of a specific page. Our research piece about web design standards has ranked well for many years. We use Moz to track the rankings. We use Search Console to track the clickthrough rates (CTR). We use Analytics to track the traffic.

When we map these three together, you can see the rank is basically steady, but as CTRs fall, traffic drops. Take a look:

rank and clickthrough rates

Rankings are durable. Placement is not.

Are you surprised at how little the rankings change over the years? I am not. That page has ranked at or near the top of search results for seven years.

In our experience, pages that rank well tend to continue to rank well over long periods of time. Many rankings are very durable, often holding a position for five years or longer.

What affects the rate at which rankings change?

The durability of a search ranking depends on the rate at which new pages are published on that topic. 

In other words, ranking fluctuations are more a function of the topic than the algorithm. There are many sleepy corners of the internet where a URL can hold a top spot for 10+ years, simply because there isn’t a lot of new content being published on that topic.

Ranking algorithm updates are real, but they aren’t the big change to search and SEO. The biggest change is visible to everyone, plain as day. It’s the “SERP features” (featured snippets, maps, images, videos, etc.). There’s just a lot more stuff showing up in search results these days.

Here is a list of SERP features. This chart shows when they first appeared and the likelihood that they appeared three years ago compared to today, in March 2022, according to MozCast.

serp features by year

Times change fast! Welcome to the fast-evolving UX of the SERPs. Here’s what’s happening:

  • Visuals (images and videos) are appearing far more often than before
  • Related questions are almost ubiquitous
  • Featured snippets and knowledge panels, once huge topics in the SEO community, are on the decline

More features in more search results pages reduce the visual prominence of organic rankings, thereby reducing CTRs and traffic to websites. Here is a side-by-side comparison of two search results pages for the phrase “modern wedding dresses.”

2016 and a 2022 serp

In 2016, the search results helped visitors find websites with wedding dresses. In 2022, the search results look more like a bridal magazine. You can see dozens of dresses without visiting another website.

But this is a high-volume, low-intent phrase for the B2C consumer doing early-stage research. Kathryn of Copy House explains why this isn’t a problem for everyone.

Kathryn Strachan, Managing Director and Owner Copy House

“Google’s consistent evolution of the SERPs isn’t designed to help you as a content creator, but to keep users on Google’s search. The longer you stay on Google’s SERP, the more they have to gain. However, I feel that this mostly impacts the B2C space.

In B2B, the answers to users’ search terms are more complex, requiring longer and more in-depth answers. As long as your brand creates useful and meaningful content, and if you have consistent SEO, your content will get seen. Users will continue to scroll down the first page of Google and will click on your brand’s content because they know you can give them the answers that Google can’t.”

Videos are bigger and appear more often

Videos have appeared in search results, as rich snippets, since 2012. They were basically a search listing (aka “search snippet”) like any other, but with a video thumbnail.

But in 2018, things changed. That’s when the video carousel first appeared. At first, it was just three video thumbnails.

Since then, it’s been redesigned several times, always getting bigger and more interactive. And of course, flipping from horizontal to vertical means more videos can be added within the viewport.

Take a look:

Editors note: Apologies to those on mobile devices. To view these properly, switch the slide viewer to full screen mode or you can view it here. Sorry about that!

More engagement on the carousel means less engagement on organic listings and other SERP features. The odds that the visitor stays within the search results.

Search results offer more things to click

All of those SERP features give the visitor more opportunities to engage with the page. Search results pages get longer and more interactive.

Compare these two examples for the phrase “hospital to home”

  • In March 2019… you got ten blue links, plus some sitelinks under the top listing.
  • In March 2022… You get a lot more: an ad with site links, a featured snippet with an image, four related questions and images.

Do the same search exactly three years later. You get a search results page that is 35% longer and has 131% more things to click. Today, many SERPs have 50+ clickable links and buttons, even if you don’t count the menu and related searches links.

2019 and 2022 serp

Changes in PPC ads

Google is a wonderful way to find useful websites. But those clicks on those organic rankings don’t pay the bills. They only generate revenue when we click on ads, where they get paid per click. And in 2021 those clicks generated $209B in revenue, up 42% from 2020.

That increase could be explained by more searches or higher prices, but it also seems likely that Google has found ways to increase the clickthrough rates for ads.

If I were a designer at Google, hoping to increase CTR on PPC ads, I’d make them bigger. Or I’d add more opportunities to click. Or I’d try to blend them in more with organic listings.

Google has done all of those things.

google ads in 2016 and 2021

Assuming the landing pages are helpful, high clickthrough rates on ads are good for searchers, good for advertisers and good for Google. This isn’t a conspiracy. It’s ethical commerce with mutual benefits for everyone involved.

The organic rankings below these ads aren’t really involved.

Before we jump into the practical tips, let’s get the perspective of search marketing veteran Will Critchlow.

Will Chritchlow, CEO of SearchPilot

“I do think Google could find itself in tricky places with the scale and depth of information that they are essentially scraping and displaying on their own pages. However, as a marketer, despite the changes to search result pages and associated drops in clickthrough rate / zero-click searches, I remain bullish on organic search. I believe it will remain the biggest channel – certainly for new customer acquisition – and has the capacity to grow for most businesses.

My experience is that the growth in demand and web usage has outstripped Google’s cordoning off of areas of the search results for themselves outside of some specific verticals.

I’d still love to see some real serious competition for them though as I believe that (rather than regulation) would be the most powerful driver of change.”

So what’s a digital marketer to do? 5 ways to adapt.

First, there’s no use complaining about it. That’s like a farmer complaining about the weather. It’s pointless. If you can’t control something, work around it. Work with it. Adapt.

Yes, Google has gotten better at keeping people on its website through some basic UX changes to search results.

  • More visuals (images and videos)
  • More types of media/formatting (stories, questions, carousels, widgets)
  • More opportunities to click (50+ links and buttons on many SERPs)
  • Longer pages

They have done years of research and spent millions on testing to create a high-engagement experience for visitors and this is how they’ve changed.

Here are 5 ways that the digital marketer can adapt to this ever-evolving reality.

1. Make your own website more engaging

The first lesson is that these types of changes work. They are effective at improving visitor engagement. And we can apply them on our own website

Look at your pages and ask yourself if you can’t make your own, Google-style improvements.

  • Add more visuals (images and videos)
  • Add more types of formatting (subheads, lists, quotes/testimonials, bullets)
  • Add more opportunities to click (internal links, jump links, calls to action)
  • Longer pages (detail, depth, examples, stories)

2. Work hard on your headlines (write high CTR title tags)

If you rank and the visitor sees your search listing, they’ll do a split-second cost-benefit analysis. Is this click worth 2-seconds of my time?

If yes, you earned a visitor. This is how great headlines work.

they search you rank

To increase the clickthrough rate to your page, write a title tag with a headline that works with the psychology of the potential visitor. There are three ways the headline does this:

The benefits look high…

The reason to click is obvious and specific. Make a strong promise, but don’t oversell it. “Complete guide to increasing clickthrough rates and maximizing traffic to any post”

The cost seems low…

The content sounds scannable and is fast or easy to consume. Indicate it’s a list or has visuals. “5 Quick ways to increase your clickthrough rate (plus 12 examples)”

It’s unexpected…

Use a weird word in your title tags. Make it stand out. Make it interesting or interesting. “Lessons from a reformed spammer about increasing clickthrough rates”

Social media and email pros are experts at triggering the psychology that triggers clicks. But SEOs often just cram in keywords without thinking much about human psychology. See what’s working in a social and email, then go update your titles for your high ranking, low CTR pages.

3. Publish videos

If you know what format is winning for a target keyphrase, publish content in that format.

If you see videos in the search results for the phrase you’re considering, publish videos.

If you can’t beat them, join them. There really is no other choice.

  • The SEO pessimist complains that the video carousel reduces CTR to pages.
  • The SEO optimist sees an opportunity to win two spots in the search results.

google video serp

Because the videos within video carousels are almost always videos from YouTube, post the videos there. To jump start the views of the video, embed it at the top of a relevant, high-ranking page. This is an automatically successful YouTube content strategy. Success is guaranteed.

4. Never target fact-intent keywords

When a quick answer is all the searcher needs, you can bet that Google will satisfy that information need in the search results. in a featured snippet, “People also ask” box or some other widget. Fact-intent queries are typical “zero-click” searches.

No need to click on anything.

No one will ever get traffic from these phrases again.

So don’t bother targeting these keyphrases. A detailed and well structured page will rank for dozens of phrases, including some fact-intent phrases. But these shouldn’t be the primary keyphrase for any URLs.

fact intent query

The reality is that most searches are zero-click searches.

Remember the early 2000’s when publishing a glossary was a viable SEO strategy? This is why no one does that anymore.

5. Don’t bet the farm on SEO

Search is a powerful source of qualified traffic. It has the amazing potential to grow brand awareness and generate demand. And there are still millions of great keyword opportunities. You can target any of them with just a day of research and writing.

But there is more to life than search.

In addition to search engine optimization, build up the other aspects of your marketing, digital and off-line.

  • First, optimize your website for conversions.
    You’ll get more value from every visitor forever after. Here’s how.
  • Grow your email list.
    The more you grow your list, the less you rely on digital giants for traffic. Here’s how.
  • Write for other websites.
    Publish content on any website that your audience visits. Here’s how.
  • Use account-based content marketing.
    Even the tiniest brands with no Domain Authority can win. Here’s how.

Addendum: This article was originally published in March, 2019 and updated in March 2022. Here are the images showing side-by-side SERPs from that original post.

2015 and 2019 serp

2014 and 2019 serp

2013 2019 serp

Share This

What are your thoughts?

By signing up you agree to our Privacy Policy.

Comments (15)
  • Thanks for the great tips! I couldn’t agree more that too many people focus on rankings over CTR, so this information is definitely necessary.

  • What I like about you Andy is that you always challenge me to think.

    I’d like to add that the distance (organic) SERPS get “pushed down” is just another search signal trigger.

    My niche (pet bird care) is so small I do little KW research (I need to do more) and lots of “semantic” writing which can yield the following results.

  • Andy–I’m late to this conversation but in today’s voice-first and marketing AI driven environment, marketers can’t assume that their top position in SERPs will remain constant. Further they face the challenge of 50% no-click search results and 50% voice-first in 2020 (along with 30% screenless search!) Therefore you need to focus on making every visit count by getting visitors to take an action. Happy marketing, Heidi Cohen – Actionable Marketing Guide

  • Thanks Andy! Awesome article for Biggest Trend in SEO. Since Google updating algorithms updating frequently and its really useful article in current SEO marketing. Thanks for sharing great information here.

    • Thanks for the great post, Andy. This very nicely summarises an issue I’ve been discussing with SEOs for quite a while

  • Thanks for the great post, Andy. This very nicely summarises an issue I’ve been discussing with SEOs for quite a while. It’ll be interesting to see how tactics and goals differ (if at all) from current ones now that so many searchers get the answers they’re looking for (or enough of an answer), from the snippet boxes, thereby depriving some sites from clicks and further attention.

    I can’t help but think that guest blogging is going to see a lot more love going forward.

    – James

  • SEO is not just about rankings few keywords. Really loved this final sentence “There’s so much more to search than rankings.” I have been trying to educate people about that for a while now. Excellent post!

  • In this digital world, SEO takes an important place for each and every business. Thanks for sharing this detailed new trends of SEO. This will be very useful to make new strategies of SEO in business.

  • Thanks for the great info! Since Google is constantly changing its algorithm, keeping up isn’t always easy.

  • Thank you so much for these insights. After a recent web rewrite, both our external search and site search results have greatly improved. Phase II will involve tweaking the content based on voice search trends and how it has changed how people search, whether it’s keyed in or via voice. For all of our efforts, helping our members find the info. they need is the goal. This info. and the stats to back it up will be very helpful as I write a training guide for our team!

  • Andy, you never disappoint. Great insights on a most important topic. So, you won’t get ahead treading water.

  • Great article! SEO is changing which is one of the reasons why it so exciting and creates new opportunities!

  • Thanks for this, Andy. I’ll be using it in an upcoming presentation. I think an emphasis on mapping your content to the customer journey is becoming increasingly important. Every opportunity counts. And guest blogging and not relying entirely on Google has become a must.

    • Thanks, Greg! It was fun to go back into the archive of old screenshots and show how things have changed.

      Yes, this one might be useful for client education. There’s more to SEO than rankings!

    • Auditing your content and then mapping what you have to your buyer/customer journey is such an important part of this process! Every interaction is a chance for your brand to resonate—especially with a lower overall click-through rate.

Join over 16,000 people who receive web marketing tips every two weeks.

By signing up you agree to our Privacy Policy.

Share This