Google rarely stands still. In fact, the search giant claims to tweak its search algorithms at least 3 times per day.
Some of these updates are bigger than others, and the past month has brought an unprecedented wave of newsworthy enhancements.
Just yesterday, for example, the industry was abuzz with the news that Google would officially be using page speed as a ranking factor in its mobile search algorithm from July.
Not all of Google’s updates make a huge splash, however, and as a result some of them might have slipped under your radar. To help out, we’ve rounded up the 10 recent Google updates that are most likely to impact search marketers.
1. 16 months of Search Console data(!)
Perhaps the most common request from SEOs to Google over the past few years has been to add more historical data to Search Console. The 3-month limit has always been a hindrance to SEO performance analysis, particularly as we have come to rely on Search Console for query-level data.
After a period of beta testing, Google has now released a new version of Search Console, replete with 16 months of historical data. It will be rolled out slowly over the coming months, but many are already seeing the changes live in their dashboards. The historical data will soon be available via the Search Console API, too.
To say this has been greeted positively in the industry would be an understatement.
There is more to the new Search Console than additional data, however. The new Index Coverage report provides insight into the URLs Google has indexed from your site, along with explanations of any indexation issues. The ability to filter and segment data to a much more granular level than before will be a hugely beneficial addition.
The Issue Tracking feature will also enable users to identify any indexation problems and share action items directly with team members.
Finally, Search Console is bringing all the functionality SEOs need to analyze and impact performance.
2. Real-world data in PageSpeed Insights
Google announced last week that its PageSpeed Insights tool will now use real world data, taken from the Chrome User Experience report. This move addresses perhaps the biggest drawback with PageSpeed Insights. Although the report’s intention (to reveal how quickly a URL loads) is an important one, its execution has been lacking, as its findings do not show how quickly a page loads for actual users.
That has led many in the industry to use other resources for their page speed checks, including the Chrome User Experience report API.
Google has made clear exactly how the new PageSpeed Insights improves on older iterations:
- The Speed score categorizes a page as being Fast, Average, or Slow. This is determined by looking at the median value of two metrics: First Contentful Paint (FCP) and DOM Content Loaded (DCL). If both metrics are in the top one-third of their category, the page is considered fast.
- The Optimization score categorizes a page as being Good, Medium, or Low by estimating its performance headroom. The calculation assumes that a developer wants to keep the same appearance and functionality of the page.
- The Page Load Distributions section presents how this page’s FCP and DCL events are distributed in the data set. These events are categorized as Fast (top third), Average (middle third), and Slow (bottom third) by comparing to all events in the Chrome User Experience Report.
- The Page Stats section describes the round trips required to load the page’s render-blocking resources, the total bytes used by the page, and how it compares to the median number of round trips and bytes used in the dataset. It can indicate if the page might be faster if the developer modifies the appearance and functionality of the page.
- Optimization Suggestions is a list of best practices that could be applied to this page. If the page is fast, these suggestions are hidden by default, as the page is already in the top third of all pages in the data set.
Given the importance of page speed for mobile users, particularly in light of Google’s upcoming Speed Update algorithm change, this update will be a very significant one.
It will also provide better awareness of the stages of URL loading, which will help SEOs to communicate their desired changes to other audiences.
3. Meta description character limit increased
The humble meta description has been given its biggest update for a considerable number of years.
Google confirmed to Search Engine Land in December that the potential snippet length has increased to 320 characters, although this does not mean that all sites will receive this extra space.
Nonetheless, there is evidence that there has been a general increase across the board in snippet length.
Rank Ranger, a tool that can track search results page features, showed a very notable rise in the average meta description length in December:
Of course, this will lead marketers to question whether they should re-write their descriptions, and what the new character limit should be.
One answer comes from Dr. Pete Meyers at Moz, who recommends a limit of 300 characters based on his recent research. That seems a useful rule of thumb, as Google has provided little insight into exactly how it decides where to truncate a snippet.
In essence, Google wants to provide meta descriptions that reflect the changed nature of search results pages, and the devices on which people access them.
The new character limit is not, in and of itself, reason to re-write descriptions across a website. It does, however, open up the possibility of some experimentation to try and gain a competitive advantage.
The fundamentals of crafting meta descriptions remain the same; we just have more space in which to apply these best practices now.
4. New custom intent audiences
Google made a host of AdWords-based announcements in the run-up to the holidays. There is rarely a shortage of new features within the AdWords environment, but the release of new custom intent audiences was of particular interest.
These audience lists allow marketers to add a much greater level of detail to their targeting of new customers via the Google Display Network (GDN), through the creation of audience segments based on topics or keywords.
Even GDN novices will be able to introduce new prospects to their brand, as Google’s machine learning technology will analyze searcher data and automatically generate lists of users that would be open to hearing about a particular brand or product.
Anthony Chavez, director of product management for AdWords, said of the new feature:
“There are two flavors of custom intent audiences. In one variation, advertisers can create their own based on topics and URLs that people who are likely to be interested in their products read about and visit. The second variation is machine-learning based and automated.”
This also chimes with the recent moves to make search advertising a more comprehensive discipline that encompasses upper funnel tactics, as well as the tried and tested lower funnel tactics that have driven its phenomenal success.
Due to the ongoing competition with Facebook (plus the emerging threat from Amazon and Pinterest) for digital ad dollars, Google is investing heavily in new ways to provide value for marketers.
5. Rich results testing tool
Search engine results pages (SERPs) have come a long way from their early, text-only iterations.
This has created opportunities for marketers to engage with their audience through a multitude of media formats in the SERPs, but it has created some confusion too.
Not only are there different ways to mark up data, there are also plentiful different types of information that can be shown in the search results. Google has moved to categorize all of these under the umbrella term ‘rich results’ and the new testing tool (currently in beta) will reveal whether a specific URL is equipped to display rich snippets.
Admittedly, Google does offer the following, comprehensive set of caveats to the tool’s current form:
The limitations are currently listed as:
This test currently supports only the following rich result types:
- Job posting
Even with all of those points in mind, we should view this a step towards a much more accessible entry to rich results for all marketers.
6. Voice search raters guidelines
The Search Quality Raters Guidelines are one of the most fascinating and transparent resources if we want to understand Google’s methodology for ranking search results.
Published on the Google Research Blog, the updated guidelines now include pointers for evaluating results on what Google terms “eyes-free technology.” The core focus here is the growth in Google Assistant interactions, underpinned by a realization that this new way of searching needs a way way of assessing the relevance of results.
The dimensions that are considered to be of particular importance for voice results are:
Information satisfaction: The content of the answer should meet the information needs of the user.
Length: When a displayed answer is too long, users can quickly scan it visually and locate the relevant information. For voice answers, that is not possible. It is much more important to ensure that we provide a helpful amount of information, hopefully not too much or too little. Some of our previous work is currently in use for identifying the most relevant fragments of answers.
Formulation: It is much easier to understand a badly formulated written answer than an ungrammatical spoken answer, so more care has to be placed in ensuring grammatical correctness.
Elocution: Spoken answers must have proper pronunciation and prosody. Improvements in text-to-speech generation, such as WaveNet and Tacotron 2, are quickly reducing the gap with human performance.
As we move towards new search interfaces, whether on the go or in the home, directives from Google make for invaluable reading. The full list of guidelines can be found here.
7. New rules for review extensions in AdWords
Google has been trying to find the right balance with its reviews in both paid and organic listings. Although genuine customer reviews are helpful for consumers, some third-party platforms can be filtered by brands to highlight only the positive scores in search results.
A lengthy list of restrictions has been published and Google made the following announcement:
Review extensions will no longer show with ads starting January 2018.In February 2018, review extensions will be deleted along with their performance data. To save this data, download an extensions report by going to Extensions on the Ads & extensions page in AdWords. If you’d like to continue showing more information with your ads, we recommend using sitelinks, callouts and structured snippets extensions.
8. Google My Business allows video uploads
Google My Business now allows both merchants and customers to add videos of up to 30 seconds in length. Importantly, business owners can also flag videos that they deem to be irrelevant or unhelpful.
How it works:
- Videos will appear in the overview tab of the Google My Business Dashboard
- Customer uploaded videos can be found in the ‘customer’ tab
- Merchant uploaded videos can be found in the ‘by owner’ tab
- All videos can be viewed together in the ‘videos’ tab
- After upload it could take up to 24 hours for the videos to appear. Once live, they will display where local photos do.
Google has also stated that native mobile support for this feature will follow in the near future.
9. Webmaster videos return
After a lengthy hiatus of about 3 years, Google has brought back its Webmaster Video series – now called ‘SEO Snippets’.
These short videos, hosted on YouTube, will tackle the most common questions from the Webmaster Forums. Within the last month, the series has already tackled topics including the eternal ‘sub-domain or sub-folder’ question, dealing with multiple H1 tags, and the impact of fixed penalties on SEO performance.
10. Google to vet premium YouTube content
Google has been under significant pressure to ensure that YouTube ads appear alongside relevant content over the last year. The controversy that followed the story of major brands’ ads appearing alongside extremist content damaged Google’s revenues and reputation, albeit not irreparably so.
Facebook has faced a similar struggle and it is one with no easy resolution. Monitoring the quantities of content uploaded to these sites every second is an uphill task, but Google is betting on the combination of people and technology to rebuild trust in YouTube ads.
All content that is promoted via the premium ‘Google Preferred’ advertising channel will be reviewed by a team of over 10,000 moderators and AI-driven technology that helps to root out inappropriate content.
There is a significant distance to travel before major brands trust YouTube to the same extent that they trust TV, but Google is taking measures to ensure that its highest-paying customers have some level of reassurance.
Although many of these headlines have made waves in the industry, even the most vigilant search professional would be forgiven for missing a few during such an increased period of activity.
Moving into 2018, the rate of progress in our industry is accelerating and marketers have more tools at their disposal than ever before to improve search performance.