Google is continually tweaking its user interface, often most noticeably on search results pages, desktop and mobile.
What motivates these changes? Is every change Google makes motivated by profit, or is this a case of constantly improving the user experience? Or perhaps both?
Here, I'll look at some recent UI changes to search results on mobile and desktop. Please suggest any I may have missed.
Removal of pagination in mobile results
This is an interesting one. I'd say this is more about good UX, as it makes it much easier to click to get onto the next page, as individual numbers were tricky to click precisely.
Also, I'm not sure why anyone would need to skip from page one to anything other than page two. Also, Google provides an easy way to skip back to the first page of results.
Ads at the top and bottom of mobile SERPs
This is one that certainly increases the visibility of PPC ads on mobile, so much that organic results are much less visible.
Date stamp on search results
This one was spotted by David Moth, who must have been Googling himself...
Mobile Gmail login
Without really being aware of the change, I've noticed that I'm permanently signed into Google on mobile as well as desktop.
Now Google knows everything...
Carousels in search results
These are now appearing more frequently, mainly in cultural searches like this one:
It's similar to Apple's album cover flow, and allows the searcher to scroll horizontally through the list. Clicking on an image opens up a search results page for the album in question:
According to Teddie Cowell, Director of SEO at Mediacom:
In the case of the persistent carousels, it's a massive navigational step away from the traditional results list. The overall effect is that information conveyed keeps the searcher within the Google ecosystem longer but, in line with Googles mantra of simplicity and usefulness, it also helps the searcher to refine the results more easily and digest raw information more quickly.
Displaying more data for certain queries
Google is displaying more and more data for some queries on search results pages. so users may be able to find the information they need without leaving the page.
For example, a search for Bob Dylan gives you lots of biographical information, lists of albums, songs etc.
I wonder how this sort of thing has affected Wikipedia's traffic?
Labelling of ads in mobile search
Here's an example. While the background is the same colour as organic results, there is a clear yellow label to denote ads.
Btw - I think the agency behind the second paid ad may need to work on its ad copy. "We won't get you a penalty" isn't the most compelling call to action.
According to Malcom Slade, SEO Project Manager at Epiphany Search:
In my opinion, from a mobile side of things Google is simply trying to make the user experience better. Some of the really minor visual tweaks like the panel effect they use to break up the different types of results and the removal of pagination really improve the mobile users experience.
The inclusion of the orange [Ad] box is a really good sign that at this stage Google are being very pro-user on mobile rather than pro-revenue.
Display of Google Shopping results
Retailers now have to pay for inclusion in Google Shopping, but the results are now more prominent than they were previously.
Before, these listings were integrated within organic results as a small section:
Now, they're more prominent, to the right of results...
...and directly under the PPC ads, meaning that searchers see them before the organic results.
Jimmy McCann, Head of SEO at Search Laboratory sees this as a significant change:
The number of images increased and is now placed very prominently. This draws the users attention more than before, and you would imagine, attracting more clicks. The impact was two fold: traffic that was previously organic went to paid, and the increased prominence is likely to have eaten into organic's share of clicks.
I’ve yet to produce a formal study with the statistics to prove either way, but anecdotally we have seen big differences in organic CTR between SERP’s where this shopping box appears and where it doesn’t appear.
And I suppose linked to this was the movement of the search options from the left panel to the top, giving more ‘screen real estate’ to show these types of shopping results and knowledge graph data.
This was reported by Search Engine Land, and seems to be an experiment at the moment. As with many such experiments from the Big G, it may never come to pass.
The most obvious impact is that it allows, in this case, Southwest Airlines (Virgin America and Crate & Barrel are among other brands inolved in the trial) to dominate the results page.
On a search for the brand in question, this is one thing, but for non-branded searches, Google would really stire things up if it allowed brands to buy such ads.
Also, as SEL points out, it does contradict with earlier Google statements promising no banners ads. Ever.
Google's own car insurance comparison product is prominently displayed, and though it is labelled as sponsored (NB: not 'ads') it resembles an organic result, and also pushes natural listings further down the page.
Shading behind PPC ads
This seems to change frequently, and Google seems to be trying to make the shading as subtle as possible.
Malcolm Slade has noticed the same thing:
From a desktop point-of-view, 2013 has further cemented the statement 'it’s all about the money!'. Minor adjustments to white-spacing and PPC real-estate all point towards trying to get more clicks on PPC ads (it looks like a 55% / 45% split at the moment in favour of organic).
I’m sure the orange that Google puts behind the PPC ads at the top of the screen has been changed slightly to make it more difficult to see on a TFT unless you are at exactly 83.28 degrees to the screen.
A study carried out earlier this year found that 40% of consumers were unaware of the difference between paid and organic results. This isn't just about the shading, but it obviously benefits Google to have more clicks on paid ads.
Site names instead of URLs in SERPS?
This is something Google tested a couple of years ago, but it seems to be trying again. I haven't seen it, but Barry Schwartz pointed this out in Search Engine Land:
I'm not sure I like the idea of this, as viewing the URL helps people decide whether to click or not, as well as being able to distinguish between, say, .uk and .com versions of Amazon.
The expert view of Google's tweaking...
I asked a few search experts for their views on how changes to Google's search interface affects search behaviour...
What are the most significant search UI changes made by Google in your opinion?
Kevin Gibbons, UK MD at BlueGlass Interactive:
I think the biggest shift is more the fact that Google is constantly testing and changing new formats and also bringing in various different types of universal, geo-location and personalised results into play.
So, from a marketing perspective it's no longer simply a job of just SEO or PPC. It's really considering every type of possible piece of content that could appear, be it images, video, maps, news, product listings, Google+ brand profiles, blog posts, knowledge graph etc and then how they map to the location of the searcher, their own history and the interests of not just themselves but also their friends/connections too.
I've noticed on mobile/tablets ads are quite often clearly labelled as "Ad" now too, so Google is constantly testing new formats to see what works best across multiple devices too. As with testing the removal of mobile pagination, they want you to get to your results as quickly as possible - so it's more important than ever to be on the first page in that respect.
For me it's not the subtle or overall aesthetic user interface changes that are most significant, but the way in which semantic and knowledge graph (entity) related information is being pulled in to and presented within the results page that is really changing the UI and user experience.
Also in terms of small changes, I quite like the way the presentation of reviews has been updated. The star ratings were previously a garish yellow. In line with the expanded use of reviews data Google have softened the colour to a more muted orangy/brown which looks nicer in the current colour palette.
How much do these changes affect user behaviour on results pages?
Hugely, especially when you start to look at the variation in how results are displayed cross-platform. There's different user intent behind searches based around many factors, e.g. user location, personalised history, device etc that means you'd be looking for something completely different for the same query.
'Apple' is always the obvious example. If you're searching on a mobile (even better, an iPhone) in London, you're probably likely to see result listings of the closest Apple stores to you (that's what I got at least).
Whereas if you're searching for the same query on a desktop and have a personalised history of being interested in fruit, you're likely to see a completely different result that is more relevant to your interest. This clearly affects user behaviour, and should allow them to find what they are looking for much quicker. The important aspect being the searcher, as opposed to the result format.
Google obviously needs to continue to improve the relevancy and trust of search results for everyone, so this makes a lot of sense. Otherwise, between Apple, Orange and Blackberry the fruit industry would be doomed!
Julia Logan, SEO consultant (AKA Irish Wonder):
Clearly, the goal is to keep the visitor on Google's properties for as long as possible, but there is more danger here than first meets the eye. Kristine Schachinger recently called what's going on with search results 'McDonaldization of Search'.
Instead of proper information, users are seeing 'info nuggets'. If they are too lazy to click over to the sources of the info served up in the SERPs they do not see the big picture. Shorter attention spans, less critical thinking, reliance on one source of pre-filtered information, I do not even want to start discussing the intellectual property issues that raise from these changes.
The actual sources of information are becoming less and less prominent, Google turns into a scraper, an affiliate player even in some niches where that info can be monetised into leads (e.g. finance, travel). It stops being the search engine and starts being a monetisation engine, but ultimately, it's the only one profiting from it, at others' expense.
Seeing this, Google's urge for webmasters to 'create quality sites' sounds really cynical.
Have I missed any significant UI changes from Google? What are are the most interesting/significant for you? Let us know below...