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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. 

Google Dylan

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. 

ads in mobile search

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.

Banner ads? 

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. 

Banner ads in search results

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. 

Hybrid ads

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. 

PPC ad background

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

Site name not URL in SERPs

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.

Teddie Cowell:

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? 

Kevin Gibbons:

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): 

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...

Graham Charlton

Published 24 October, 2013 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

2565 more posts from this author

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James Crothall, Digital Content Specialist at Hargreaves Lansdown

Great article Graham, thanks for collating some excellent views as well.

The most noticeable change for me has been the ability to watch YouTube content direct from the SERP via a PPC ad (https://twitter.com/jamescrothall/status/380811062804615168).

Perhaps we are yet to see the most powerful changes that will affect searcher behaviour...so, what's next? For me, further Knowledge Graph and G+ integration are obvious areas for Google to continue enhancing, whether this improves the user experience or not remains to be seen, as highlighted by Julia (and Kristine).

Personally, I'd like to see Authorship based on third party (non-G+) influence, which hopefully lends itself to rel="me".

i.e. if an individual is not on G+ but has a substantial following on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook, the social graph should reflect this in the SERP. Although it's easy to understand why this hasn't happened yet...

almost 3 years ago

dan barker

dan barker, E-Business Consultant at Dan Barker

@James: Would you believe those video ad extensions have been around for 3 & a 1/2 years now?

http://www.dragonsearchmarketing.com/adwords-video-extensions/

Surprising, eh?

almost 3 years ago

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James Crothall, Digital Content Specialist at Hargreaves Lansdown

@Dan Indeed. You can tell I don't look after Paid Search can't you? :)

almost 3 years ago

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Stuart McLeod

Hi Graham,

Thanks for taking the time to highlight Google's latest tweaks/experiments.

Personally I welcome the ongoing changes to their UI but think it's poor sportsmanship on Google's part when most of us know they hate Affiliates, yet they take further steps to having their cake and eating it!

almost 3 years ago

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Depesh Mandalia, Head of Digital Marketing at Lost My Name

I'd love to get some insight into how their testing team optimise all of this; i.e. is a test hypothesis proposed into one team or are multiple teams able to push forward tests to segmented users/search term groups?

Some of the changes you've highlighted will pull more into certain Google products than others (ie Ads vs Organic) and I'm sure the bottom line is revenue, closely followed by something like return rate (ie loyalty to Google for searching, think frequency and recency)

Ultimately Google generally get this right in the end but it's certainly becoming more interesting to see the types of tests they're running.

The folk on www.webmasterworld.com do a great job of keeping in touch with SERP (and other Google) changes...

And worth checking this out from Moz for an up-to-date-at-a-glance view of Google SERP results: http://moz.com/blog/mega-serp-a-visual-guide-to-google (as of Oct 2013 that is)

almost 3 years ago

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Depesh Mandalia, Head of Digital Marketing at Lost My Name

@Stuart I used to think the same about Google being against affiliates, being an affiliate marketer myself, however what's clear is they're keen to a) grow their own revenue and b) provide high quality search results.

Quite often affiliate sites get caught up in this, good or bad but I don't think it's a direct jab at affiliates. Sure if they run an insurance comparison function that competes with your own you'll feel aggrieved, but if the user likes what Google are offering why shouldn't they continue offering it?

Many thousands of affiliate sites still manage to make a healthy profit with their sites though I would say it is has been becoming harder to breakthrough as Google has evolved over the years.

almost 3 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

Hi Depesh. Must be fun, with so much traffic to conduct tests with.

That mega serp is excellent, thanks.

almost 3 years ago

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Zach @ ReferralCandy

"Is every change Google makes motivated by profit, or is this a case of constantly improving the user experience? Or perhaps both? "

To answer that question - I'd bet that it's both!

Google revolutionised the search engine ad industry with its innovative pricing strategy that motivated companies to give high quality ads (to get higher CTR to lower CPC), resulting in more relevant ads being shown to consumers (a better user experience for them) and (I assume) more ad revenue to Google (due to higher CTRs). Win win win.

Given that history, it does not seem a stretch for Google to be going after BOTH higher profits and a better user experience for searchers. They have access to amazing amounts of data, talented engineers and a nice pile of cash.

Ok that might be a slightly more charitable view of Google than most people have. Well.. I just hope they stick to their motto of 'Don't be evil' as the amount of data they have on all of us is scary to behold.

Thanks for the post Graham!

over 2 years ago

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Chris Michael

Great post.

I agree with Zach. Google are being smart here doing stuff which is largely good for users to tie them more into the ecosystem. And also encouraging, rather than forcing, brands to spend more on advertising.

over 2 years ago

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Tim Aldiss

Here's one of the best videos I've bookmarked of how the search team consider changes (organic mostly) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JtRJXnXgE-A

over 2 years ago

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Gerard

Although Hummingbird may be an attempt to correct it I think Google are in danger of alienating searchers as their increasing occupation of the search space with ads and their own services (you tube, Google+ etc, ) seems to have been matched with a decline in the usefulness of the search results.

I think there is an opening for a smart new search kid on the block

over 2 years ago

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Liz Madeley

Was intrigued by the video ads discussed by Dan and James above, so looked into it a bit more. The video extensions mentioned by Dan were apparently retired http://www.google.com/ads/innovations/videoextensions.html and these new results are Media ads: http://www.google.com/ads/innovations/mediaads.html as far as I can tell the main difference is that Media ad videos fill the whole screen. They are automatically added by Google if deemed a good fit for the search query and are "completely automated".

over 2 years ago

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