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Google's Mobile SERP Favicons: For Better or For Worse?

On May 22nd, 2019, Google's mobile SERP officially welcomed favicons. Many are touting the brand-building power of having favicons appear within your organic result. But is a picture really worth a thousand words? Who is helped most by the insertion of Google mobile SERP? Are there any losers? Does having a favicon make up for your site's name having less prominence? Simply, are the new favicons on the mobile SERP good or bad for your page's organic result? 

Google's Mobile SERP Favicons - Banner

Why Google's Mobile SERP Redesign Hurts the Average Site 


The most obvious benefit to having favicons within the organic results is brand awareness. The most obvious drawback that arises from having favicons on the mobile SERP is... brand awareness. For your big brands, those we're all familiar with, having the favicons is a big win. For those lesser known trademarks that appear on the SERP, it's a big loss (at least in my opinion). 

How's that? 

Imagine you did a search and the SERP produces three results that are above the fold. Of those three results, say the latter two are brands the whole word is familiar with while the first result is some no-name company from Timbuktu (no offense to Timbuktu). What's the user going to do? They're going to see the familiar favicons representing the brands they've come to know and love over the years and skip over the unknown entity. 

How do I know that? 

Because I caught myself doing just that on multiple occasions. 

I found that I wasn't looking at the name of the site (partially because the name is now "obstructed" and more on that later) but was entirely focused on the favicon (so long as the title was a good fit). When there was a recognizable brand logo on the SERP, my knee-jerk reaction was to head over to it, thereby passing over any sites whose icon was unfamiliar to me. 

Familiar Brand Favicon

What's really interesting is that in some instances, I knew the site that I had skipped over, I just didn't know what their logo looked like. 

Of course, this is a bit anecdotal, but that doesn't mean I'm wrong. I'm not special (well we're all special), I don't have a unique psychological makeup that would cause me to behave any differently than most other users.  I was simply acting without thinking the way many other users would. 

However, I don't need to justify my search behavior. Rather, the concept of choosing a familiar brand over others is not new. According to a Neilson Global Survey, 60% of people prefer to make a purchase with a familiar brand. Let's just switch out the world 'purchase' with 'click' and I think my point comes through. 

Now, you might argue that this was always the case on the SERP. There are sites we know and there are sites we don't have much familiarity with. True, but there's a certain equality when the brand is identified by name, not logo. And how would I know that? Because if it weren't true no one would spend any money creating logos. Folks would just write their brand name out in Arial font! Icons and logos convey a certain emotional response and elicit the sense of trust we associate with a longstanding and popular brand. The site's name within the URL or Breadcrumbs, however, does not, at least not in the same way. (Much more on this later.)

Favicons are great for big brands. They should result in more clicks and increased traffic. I wish I could say the same for lesser known brands who may be offering content on par with or exceeding that shown on a major brand's site. The entire idea of a favicon building brand awareness depends on users clicking on that brand's organic result. What I'm proposing is, when competing with more familiar brands, these clicks will be slow in coming. 

How Powerful Are Favicons on the SERP Anyway? 


Let's assume that all of the brands represented by the favicons on a given SERP are of equal notoriety. Surely, in such a case, the small brand's icons must contribute to brand awareness in a real way? That is the general assumption within the industry, is it not? But is that an accurate assumption? 

While there is a case to be made in favor of favicons pushing brand awareness, there is also the distinct possibility that they won't. In fact, it's more than a distinct possibility, according to some sources, it's the likelihood. As reported, the best logos for building brand awareness may be those that contain both an icon and the brand's name. That would mean, that the itsy-bitsy favicon is the least impactful form of logo when trying to build brand recognition.

Perhaps more telling is a 2019 study on logo style and trust done by Venngage in partnership with Survey Monkey. The survey offered its participants six styles of logos: icon dominant (large icon with small font text), text dominant (words only), filled (icon and wording is filled in), outlined (icon and wording is not filled in), horizontal (icon to the left of wording), and icon only logos. 

Participants in the study were then asked which logo style engendered the highest and lowest levels of brand trust for all sorts of website niches (education, financial services, etc.). Out of the six niches surveyed, four of them produced results where either the icon only or icon dominant style was shown to be the least trustful logo format. For example, only 11% of participants found the 'icon only' format to be the most trustful within the News/Media niche. Only the education niche had an icon-oriented logo as the most trustworthy. 

In other words, when it comes to building brand trust, icon-oriented logos are not effective. Ironically, logos that contain the brand's name in a prominent matter are better for building trust. 

Where does that leave favicons? Well, according to the Venngage survey, not in a very potent position. 

I'm not denying that there's an advantage to having your brand's icon show on the SERP. I'm merely pointing out that there is a real chance that the overall impact of having your favicon on the mobile SERP is not of a compelling nature.

I should point out that there other sources that indicate that a logo format, such as the favicon, does imbue a user with a sense of trust and so forth. That said, is it worth the risk considering there is a great deal of research that indicates the favicon's effectiveness is minimal? 

What risk you might ask? There's no loss in having them on the SERP?! Or is there....

The Risk of SERP Favicons: Are Site Names for Icons a Fair Trade? 

There is a loss in having the favicons on the SERP because Google is using them as a counterweight of sorts. Google didn't just turn the URL black. Google also made the URL smaller. In other words, the one consistent place where a user could see the name of the site/brand is now smaller. The addition of favicons comes at a cost, and that cost is the very name of the site/brand. 

You might argue that a smaller and less colorful URL is not going to have much of an impact. The name of the site/brand is still on the SERP after all?! While that's true, have a peek at how that actually looks. Here's the current URL format vs. how Google previously handled URLs within organic results on mobile:

Mobile SERP URL 2017 v. 2019

It's not as subtle of a difference as you might have thought now, is it? But that's just the half of it. 

Is a Site's Name Still Part of the Click Equation?

As mentioned above, a user, as I see it, is very likely to choose a site based on their familiarity with the brand logo now shown on the SERP. However, it's pertinent to think about how a site was chosen prior to the insertion of favicons.

Before branded organic results all a user had to go on was the result's title and the name of the site as it appeared in the URL. In other words, users are interested in two things when looking at an organic result: 

  1. What is the page's content about? (Title)
  2. Who is behind the page's content? (URL)

The title still serves to answer the first question. However, the favicon now addresses who is behind the content. 

And why is that a problem exactly? 

When the favicon is the vehicle used to assess the authority of they who are responsible for the page's content, it's all about brand awareness. And as I mentioned above, that means the bigger and more familiar brands will generally win that war. 

Not so when the title was the device used to determine the site's authority. When the title was being looked at a user could determine their level of trust in the site either by being previously familiar with the brand or via the site's name itself. (And I understand that often the title contains the name of the site. However, at the end of a long title, it could go unnoticed. Also, the URL always contains the site's name and is, therefore, something users will look towards.) 

Here's exactly what I mean: 

Desktop SERP Showing Full Site Name

I've heard of Expedia.... I've heard of Kayak. I don't often rent a car so I have never heard of carrentals.com. That said, if they have the domain carrentals.com they must have been around forever which means I might do well to trust them! And in the above, the URL is pretty readable. In fact, here, I didn't even notice the name of the site as part of the title. Once I got the info I wanted from the title vis-a-vis content, I moved on... on to the URL. 

Now consider how this looks on the mobile SERP: 

Unfamiliar Brand Favicon on Mobile SERP

I have no idea at all what the icon for carrentals.com looks like while with the others I am very familiar with them (because I do book flights way more often than I rent a car). Here, the URL is hardly readable. There is ZERO chance I will click on the carrentals.com result! 

Think about it like this.... When you build a site, do you willy-nilly choose the name of it? Is the URL you create for yourself a random selection of possibly relevant words? No... you choose a site name that gives you the most authority possible while being easy to remember! 

But what's the point (from a search perspective) if no one is looking at your site name any longer? Of course, I'm being a bit hyperbolic, but imagine all you had was the mobile SERP (no desktop) and you were choosing the name of your site... how happy are you that very few people will focus on it, at least not to the extent they would have in the past? 

This is another instance where the bigger brands win with the new mobile SERP. 

Are Favicons In Place of Brand Focused Breadcrumbs Worth the Site Name Visibility Loss? 


Perhaps the biggest change to the visibility of a site's/brand's name on the SERP has to do with how Breadcrumbs now appear on the mobile SERP. (Breadcrumbs, per the Rank Ranger Guide to Google's SERP Features, "show you a 'trail' from the site's homepage to the page displayed in your search results.")

The key term here is "from the site's homepage." That is, the Breadcrumb SERP feature prominently features the name of the site in question. Actually, when talking about mobile, I should say featured (past tense), because the homepage is no longer featured

Breadcrumbs on Mobile - SERP Redesign

Oh, the homepage is still there within the Breadcrumbs, but it is no longer prominent. Rather than simply listing the name of the site as the first and therefore most noticeable Breadcrumb, Google now plops the full URL in its place. This means the site's name is lost within the URL itself. It's far less noticeable.

What's peculiar is that the new format doesn't align to the purpose of the Breadcrumb feature. The entire point is to see a "map" or a "path" of the site's page layers. That "map," as is obvious, starts with the site's homepage. By using the URL as the first "crumb" Google diminishes the effect that is meant to be produced by the Breadcrumbs SERP feature as it very much obscures the first "stone on the path" (i.e., the homepage).

More than that, it creates an incomplete series of Breadcrumbs. Since the full URL inherently includes more characters, it eats away at the available space within the full set of Breadcrumbs. 

Incomplete Breadcrumb on Mobile SERP

From the perspective of having Breadcrumbs on the mobile SERP these new format changes simply don't add up. Either the new mobile SERP design should better consider the SERP feature or simply get rid of the SERP feature when the full series of crumbs can't be shown. Very odd, that's all I will say. 

The New Mobile SERP is Built for Big Brands


Big Business Taking Off

Don't get me wrong, I love favicons as much as the next person. Who doesn't like a nice little icon representing their brand next to their organic result? Small businesses, less known brands... that's who. But again, don't get me wrong. I am not saying that the new mobile SERP isn't advantageous to the site's represented within the organic results (excluding the new ad label, but that's a different conversation). Rather, I'm saying that the mobile SERP's 2019 redesign is beneficial to a single site profile i.e., those with high levels of brand notoriety. 

The idea of thinking of favicons in terms of building awareness is a nonstarter to me. The only way that works, at scale, is when the user clicks on the brand's site and makes the connection between the brand name and the brand logo/favicon. That's a hard sell when I very much think that clicks are geared towards bigger brands on the new mobile SERP. 

In fact, you could argue that the new paradigm on the mobile SERP fits into a larger Google construct. Google has long talked about favoring more authoritative brands within its news results. Indeed, in an interview with Distilled's Will Critchlow, John Mueller stated that they do have domain level, authority metrics. Google loves a good ol' high authority domain and it could be argued that the mobile SERP's new design is meant to steer you towards such sites. 

Do you agree? 

About The Author
Mordy is the official liaison to the SEO community for Wix. Despite his numerous and far-reaching duties, Mordy still considers himself an SEO educator first and foremost. That's why you’ll find him regularly releasing all sorts of original SEO research and analysis!

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