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Google Charges SMBs for Guarantees but Frees Retail Commissions

SERP News August 2020

Cosmic balance. It exists in reality (perhaps) and it exists on the SERP (evidently). Just as Google announced a new verification badge that could set businesses back 50 bucks the search engine forwent its commission on sales made via Buy on Google! How's that for bringing balance to the SERP?    

Plus, has COVID-19 become the norm on the SERP? With less COVID related updates to features and more consistent COVID rankings, that seems to be the case (for better or worse). 

Of course, there were like a gazillion other tests, changes, and updates to the SERP. So let's have at it...

Here's the SERP News for August 2020! 

Google Expands 'Guarantee Program' - Badges For All For a Fee! 


Over the past 2+ years, Google has been offering little green badges to select local businesses in a bid to earn a bit of revenue while "despamming" certain local niches. These badges were showcased in a box of ads called "Google Guaranteed Ads." Originally applicable to businesses that operated in niches that tended to fill the SERP with spam (i.e., locksmiths), the program expanded to all sorts of local service area businesses eventually being renamed Local Service Ads.

Local Service Ads
Google's Local Service Ads sporting the green guaranteed badge

Towards the end of July, Google confirmed a test that has the guarantee program moving past local service businesses. For $50 any business can go through Google's verification process and get themselves a shiny green badge that will appear in their business profile (i.e., Local Panel, etc.). 

Well, that's not really a big deal, is it? Well, it does sort of represent the culmination (or the beginning of the culmination) of Google's efforts to monetize Google My Business (GMB). For the past few years, Google has energetically created an ecosystem that "encourages" SMBs to intricately rely on their GMB listing. A good example would be the Reserve with Google program. 

To this, it's quite interesting to me that just at the very moment when businesses are relying on their online presence more than they ever have and probably ever will, Google starts testing pay to play GMB options. 

More than that, the inclusion of the green badge within the Local Pack turns pay to play GMB listings into more than just a "bonus." By placing the badge in the 3-Pack, Google introduces peer pressure into the equation. That is, if your competitor might have or does have the green badge, you'll want to make sure you have one as well. After all, which listing is the user more likely to click on, the listing with the shiny green badge that says all is safe, have no fear, or the listing without any guarantee backed by one of the most powerful companies on the planet? (It's a rhetorical question, obviously.) 

Bottom-line, give it a few months and everybody and their mother will have a green badge.... which ultimately won't help the user discern a good or bad business (because if everybody has it, does it really help the cream rise to the top?) but will put a lot of $50 notes into Google's bank account. 

On this note, Google has also started to roll-out Google Screened Ads. This is an alternative to the Local Service Ads that are meant for service industries (i.e., lawyers, retailers, etc.). The format was in testing for the past year and differs from Local Service Ads in that there is no green badge utilized. However, the format features a place for a headshot of the provider. 

Google Does Away with Buy on Google Commissions... For Now 


Back in April, Google started letting retailers list their products on Google Shopping for free. Now the search engine is giving up its commission on those listings. When a consumer buys the product directly through Google, via Buy on Google, the seller will no longer be charged any commission. That's an amazing deal considering everyone and their mothers, from Amazon to Shopify, takes a cut of the action like any good wiseguy would. 

The goal here is kind of obvious, or maybe it's not. I think this has way less to do with keeping people in the Google ecosystem and serving more ads and so forth. Rather, to me at least, this seems like Google trying to build up its reputation as being a source of retail goods via the sellers themselves. That is, more sellers selling more goods in turn makes Google Shopping more attractive to shoppers. With 0% commissions, it is likely that retailers will list more goods on Google Shopping, which may make the platform more attractive to shoppers. And, without the commission, retailers could list the product for a bit less, making Google Shopping even more attractive (in theory). 

Buy on Google Products

Google Shopping showing only those products that participate in the Buy on Google program 

Sounds great except, retailers might list more products on Google Shopping and even promote their listing, but they won't delete their Amazon listings, nor will they stop adding new listings to Amazon. Did free Google Shopping listings stop folks from continuing with Amazon? No. And while 0% commissions means the seller could post the item for less on Google Shopping, will they? Also, for moderately priced items how much of savings would it really come to anyway? I'm not sure if I see the paradigm being as powerful as Google seems to.   

Further, I don't think 0% commissions will last. To me, it feels like a marketing tactic. Reel 'em in and once you got 'em... charge 'em (not that there's anything wrong with that necessarily). I mean let's play this out:

1) Google obtains a dominant role in the eCommerce world... So they'll continue to go with 0% commissions? Unlikely.
2) The campaign doesn't take off, Google remains where it is, and they continue to offer 0% commissions. Also unlikely. 

I don't see the long-term incentive to keep a 0% commission. That's not to say it won't last for a long time, years even, but ultimately, it doesn't add up to me. 

The COVID-19 SERP Stabilizes 


Towards the end of June, Google ran an unconfirmed update that seems to have given many government sites a ranking boost. One of the outcomes of this update is that after four months of incredibly volatile behavior, the "COVID-19" SERP has very much stabilized (for now, who knows what will happen as the pandemic continues to evolve). 

Take the keyword coronavirus test, the boost to .gov sites clearly seems to have stabilized the SERP here. 

Coronavirus Test Ranking Trends

After a long period of volatility, ranking for 'coronavirust test' has become incredibly stable

Interestingly, topics that are still "up in the air" tend to be a bit more volatile. Meaning, the stability we're seeing appears to be a combination of both Google boosting .gov sites on the SERP and the pandemic becoming the new norm (God, that sucks, doesn't it?). Take the keyword corona virus airborne

Coronavirus Airborne Ranking Trends

Here, while there is a "strain of stability" the SERP is noticeably more volatile than what I showed above. That makes good sense as the topic (at the time of this writing) is still unfolding and is subject to debate. 

Where I think boosting .gov sites may have helped "the COVID SERP" the most, is not for queries directly related to the virus per se (keywords like covid-19 vaccine or coronavirus symptoms). That is, I don't think Google was so upset that WedMD ranked a little too high while some government site was ranked a little too low... at least not upset enough to roll an update to boost .gov sites. 

Rather, where that boost really seems to help are for keywords that very much deal with COVID-19 but in connection to another topic. Take the keyword coronavirus mortgage which saw the same increase in rank stability via the June update: 

Coronavirus Mortgage Ranking Trends

What's interesting here is a government site now outranks Investopedia as a result of the update. That government page discusses some of the options and resources available to mortgage holders having trouble as a result of the pandemic. This page is certainly both more relevant and more necessary to have ranking higher on the SERP and above a site like Investopedia. (I talked more in-depth about this on the In Search SEO Podcast.) 

The moral of the story, you can't go wrong upping the rankings of super-authoritative .gov sites... can you? 

The SERP Roundup Covering July 2020 

Pay to play GMB options and no commission check-out were not the only changes to hit the local and shopping scenes. In fact, there was a myriad of changes made to the SERP in July 2020. Interestingly, and aligned with the rank stability discussed earlier, there were not a voluminous amount of changes around COVID-19 further indicating, it's just the new normal on the SERP. 

More Local SERP and GMB Updates in July

There were a series of changes and tests that hit the local SEO world in July other than Google asking SMBs to fork over $50 for a badge. In fact, there were two pretty big changes that made their way to GMB! 

GMB Increases Notification 

July saw Google make two big changes to its notifications: 

  1. GMB will start sending out emails to a business when said business has had their listing suspended. This comes in light of EU transparency laws. As such, all businesses will be notified when their listing has been suspended. However, only European businesses will receive notification when their entire account has been suspended. 
  2. Similar to the above, Google will also be sending out email alerts when a listing has been deemed to be a duplication

Google Promises to Stop Over-Relying on Business Names 


Local SEOs have long been complaining that Google weighs the business name too heavily when ranking listings within elements like the Local Pack, Local Finder, etc. It appears that all of the hard work of the good folks in the local SEO community has finally paid off. In response to the community, Google's Danny Sullivan says he expects this problem to be resolved in the near future

Multiple Phone Numbers In the Local Panel 

A Local Panel sporting two phone numbers for the business was spotted on the SERP. Then some more people spotted it... and then some more. Thus, what was thought to be a test now appears to be a slow roll-out! 

New Carousel Spotted on Maps


Normally, when you click on a listing from the Local Finder, a Business Panel appears over the most left section of the map while the other listings maintain their position to the left of the panel. In this test, Google seems to have removed the other listings from the most left side of the page. Instead, the other listings were shown as a carousel at the map's bottom. It's a pretty interesting format. Not sure it has much impact one way or the other, but it's pretty interesting. 

Local Panel Shows When Hours Were Updated


It appears that Google is listing when you last updated your hours in GMB within the Local Panel. This is especially pertinent as the COVID-19 world evolves and businesses start to open, then close, then open again, etc. Truth is, this is probably why Google introduced the element to the panel. It's definitely a helpful feature these days. 

Hours Updates in Local Panel

Google showing when the hours of a listing were last updated 

Google Feature Points to Impact of COVID-19 on Travel 


Google has been testing a feature that points to the state of local travel. In the instances found, Google was showing the percentage of hotels with occupancy as well as the percentage of flights operating in that location. 

COVID-19 Travel Trends on the SERP

Google showing travel trends related to COVID-19 as part of a new test (Image Source: SERoundtable.com via Ramesh Singh)

Other than just reflecting on a sad state of affairs, the feature could help marketers assess and survey the local travel market/situation. (Here's a spoiler... it's not good.)

Google Adds New GMB Attribute for Black-Owned Businesses 

Towards the end of July, Google added a new business listing attribute for blacked-owned businesses. The attribute appears within the Local Panel under the 'Highlights' header. Google has previously set-up attributes for businesses owned by women, veterans, etc. The search engine says it has added the attribute now as they have seen "a surge in online searches for Black-owned businesses." 

GMB Black-Owned Business Attribute

Google's new Black-owned attribute shown inside the Local Panel (Image Source: Google) 

More Shopping Changes to the SERP In July 

Just like Google selling more badges was not the only local change to the SERP, the search engine forgoing its commission was not the only product-related update seen during July. In specific:

Product Carousels Showing More Attributes: Shopping ads were spotted sporting more attributes! Sponsored product carousels were found showing the material the product was made from within each carousel card. It definitely pays to make use of the attributes available to you!

Sponsored Product Carousel with Attributes

A sponsored product carousel showing an attribute that represents the product's material (Image Source: SearchEngineLand.com) 

Google Shopping Stops Downloadable DVD/CD Sales: As of August 1st, Google Shopping has included downloaded DVDs/CDs as part of "digital goods and subscriptions." This means sellers will not be able to push the aforementioned products on Google Shopping or on Google's other platforms. 

Twitter Exits and Reenters the SERP 

Just in case you did not know, some very prominent Twitter profiles were hacked in July. In swift response, Google removed the Twitter Box SERP feature from the results page on July 16th only to return it on July 20th once Twitter got a handle on things. 

Twitter Box Being Removed and Returning to SERP

The Rank Ranger SERP Feature Tracker showing the Twitter Boxe's removal and return to the SERP

The Twitter Box, though less prevalent than you might think, is an important part of the branded SERP. More important than that, in this instance, we got a look at just how quickly Google can act and how aware of how outside elements impact its properties the search engine is. 

Google Showing Fewer FAQ Boxes and Fewer Rich Results Overall

In mid-July SEOs started to notice Google showing fewer results that contained FAQ questions produced by... FAQ markup. Not only that, but per our SERP Feature Tracker, Google has been showing fewer rich results overall, about 25% fewer rich results. 

As time has gone on, Google has started to increase the number of rich results (including those that implement the FAQ markup). However, their return appears to be gradual and is still nowhere near the display levels shown prior to the reduction (at the time of this writing). 

FAQ & Rich Result SERP Trends Data
The SERP Feature Tracker showing that FAQ and Rich Results on the SERP took a sharp loss but started to slowly rebound towards the end of July

Of course, sites not showing as a rich result make their organic showing as plain and ordinary as the rest of the results appearing on the SERP. 

Google Adds Major SERP Feature to Some Mortgage Queries 

Here's a monster of a SERP feature for you... Google has partnered with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to offer a new Knowledge Panel-esque SERP feature that dives deep into procuring a mortgage. The feature, which appears on mobile in the US, offers the user an in-depth look at how to shop for a mortgage, the various loan options that exist, and host of other information related to the top questions loan seekers would have. All of the information comes from the CFPB. 

Mortgage SERP Feature

Google's newly upgraded mortgage SERP feature 

While Google has had a mortgage calculator tool from some time now, this is a totally different beast and reflects Google trying to take Search as a Journey a bit deeper. Doing as such is something I've been advocating for recently. And while having deeper content accessible on the SERP is a great thing, it would be nice to have more diverse content sources presented. Although, here I can understand why Google went with a government source that provides hyper-authoritative information. 

Google Shows Videos as List on Desktop 


On desktop, Google shows its videos as a carousel. Hence, we refer to it as the Video Carousel. However, that is no longer the case, or only the case. In my quest to both find new jeans and do research for my podcast I found that Google is now showing videos as a list (as it does on mobile at times). 

The practical implication of all this is that a list takes up a lot more space on the SERP than a carousel. I could go into what that means for your site in theory, but do I really need to? 

Scroll Up Refinement Bubbles Spotted on the SERP 

Here's a nifty test spotted by Brodie Clark... query suggestions that appear as you scroll back up the SERP. It is like it sounds... you scroll down the SERP.... scroll back up and are welcome to a series of bubble filters to help refine/extend your query. 

Google employs all sorts of filters of a similar nature. Each impacts the "natural path of the user" in their own way. In seeing the user not click on a result, I would imagine this filter, if implemented, would present new topics and new areas to the user in so far as they are related to the query. 

Google Goes With Boxed 'People Also Search For' 

All throughout the month of July folks were sending in reports of Google using a boxed format for People Also Search For. Some tests had multiple options in one row others one search option per row and so forth. Personally, I've been stuck with a boxed format placing one result in each box for every query I run for almost a month now. 

Related Search Boxed Results

Google showing what were "Searches Related to" under the 'People Also Search For" header and within individual boxes

Context Added to the News Carousel In Latest Test

I love this one! How many times have you Googled a news topic, clicked on an article from the SERP and were like, "What? What's going on here? How did I miss this? How did we get here? What's the context of all this?" 

That literally happens to me all the time! 

Well, Google was seen testing a Top Stories carousel where the bottom portion of each card contained a heading that read For context. Here, Google inserted a second link into the card that helps provide, you guessed it, context to the story reflected by the card. 

Personally, I think this kind of thing really helps the user and helps advance Search as a Journey into what it really could be. 

Product Infusion On the SERP: Resistance Is Futile 


Google has clearly taken a hard pivot towards pushing products harder than ever. Whether this has always been the strategy or whether the acceleration is due to COVID-19 and the focus on online shopping that's come with it, doesn't really matter (I mean it does matter, but you get my point). Whatever the backdrop, the SERP, as well as the wider Google world is going to be infused with products in all-new ways and to far greater extends than currently exist. How that will look and what it will impact, I do not know (What do I look like a magic eight ball?). All I'm saying is that this is a space to keep a close eye on. 

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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