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SERP News: May's Core Update Spells Massive Ranking Movement



SERP News Banner June 2020


May 2020 has come and gone and so has another core update. Google's May 2020 Core Update brought a blast of rank volatility to the SERP the likes of which we have not seen for some time. A lot to talk about here from the update's timeline to who and what were most impacted.

Beyond algorithmic changes, Google's adjustments to the ever-evolving COVID-19 pandemic continues as a few curious tests and updates made their way to the SERP recently. 

Get ready to explore a month of Google SERP intrigue....

This is the June 2020 edition of the SERP News! 




Google's May 2020 Core Update: What You Should Know 

 

On May 4th, Google announced that the May 2020 Core Update was going live. With the announcement, the SEO industry hunkered down expecting extremely volatile rank movement to make its way to the SERP. However, that's not what happened, at least not immediately. The first day of the update's roll-out didn't quite bring the levels of rank volatility we'd come to expect from a core update. That said, the second and final day of the main roll-out saw an incredible display of rank fluctuations. 


Rank Fluctuations May Algorithm Update


By the time all was said and done, the May 2020 Core Update surpassed the levels of rank volatility recorded during the January 2020 Core Update, which was a massive update itself!


May 2020 Core Update Data Comparison

The volatility seen during the May 2020 Core Update surpasses that which was seen during the January 2020 Core Update


Oddly enough, the May 2020 Core Update displayed an even hand across the niches. While most core updates have a tendency to more greatly impact Your Money Your Life (YMYL) sites, such was not the case in this instance. As can be seen below, the May update was generally uniform in the niches it impacted: 


Rank Volatility Data for the May 2020 Core Update



The Types of Sites Hit by the May 2020 Core Update 



As part of our analysis of Google's second core update of 2020, I did a bit of a deep-dive into some of the sites impacted by it. While there are any number of things Google is looking for during an update, one thing I did see pointed towards the search engine looking for highly-informative content to appear above the fold. 

Specifically, I noticed numerous finance-related sites that offer affiliate products lose rankings when the truly informative content was not the first thing users saw on the page. 

For example, sites that immediately jumped into quasi-informational affiliate lists or that presented navigation opportunities at the top of the page were often swapped for pages that dived right into the information the user most likely came for. 


Navigation Dominating Above the Fold

A site that saw ranking losses during May's update using the above the fold space of a page to present affiliate opportunities 


In their place, Google rewarded pages that gave users highly-informational content immediately upon arrival. 


Rewarded Page with Informative Content at the Top

A page from forbes.com, which offers the user highly-informative content immediately, replaced a page that did not do as such during May's update



Read the full analysis on Google's May 2020 Core Update
 




The SERP Roundup Covering May 2020



Google has continued to impress with its ability to quickly pivot to how the COVID-19 pandemic plays itself out. The search engine has done a laudable job getting Corona-related information to users throughout the crisis and this past month was no exception. 

At the same time, May presented us with some interesting tests and new features on the SERP, including what I think is a new way for Google to push you towards its shopping products. 



New COVID-19 Additions to the Google SERP 

 

I've covered Google's handling of COVID-19 pretty extensively in previous editions of the SERP News (see the April 2020 and May 2020 editions). Google has been consistently excellent at considering what people need to know about the crisis and placing that information in the optimal features on the SERP. Here's what the updates Google released over the course of May looked like.


Google Goes Local with COVID-19 News Coverage & Drops AMP Requirement 

  

In early May, Google's Danny Sullivan announced that at some point in April, Google had made a shift to show more local news on COVID-19 SERPs. That is, Google has been making more space for locally produced news within its Top Stories carousel as far as COVID-19 is concerned. 

More than that, Google has also dropped the AMP requirement on mobile. Prior to this change, all content within the mobile news carousel had to be AMP. Google, so as to be able to show highly-relevant local news content around COVID-19, has dropped the AMP requirement on mobile. That is, the local news entering the mobile news carousel need not be AMP where COVID-19 is concerned. 


Local News on Google SERP

A COVID-19 SERP showing only local news articles within the News Box


The move to show more local content is clearly beneficial. Location has a lot to do with what is and what is not relevant vis-a-vis COVID-19. What might be relevant in one part of a given country may be totally irrelevant in another part of the same nation. 

That said, I am very much of the opinion that AMP should be dropped as a requirement for all news content. To me, the user having access to the most relevant news content is very important and outweighs the need for a page to load a bit quicker. 



Thus, I am quite pleased that Google plans on doing just that at some point in 2021!



COVID-19 Testing Center in the Local Panel 



In another example of Google placing pertinent COVID-19 info in front of the right users and the right time, the Local Panel now displays COVID-19 testing center details. Should a Google My Business listing also serve as a testing center, Google may include its status within the listing's Local Panel. To that, Google can list details of the testing accommodations offered, such as if the facility requires an appointment or offers drive-through testing and so forth. 


COVID-19 Testing Center in Local Panel

A Local Panel showing COVID-19 testing center information (Image Source: SERoundtable.com via Mike Blumenthal)


Curbside Pickup Indicated within PLAs


As the necessity for curbside pickup has become the new reality, Google has updated some of its PLAs to reflect such circumstances. In what constituted an official announcement, Google said that they are working to include a label that indicates if curbside pickup is available for products featured in PLAs. The labeling is only available within Google's local inventory ads and the markets that support the ad format. 


Google Ads Showing Curbside Pickup Status

Curbside pickup as indicated within a Local Inventory Ad (Image Source: Google blog)



The Drawback of Google My Business's 'Temporarily Closed' Status 



For businesses that have temporarily shuttered as a result of COVID-19, Google has allowed them to indicate as such within Google My Business. Listings that mark themselves as temporarily closed appear in the Local Panel with a label that corresponds to their status. 

However, it has come to light that there is a serious drawback to labeling your listing as temporarily closed. It appears that when the status has been implemented, Google removes the website and call buttons from the Local Panel on mobile. 


Temporarily Closed Listing COVID-19

A Local Panel showing that the business is temporarily closed but without any links to the listing's site and so forth


This is significant because it hinders the ability of a user to call to see when a business might be opening again or to order something from the business online. I very much do not understand the benefit of removing the website and call buttons in this instance. Perhaps it's merely an oversight. Even odder is that the desktop SERP still offers access to the listing's website, etc.


COVID-19 Donation Links Added to Local Listings 



Businesses can now integrate links to GoFundMe pages into their Google local listing so as to help users make donations towards COVID-19 relief. The ability to do as such, as of the time of this writing, is limited to but a few markets (the US, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, etc.). Still, there's no doubt that this is a much-welcomed addition to the SERP! 


COVID-19 Donation Link in GMB

GMB listings can now promote links to COVID-19 relief donations (Image Source: Google blog)


It should be noted Bing began offering the same feature weeks prior to Google doing as such. 


Hotel Listings Get GMB Update to Offer Discount to COVID-19 Responders 

 

Google is offering hotels a way to offer a discount to COVID-19 frontline workers via the hotel's GMB business listing. The new option gives hotels the ability to present any specials or discounts they offer to COVID-19 responders and the like within the Local Panel and Local Finder. 

Speaking personally for a moment, my wife is a nurse and the prospect of her, perhaps, bringing the virus home with her was a concern of ours at the onset of the crisis. I am sure there are many frontline workers who would eagerly accept a discount at a hotel to avoid potentially infecting their families. This seems to be a very appropriate update to hotel listings in my eyes. 



Google Changes Hotel Ads Policy to Include Cancellations 

 

Google is launching what it calls its Commission Per Stay program. The program allows hotels to only pay the search engine a commission once the hotel stay has taken place. For those who may not be familiar, hotel advertising within Google properties is based on the hotels sharing a commission with the search engine. The problem becomes when someone books a hotel and then cancels. Prior to this program, the hotel would have to pay for the booking, not the stay. 

While this is not a COVID-19 change per se (I think it just makes sense regardless of the crisis), there is a clear and obvious connection. With travel becoming a precarious situation, even when hotel bookings are made, one can only imagine the rate of cancellations will rise. This is basically Google heading off the storm that was sure to come as hotels, who have taken an enormous financial hit, would surely not want to pay Google commissions while cancellation rates spike. 

It should be noted that Google will also be rolling out a way for users to filter hotels by those that offer free cancellations. If I were a hotel, I would make sure I show up when that filter is used. Personally, I would not book a hotel that did not offer free cancellations at this time (not that I have any intention of staying at a hotel in the near future).  


Search History Pushing Suggested Searches



Here's a doozy for you... Google is showing suggested searches at the top of the page based on your search history. It goes something like this. Say you search for spurs and later for cowboy boots... you could see something on that SERP that says Suggested based on your recent activity: cowboy boots with spurs


Search History Query Suggestion


Now, you could look at this in two ways: 

1) This is Google trying to figure out what the user wants and offering it to them. 
2) This is Google offering the user a very visible avenue to check out more products. 

Both probably have truth to them. I suspect the timing of the feature, which aligns with Google offering free shopping listings, means that Google does see this feature as a way to support Google Shopping on the main SERP. 

To the notion that Google is looking for ways to support its expanded shopping program, the search engine released the Rising Retails Categories Tool.

This is a great tool that marketers of all sorts can utilize. In a nutshell, Google will tell you which retail categories are trending. You can then dig into the category to see which specific product-types are driving the trend.  

By way of a completely fictional example, say Bathing Suits are a trending retail category. With a single click you can see that the popularity of the category is being driven by banana yellow speedos with ruffles on the rear.


Ads in People Also Search For?



When I think of Google's People Also Search For feature I think of the carousel of other entities within the Knowledge Panel. Whatever your association to the feature is it's probably not ads. 

That's why I was a bit surprised to find multiple iterations of the mobile carousel that contained a series of ads and not entity cards! 



This is not the first time Google has done something like this. In the recent past, Google has tested a carousel of ads under the heading People Also View and People Also Considered. However, using an already established header like People Also Search For lends a degree of "oraganicness" to what is an ads carousel that is perhaps unique.  




New Related Topics Panel for Job Queries 



Google is testing a panel of related topics to the right of the results for some job queries. The panel of suggestions seems to be a way for Google to extend and guide the user's journey. At the same time, seeing a set of suggestions to the right of the results is certainly a unique format for query suggestions. 


Topics Related to Jobs SERP Feature





How-To Schema Coming to Desktop



While the FAQ markup is a popular addition to both the desktop and mobile SERP, it's 'How-to' sibling has resided on the mobile SERP alone. However, towards the end of May, a plethora of SEO folk have seen the How-to rich result make a desktop appearance

The common theme between all of the variations of the markup on desktop is that it lacks the visual carousel. That is, the mobile version of the rich result contains a carousel of images and text that work in tandem to help you do whatever it is you're figuring out how to do. To me, this makes the tested version on desktop far less impactful and in some ways, it just makes the organic results look cluttered. 



Shadow Boxes Hit the Desktop SERP 



Last, and probably least, Google was seen extensively testing boxes with shadowing on the desktop SERP. On mobile, Google places each result within a card that contains shadowing. This seems to work well on mobile. Here, however, Google was testing the same format on desktop. I think it's a downright ugly and odd-looking design for desktop, but I also think that wearing white shoes after Labor Day is acceptable, so what do I know.  





Putting the Right Foot Forward



The COVID-19 crisis has forced Google's hand a bit. Had Corona not infected the planet I don't think we'd see the search engine give up its commission on hotel booking due to cancellations. I certainly don't think we'd see Google drop the AMP requirement for local news publishers (in certain instances). Whatever the reason, I very much believe changes such as these are certainly moving things in the right direction. It will be interesting to see both the extent to which COVID-19 changes Google's policies and to what degree it impacts Google's outlook on things overall post-crisis. 



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