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Insights from Google’s Webmaster Product Summit

On Monday I was in Mountain View for Google’s first ever Webmaster Product Summit. This was a great blend of lightning talks, Q&As, and the chance to hear some of Google’s thoughts on the future of their products.

There’s been a few roundups done, but each person will likely have different takeaways depending on the conversations they had with Googlers throughtout the day. I was lucky enough to speak to multiple Google teams during the day, and particularly during the product fair they ran with all of the applicable teams.

Here are my thoughts summarised from the day.

Insights from Google’s perspective

1. Google are trying to send ‘higher quality clicks’ to websites

I had many different conversations during the day on how Google are launching new SERP features/units, which from an SEO point of view is hurting brands because it means Google is answering more queries without the need for a click. This is substantiated by data from the likes of Jumpshot (via Rand Fishkin) on the rise of zero-click searches.

An interesting perspective from Google is that they are aiming to send higher quality clicks to websites. It was acknowledged that a brand might receive less direct clicks from search, however the loss of clicks is likely the lower quality ones where a user is not committed to taking a full action, merely looking for a very quick answer to something.

Obviously this isn’t great for brands that want to capture the cookies of users (for retargeting, etc), but I found it an interesting perspective and it led to some good conversations over lunch.

2. More changes are coming to Google’s search results to keep users engaged

There was a point I picked up on a few times during the day, which is how Google are introducing more features within the SERPs to help encourage users to navigate in different ways. A quote during one of the Q&As from Google, was that they are trying to “build more scaffolding to help users navigate the web”.

Google's mobile search results for Movie searches

This was showcased during the product fair showing how Google have launched specific features within search, such as those for Movies. If you search for a film on mobile (i.e. Joker) you have multiple tabs available, including ‘Cast’, ‘News’, ‘Trailers’, etc. Each one of these tabs keeps you within the mini ecosystem if your search topic, while encouraging you to interact more.

A couple of points on this whole notion in particular:

  • Google’s tests show that users are much more likely to scroll on a mobile device than desktop, which is why they are happy to add a lot more complexity to mobile search results (as scrolling is “a native behaviour”). Someone made a point about Google’s encroachment of ads hitting mobile in particular, but Google’s response was that data shows that users are happy to scroll (whereas on desktop, this isn’t as prevalent)
  • Speaking with some of the team responsible for data feeds, it sounds very much like there’s going to be more done in this area for Google to take more data directly from brands. There are multiple examples of partnerships that Google has (for live sports scores, for example), and this kind of data will likely become more prominent in conjunction with these ‘richer’ SERP experiences.

3. Image search is as much about the content behind the image, as it is the image itself

Google are doing a lot more work in valuing the content that images sit within, for Image Search rankings. They made the point that it’s as much about the landing page and great content behind the image, than just the image file itself.

There’s a few changes made by Google with this in mind:

  • On desktop, the ‘view’ is now in the side panel, with more prominent publisher context
  • On mobile, ‘swipe to visit’ has been introduced for AMP pages

Recommendations were given on how to optimise for Image Search, and these included:

  • Use structured data on the page (i.e. Product schema)
  • Use descriptive titles, captions, and file names for images
  • Use high quality and optimised images, placed next to text on mobile-friendly pages

4. Expect continued changes with Featured Snippets, as Google analyses usage (and feedback)

Google product fair on Featured Snippets

An area I’m particularly interested in is Featured Snippets, and it was a great opportunity to chat to some of the teams involved with this. I took away a couple of points around Snippets specifically:

  • Google are closely analysing snippets where the text/attribution is taken from one source, and the image is taken from another. They have had a lot of feedback this isn’t working very well – something I was keen to stress myself. It’s something they appear to be thinking a lot about, so wouldn’t be surprised to see a chance happening there.
  • There appears to be a change coming soon to allow webmasters to block Google from using specific parts of content within their snippet previews within SERPs. At the moment you can block Google at page-level, and the new change would allow you to select certain areas of a page that you don’t want to be previewed (a table of data, for example)
  • Google are looking at the different cases in which snippets offer value. I had a conversation specifically around very commercial head terms, and how it feels strange for Google to be showing generic snippets in a lot of cases. Again, this is something they appear to be thinking a lot about, and It’ll be interesting to see how this might change.

5. “Focus on the phone!!”

It wouldn’t be an SEO event without the importance of “optimising for mobile” being stressed time and time again, and this was something that Google obviously continue to push.

The point was made numerous times, on how websites are developed on desktops, but all the trends point to mobiles being the dominant device globally. The recommendation remains to consider that a lot of your users may be commuting (therefore on mobile), outside of cities (therefore potential slow connections), and generally on the move (therefore less time to digest). All points that should be considered when optimising for the web in this day and age.

A separate note is that Google are seeing less need for their ‘weblight’ results, which was built a long time ago. This fits a specific niche where the page wouldn’t normally be accessible at all, but the drive towards a faster web means there isn’t likely going to be a need for this in the future.

Other interesting stats and tidbits:

  • Google have 5-10 teams dedicated to managing duplicate content.
  • Google sends over 24 billion visits per month to news publishers.
  • HTTPS now accounts for 75% of traffic (HTTP therefore 25%).
  • 26% of the time when Google tries to fetch robots.txt files, they get unreachable errors (site down, connection closed).
  • There was around 1 million searches per day of emojis taking place, before Google officially began supporting them.
  • Google talked about how CPU-intensive it is for them to process a lot of the JavaScript in the modern web, and excessive CPUI consumption negatively impacts indexing. I found this interesting given the intermittent indexing errors that have been happening over the last 12 months, and makes me think this is down to how they are adapting their ability to process JavaScript at scale.
  • Google may be opening up the indexing API to the large enterprise websites on the web (i.e. those with millions of pages). This ‘push’ method of indexing would help Google drive efficiencies (and improve processing times).
  • Google will continue doing the periodic core updates for the foreseeable. They prefer this method of a big launch to assess the impact at scale better than doing smaller increments over time.
  • AMP is a future-proof technology Google say, however they are looking at the other technologies that might provide similar features. More to potentially come on this, but Google stress that AMP is the difference between ‘fast and instant’
  • Google CrUX data is used primarily for pagespeed insights, but also for Google to analyse ‘layout stability’ of pages. They were non-committal on how CrUX data might be used in other ways (i.e. signs of positive on-page engagement to influence ranking)

What the industry wants more of from Google

Finally, just a note on the feedback that we (the audience / SEO industry) were giving to Google during the event. The overwhelming theme of the feedback during the open discussion session was on the need for more data from Google – mostly relating to improvements desired from Search Console. The wishlist included:

  • More data available via the API
  • Tighter integration with Google Analytics
  • Granularity of where clicks and impressions are coming from (i.e. SERP features, etc)
  • Better data storage/export capabilities
  • Continued support for the old GSC reports

It was feedback that appeared to be well received from Google, and during the product fair the Search Console team appeared to be the busiest of the lot, so hopefully Google take a lot of this onboard and improve for the future.

Overall it was a brilliant event, and a privilege to be there with the access to 30+ Googlers throughout the day. Hoping to see more of this kind of thing to engage with the SEO/webmaster community more in the future.

Google Android at Mountain View
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