The Meta Referrer Tag: An Advancement for SEO and the Internet

Posted by Cyrus-Shepard

The movement to make the Internet more secure through HTTPS brings several useful advancements for webmasters. In addition to security improvements, HTTPS promises future technological advances and potential SEO benefits for marketers.

HTTPS in search results is rising. Recent MozCast data from Dr. Pete shows nearly 20% of first page Google results are now HTTPS.

Sadly, HTTPS also has its downsides.

Marketers run into their first challenge when they switch regular HTTP sites over to HTTPS. Technically challenging, the switch typically involves routing your site through a series of 301 redirects. Historically, these types of redirects are associated with a loss of link equity (thought to be around 15%) which can lead to a loss in rankings. This can offset any SEO advantage that Google claims switching.

Ross Hudgens perfectly summed it up in this tweet:

Many SEOs have anecdotally shared stories of HTTPS sites performing well in Google search results (and our soon-to-be-published Ranking Factors data seems to support this.) However, the short term effect of a large migration can be hard to take. When Moz recently switched to HTTPS to provide better security to our logged-in users, we saw an 8-9% dip in our organic search traffic.

Problem number two is the subject of this post. It involves the loss of referral data. Typically, when one site sends traffic to another, information is sent that identifies the originating site as the source of traffic. This invaluable data allows people to see where their traffic is coming from, and helps spread the flow of information across the web.

SEOs have long used referrer data for a number of beneficial purposes. Oftentimes, people will link back or check out the site sending traffic when they see the referrer in their analytics data. Spammers know this works, as evidenced by the recent increase in referrer spam:

This process stops when traffic flows from an HTTPS site to a non-secure HTTP site. In this case, no referrer data is sent. Webmasters can’t know where their traffic is coming from.

Here’s how referral data to my personal site looked when Moz switched to HTTPS. I lost all visibility into where my traffic came from.

Its (not provided) all over again!

Enter the meta referrer tag

While we can’t solve the ranking challenges imposed by switching a site to HTTPS, we can solve the loss of referral data, and it’s actually super-simple.

Almost completely unknown to most marketers, the relatively new meta referrer tag (it’s actually been around for a few years) was designed to help out in these situations.

Better yet, the tag allows you to control how your referrer information is passed.

The meta referrer tag works with most browsers to pass referrer information in a manner defined by the user. Traffic remains encrypted and all the benefits of using HTTPS remain in place, but now you can pass referrer data to all websites, even those that use HTTP.

How to use the meta referrer tag

What follows are extremely simplified instructions for using the meta referrer tag. For more in-depth understanding, we highly recommend referring to the W3C working draft of the spec.

The meta referrer tag is placed in the <head> section of your HTML, and references one of five states, which control how browsers send referrer information from your site. The five states are:

  1. None: Never pass referral data
    <meta name="referrer" content="none">
    
  2. None When Downgrade: Sends referrer information to secure HTTPS sites, but not insecure HTTP sites
    <meta name="referrer" content="none-when-downgrade">
    
  3. Origin Only: Sends the scheme, host, and port (basically, the subdomain) stripped of the full URL as a referrer, i.e. https://moz.com/example.html would simply send https://moz.com
    <meta name="referrer" content="origin">
    

  4. Origin When Cross-Origin: Sends the full URL as the referrer when the target has the same scheme, host, and port (i.e. subdomain) regardless if it’s HTTP or HTTPS, while sending origin-only referral information to external sites. (note: There is a typo in the official spec. Future versions should be “origin-when-cross-origin”)
    <meta name="referrer" content="origin-when-crossorigin">
    
  5. Unsafe URL: Always passes the URL string as a referrer. Note if you have any sensitive information contained in your URL, this isn’t the safest option. By default, URL fragments, username, and password are automatically stripped out.
    <meta name="referrer" content="unsafe-url">
    

The meta referrer tag in action

By clicking the link below, you can get a sense of how the meta referrer tag works.

Check Referrer

Boom!

We’ve set the meta referrer tag for Moz to “origin”, which means when we link out to another site, we pass our scheme, host, and port. The end result is you see http://moz.com as the referrer, stripped of the full URL path (/meta-referrer-tag).

My personal site typically receives several visits per day from Moz. Here’s what my analytics data looked like before and after we implemented the meta referrer tag.

For simplicity and security, most sites may want to implement the “origin” state, but there are drawbacks.

One negative side effect was that as soon as we implemented the meta referrer tag, our AdRoll analytics, which we use for retargeting, stopped working. It turns out that AdRoll uses our referrer information for analytics, but the meta referrer tag “origin” state meant that the only URL they ever saw reported was https://moz.com.

Conclusion

We love the meta referrer tag because it keeps information flowing on the Internet. It’s the way the web is supposed to work!

It helps marketers and webmasters see exactly where their traffic is coming from. It encourages engagement, communication, and even linking, which can lead to improvements in SEO.

Useful links:

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How Much Has Link Building Changed in Recent Years?

Posted by Paddy_Moogan

I get asked this question a lot. It’s mainly asked by people who are considering buying my link building book and want to know whether it’s still up to date. This is understandable given that the first edition was published in February 2013 and our industry has a deserved reputation for always changing.

I find myself giving the same answer, even though I’ve been asked it probably dozens of times in the last two years—”not that much”. I don’t think this is solely due to the book itself standing the test of time, although I’ll happily take a bit of credit for that 🙂 I think it’s more a sign of our industry as a whole not changing as much as we’d like to think.

I started to question myself and if I was right and honestly, it’s one of the reasons it has taken me over two years to release the second edition of the book.

So I posed this question to a group of friends not so long ago, some via email and some via a Facebook group. I was expecting to be called out by many of them because my position was that in reality, it hasn’t actually changed that much. The thing is, many of them agreed and the conversations ended with a pretty long thread with lots of insights. In this post, I’d like to share some of them, share what my position is and talk about what actually has changed.

My personal view

Link building hasn’t changed as much we think it has.

The core principles of link building haven’t changed. The signals around link building have changed, but mainly around new machine learning developments that have indirectly affected what we do. One thing that has definitely changed is the mindset of SEOs (and now clients) towards link building.

I think the last big change to link building came in April 2012 when Penguin rolled out. This genuinely did change our industry and put to bed a few techniques that should never have worked so well in the first place.

Since then, we’ve seen some things change, but the core principles haven’t changed if you want to build a business that will be around for years to come and not run the risk of being hit by a link related Google update. For me, these principles are quite simple:

  • You need to deserve links – either an asset you create or your product
  • You need to put this asset in front of a relevant audience who have the ability to share it
  • You need consistency – one new asset every year is unlikely to cut it
  • Anything that scales is at risk

For me, the move towards user data driving search results + machine learning has been the biggest change we’ve seen in recent years and it’s still going.

Let’s dive a bit deeper into all of this and I’ll talk about how this relates to link building.

The typical mindset for building links has changed

I think that most SEOs are coming round to the idea that you can’t get away with building low quality links any more, not if you want to build a sustainable, long-term business. Spammy link building still works in the short-term and I think it always will, but it’s much harder than it used to be to sustain websites that are built on spam. The approach is more “churn and burn” and spammers are happy to churn through lots of domains and just make a small profit on each one before moving onto another.

For everyone else, it’s all about the long-term and not putting client websites at risk.

This has led to many SEOs embracing different forms of link building and generally starting to use content as an asset when it comes to attracting links. A big part of me feels that it was actually Penguin in 2012 that drove the rise of content marketing amongst SEOs, but that’s a post for another day…! For today though, this goes some way towards explain the trend we see below.

Slowly but surely, I’m seeing clients come to my company already knowing that low quality link building isn’t what they want. It’s taken a few years after Penguin for it to filter down to client / business owner level, but it’s definitely happening. This is a good thing but unfortunately, the main reason for this is that most of them have been burnt in the past by SEO companies who have built low quality links without giving thought to building good quality ones too.

I have no doubt that it’s this change in mindset which has led to trends like this:

The thing is, I don’t think this was by choice.

Let’s be honest. A lot of us used the kind of link building tactics that Google no longer like because they worked. I don’t think many SEOs were under the illusion that it was genuinely high quality stuff, but it worked and it was far less risky to do than it is today. Unless you were super-spammy, the low-quality links just worked.

Fast forward to a post-Penguin world, things are far more risky. For me, it’s because of this that we see the trends like the above. As an industry, we had the easiest link building methods taken away from us and we’re left with fewer options. One of the main options is content marketing which, if you do it right, can lead to good quality links and importantly, the types of links you won’t be removing in the future. Get it wrong and you’ll lose budget and lose the trust if your boss or client in the power of content when it comes to link building.

There are still plenty of other methods to build links and sometimes we can forget this. Just look at this epic list from Jon Cooper. Even with this many tactics still available to us, it’s hard work. Way harder than it used to be.

My summary here is that as an industry, our mindset has shifted but it certainly wasn’t a voluntary shift. If the tactics that Penguin targeted still worked today, we’d still be using them.

A few other opinions…

I definitely think too many people want the next easy win. As someone surfing the edge of what Google is bringing our way, here’s my general take—SEO, in broad strokes, is changing a lot, *but* any given change is more and more niche and impacts fewer people. What we’re seeing isn’t radical, sweeping changes that impact everyone, but a sort of modularization of SEO, where we each have to be aware of what impacts our given industries, verticals, etc.”

Dr. Pete

 

I don’t feel that techniques for acquiring links have changed that much. You can either earn them through content and outreach or you can just buy them. What has changed is the awareness of “link building” outside of the SEO community. This makes link building / content marketing much harder when pitching to journalists and even more difficult when pitching to bloggers.

“Link building has to be more integrated with other channels and struggles to work in its own environment unless supported by brand, PR and social. Having other channels supporting your link development efforts also creates greater search signals and more opportunity to reach a bigger audience which will drive a greater ROI.

Carl Hendy

 

SEO has grown up in terms of more mature staff and SEOs becoming more ingrained into businesses so there is a smarter (less pressure) approach. At the same time, SEO has become more integrated into marketing and has made marketing teams and decision makers more intelligent in strategies and not pushing for the quick win. I’m also seeing that companies who used to rely on SEO and building links have gone through IPOs and the need to build 1000s of links per quarter has rightly reduced.

Danny Denhard

Signals that surround link building have changed

There is no question about this one in my mind. I actually wrote about this last year in my previous blog post where I talked about signals such as anchor text and deep links changing over time.

Many of the people I asked felt the same, here are some quotes from them, split out by the types of signal.

Domain level link metrics

I think domain level links have become increasingly important compared with page level factors, i.e. you can get a whole site ranking well off the back of one insanely strong page, even with sub-optimal PageRank flow from that page to the rest of the site.

Phil Nottingham

I’d agree with Phil here and this is what I was getting at in my previous post on how I feel “deep links” will matter less over time. It’s not just about domain level links here, it’s just as much about the additional signals available for Google to use (more on that later).

Anchor text

I’ve never liked anchor text as a link signal. I mean, who actually uses exact match commercial keywords as anchor text on the web?

SEOs. 🙂

Sure there will be natural links like this, but honestly, I struggle with the idea that it took Google so long to start turning down the dial on commercial anchor text as a ranking signal. They are starting to turn it down though, slowly but surely. Don’t get me wrong, it still matters and it still works. But like pure link spam, the barrier is a lot more lower now in terms what of constitutes too much.

Rand feels that they matter more than we’d expect and I’d mostly agree with this statement:

Exact match anchor text links still have more power than you’d expect—I think Google still hasn’t perfectly sorted what is “brand” or “branded query” from generics (i.e. they want to start ranking a new startup like meldhome.com for “Meld” if the site/brand gets popular, but they can’t quite tell the difference between that and https://moz.com/learn/seo/redirection getting a few manipulative links that say “redirect”)

Rand Fishkin

What I do struggle with though, is that Google still haven’t figured this out and that short-term, commercial anchor text spam is still so effective. Even for a short burst of time.

I don’t think link building as a concept has changed loads—but I think links as a signal have, mainly because of filters and penalties but I don’t see anywhere near the same level of impact from coverage anymore, even against 18 months ago.

Paul Rogers

New signals have been introduced

It isn’t just about established signals changing though, there are new signals too and I personally feel that this is where we’ve seen the most change in Google algorithms in recent years—going all the way back to Panda in 2011.

With Panda, we saw a new level of machine learning where it almost felt like Google had found a way of incorporating human reaction / feelings into their algorithms. They could then run this against a website and answer questions like the ones included in this post. Things such as:

  • “Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?”
  • “Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?”
  • “Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?”

It is a touch scary that Google was able to run machine learning against answers to questions like this and write an algorithm to predict the answers for any given page on the web. They have though and this was four years ago now.

Since then, they’ve made various moves to utilize machine learning and AI to build out new products and improve their search results. For me, this was one of the biggest and went pretty unnoticed by our industry. Well, until Hummingbird came along I feel pretty sure that we have Ray Kurzweil to thank for at least some of that.

There seems to be more weight on theme/topic related to sites, though it’s hard to tell if this is mostly link based or more user/usage data based. Google is doing a good job of ranking sites and pages that don’t earn the most links but do provide the most relevant/best answer. I have a feeling they use some combination of signals to say “people who perform searches like this seem to eventually wind up on this website—let’s rank it.” One of my favorite examples is the Audubon Society ranking for all sorts of birding-related searches with very poor keyword targeting, not great links, etc. I think user behavior patterns are stronger in the algo than they’ve ever been.

– Rand Fishkin

Leading on from what Rand has said, it’s becoming more and more common to see search results that just don’t make sense if you look at the link metrics—but are a good result.

For me, the move towards user data driving search results + machine learning advanced has been the biggest change we’ve seen in recent years and it’s still going.

Edit: since drafting this post, Tom Anthony released this excellent blog post on his views on the future of search and the shift to data-driven results. I’d recommend reading that as it approaches this whole area from a different perspective and I feel that an off-shoot of what Tom is talking about is the impact on link building.

You may be asking at this point, what does machine learning have to do with link building?

Everything. Because as strong as links are as a ranking signal, Google want more signals and user signals are far, far harder to manipulate than established link signals. Yes it can be done—I’ve seen it happen. There have even been a few public tests done. But it’s very hard to scale and I’d venture a guess that only the top 1% of spammers are capable of doing it, let alone maintaining it for a long period of time. When I think about the process for manipulation here, I actually think we go a step beyond spammers towards hackers and more cut and dry illegal activity.

For link building, this means that traditional methods of manipulating signals are going to become less and less effective as these user signals become stronger. For us as link builders, it means we can’t keep searching for that silver bullet or the next method of scaling link building just for an easy win. The fact is that scalable link building is always going to be at risk from penalization from Google—I don’t really want to live a life where I’m always worried about my clients being hit by the next update. Even if Google doesn’t catch up with a certain method, machine learning and user data mean that these methods may naturally become less effective and cost efficient over time.

There are of course other things such as social signals that have come into play. I certainly don’t feel like these are a strong ranking factor yet, but with deals like this one between Google and Twitter being signed, I wouldn’t be surprised if that ever-growing dataset is used at some point in organic results. The one advantage that Twitter has over Google is it’s breaking news freshness. Twitter is still way quicker at breaking news than Google is—140 characters in a tweet is far quicker than Google News! Google know this which is why I feel they’ve pulled this partnership back into existence after a couple of years apart.

There is another important point to remember here and it’s nicely summarised by Dr. Pete:

At the same time, as new signals are introduced, these are layers not replacements. People hear social signals or user signals or authorship and want it to be the link-killer, because they already fucked up link-building, but these are just layers on top of on-page and links and all of the other layers. As each layer is added, it can verify the layers that came before it and what you need isn’t the magic signal but a combination of signals that generally matches what Google expects to see from real, strong entities. So, links still matter, but they matter in concert with other things, which basically means it’s getting more complicated and, frankly, a bit harder. Of course, on one wants to hear that.”

– Dr. Pete

The core principles have not changed

This is the crux of everything for me. With all the changes listed above, the key is that the core principles around link building haven’t changed. I could even argue that Penguin didn’t change the core principles because the techniques that Penguin targeted should never have worked in the first place. I won’t argue this too much though because even Google advised website owners to build directory links at one time.

You need an asset

You need to give someone a reason to link to you. Many won’t do it out of the goodness of their heart! One of the most effective ways to do this is to develop a content asset and use this as your reason to make people care. Once you’ve made someone care, they’re more likely to share the content or link to it from somewhere.

You need to promote that asset to the right audience

I really dislike the stance that some marketers take when it comes to content promotion—build great content and links will come.

No. Sorry but for the vast majority of us, that’s simply not true. The exceptions are people that sky dive from space or have huge existing audiences to leverage.

You simply have to spend time promoting your content or your asset for it to get shares and links. It is hard work and sometimes you can spend a long time on it and get little return, but it’s important to keep working at until you’re at a point where you have two things:

  • A big enough audience where you can almost guarantee at least some traffic to your new content along with some shares
  • Enough strong relationships with relevant websites who you can speak to when new content is published and stand a good chance of them linking to it

Getting to this point is hard—but that’s kind of the point. There are various hacks you can use along the way but it will take time to get right.

You need consistency

Leading on from the previous point. It takes time and hard work to get links to your content—the types of links that stand the test of time and you’re not going to be removing in 12 months time anyway! This means that you need to keep pushing content out and getting better each and every time. This isn’t to say you should just churn content out for the sake of it, far from it. I am saying that with each piece of content you create, you will learn to do at least one thing better the next time. Try to give yourself the leverage to do this.

Anything scalable is at risk

Scalable link building is exactly what Google has been trying to crack down on for the last few years. Penguin was the biggest move and hit some of the most scalable tactics we had at our disposal. When you scale something, you often lose some level of quality, which is exactly what Google doesn’t want when it comes to links. If you’re still relying on tactics that could fall into the scalable category, I think you need to be very careful and just look at the trend in the types of links Google has been penalizing to understand why.

The part Google plays in this

To finish up, I want to briefly talk about the part that Google plays in all of this and shaping the future they want for the web.

I’ve always tried to steer clear of arguments involving the idea that Google is actively pushing FUD into the community. I’ve preferred to concentrate more on things I can actually influence and change with my clients rather than what Google is telling us all to do.

However, for the purposes of this post, I want to talk about it.

General paranoia has increased. My bet is there are some companies out there carrying out zero specific linkbuilding activity through worry.

Dan Barker

Dan’s point is a very fair one and just a day or two after reading this in an email, I came across a page related to a client’s target audience that said:

“We are not publishing guest posts on SITE NAME any more. All previous guest posts are now deleted. For more information, see www.mattcutts.com/blog/guest-blogging/“.

I’ve reworded this as to not reveal the name of the site, but you get the point.

This is silly. Honestly, so silly. They are a good site, publish good content, and had good editorial standards. Yet they have ignored all of their own policies, hard work, and objectives to follow a blog post from Matt. I’m 100% confident that it wasn’t sites like this one that Matt was talking about in this blog post.

This is, of course, from the publishers’ angle rather than the link builders’ angle, but it does go to show the effect that statements from Google can have. Google know this so it does make sense for them to push out messages that make their jobs easier and suit their own objectives—why wouldn’t they? In a similar way, what did they do when they were struggling to classify at scale which links are bad vs. good and they didn’t have a big enough web spam team? They got us to do it for them 🙂

I’m mostly joking here, but you see the point.

The most recent infamous mobilegeddon update, discussed here by Dr. Pete is another example of Google pushing out messages that ultimately scared a lot of people into action. Although to be fair, I think that despite the apparent small impact so far, the broad message from Google is a very serious one.

Because of this, I think we need to remember that Google does have their own agenda and many shareholders to keep happy. I’m not in the camp of believing everything that Google puts out is FUD, but I’m much more sensitive and questioning of the messages now than I’ve ever been.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your feedback and thoughts in the comments.

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I Can’t Drive 155: Meta Descriptions in 2015

Posted by Dr-Pete

For years now, we (and many others) have been recommending keeping your Meta Descriptions shorter than
about 155-160 characters. For months, people have been sending me examples of search snippets that clearly broke that rule, like this one (on a search for “hummingbird food”):

For the record, this one clocks in at 317 characters (counting spaces). So, I set out to discover if these long descriptions were exceptions to the rule, or if we need to change the rules. I collected the search snippets across the MozCast 10K, which resulted in 92,669 snippets. All of the data in this post was collected on April 13, 2015.

The Basic Data

The minimum snippet length was zero characters. There were 69 zero-length snippets, but most of these were the new generation of answer box, that appears organic but doesn’t have a snippet. To put it another way, these were misidentified as organic by my code. The other 0-length snippets were local one-boxes that appeared as organic but had no snippet, such as this one for “chichen itza”:

These zero-length snippets were removed from further analysis, but considering that they only accounted for 0.07% of the total data, they didn’t really impact the conclusions either way. The shortest legitimate, non-zero snippet was 7 characters long, on a search for “geek and sundry”, and appears to have come directly from the site’s meta description:

The maximum snippet length that day (this is a highly dynamic situation) was 372 characters. The winner appeared on a search for “benefits of apple cider vinegar”:

The average length of all of the snippets in our data set (not counting zero-length snippets) was 143.5 characters, and the median length was 152 characters. Of course, this can be misleading, since some snippets are shorter than the limit and others are being artificially truncated by Google. So, let’s dig a bit deeper.

The Bigger Picture

To get a better idea of the big picture, let’s take a look at the display length of all 92,600 snippets (with non-zero length), split into 20-character buckets (0-20, 21-40, etc.):

Most of the snippets (62.1%) cut off as expected, right in the 141-160 character bucket. Of course, some snippets were shorter than that, and didn’t need to be cut off, and some broke the rules. About 1% (1,010) of the snippets in our data set measured 200 or more characters. That’s not a huge number, but it’s enough to take seriously.

That 141-160 character bucket is dwarfing everything else, so let’s zoom in a bit on the cut-off range, and just look at snippets in the 120-200 character range (in this case, by 5-character bins):

Zooming in, the bulk of the snippets are displaying at lengths between about 146-165 characters. There are plenty of exceptions to the 155-160 character guideline, but for the most part, they do seem to be exceptions.

Finally, let’s zoom in on the rule-breakers. This is the distribution of snippets displaying 191+ characters, bucketed in 10-character bins (191-200, 201-210, etc.):

Please note that the Y-axis scale is much smaller than in the previous 2 graphs, but there is a pretty solid spread, with a decent chunk of snippets displaying more than 300 characters.

Without looking at every original meta description tag, it’s very difficult to tell exactly how many snippets have been truncated by Google, but we do have a proxy. Snippets that have been truncated end in an ellipsis (…), which rarely appears at the end of a natural description. In this data set, more than half of all snippets (52.8%) ended in an ellipsis, so we’re still seeing a lot of meta descriptions being cut off.

I should add that, unlike titles/headlines, it isn’t clear whether Google is cutting off snippets by pixel width or character count, since that cut-off is done on the server-side. In most cases, Google will cut before the end of the second line, but sometimes they cut well before this, which could suggest a character-based limit. They also cut off at whole words, which can make the numbers a bit tougher to interpret.

The Cutting Room Floor

There’s another difficulty with telling exactly how many meta descriptions Google has modified – some edits are minor, and some are major. One minor edit is when Google adds some additional information to a snippet, such as a date at the beginning. Here’s an example (from a search for “chicken pox”):

With the date (and minus the ellipsis), this snippet is 164 characters long, which suggests Google isn’t counting the added text against the length limit. What’s interesting is that the rest comes directly from the meta description on the site, except that the site’s description starts with “Chickenpox.” and Google has removed that keyword. As a human, I’d say this matches the meta description, but a bot has a very hard time telling a minor edit from a complete rewrite.

Another minor rewrite occurs in snippets that start with search result counts:

Here, we’re at 172 characters (with spaces and minus the ellipsis), and Google has even let this snippet roll over to a third line. So, again, it seems like the added information at the beginning isn’t counting against the length limit.

All told, 11.6% of the snippets in our data set had some kind of Google-generated data, so this type of minor rewrite is pretty common. Even if Google honors most of your meta description, you may see small edits.

Let’s look at our big winner, the 372-character description. Here’s what we saw in the snippet:

Jan 26, 2015 – Health• Diabetes Prevention: Multiple studies have shown a correlation between apple cider vinegar and lower blood sugar levels. … • Weight Loss: Consuming apple cider vinegar can help you feel more full, which can help you eat less. … • Lower Cholesterol: … • Detox: … • Digestive Aid: … • Itchy or Sunburned Skin: … • Energy Boost:1 more items

So, what about the meta description? Here’s what we actually see in the tag:

Were you aware of all the uses of apple cider vinegar? From cleansing to healing, to preventing diabetes, ACV is a pantry staple you need in your home.

That’s a bit more than just a couple of edits. So, what’s happening here? Well, there’s a clue on that same page, where we see yet another rule-breaking snippet:

You might be wondering why this snippet is any more interesting than the other one. If you could see the top of the SERP, you’d know why, because it looks something like this:

Google is automatically extracting list-style data from these pages to fuel the expansion of the Knowledge Graph. In one case, that data is replacing a snippet
and going directly into an answer box, but they’re performing the same translation even for some other snippets on the page.

So, does every 2nd-generation answer box yield long snippets? After 3 hours of inadvisable mySQL queries, I can tell you that the answer is a resounding “probably not”. You can have 2nd-gen answer boxes without long snippets and you can have long snippets without 2nd-gen answer boxes,
but there does appear to be a connection between long snippets and Knowledge Graph in some cases.

One interesting connection is that Google has begun bolding keywords that seem like answers to the query (and not just synonyms for the query). Below is an example from a search for “mono symptoms”. There’s an answer box for this query, but the snippet below is not from the site in the answer box:

Notice the bolded words – “fatigue”, “sore throat”, “fever”, “headache”, “rash”. These aren’t synonyms for the search phrase; these are actual symptoms of mono. This data isn’t coming from the meta description, but from a bulleted list on the target page. Again, it appears that Google is trying to use the snippet to answer a question, and has gone well beyond just matching keywords.

Just for fun, let’s look at one more, where there’s no clear connection to the Knowledge Graph. Here’s a snippet from a search for “sons of anarchy season 4”:

This page has no answer box, and the information extracted is odd at best. The snippet bears little or no resemblance to the site’s meta description. The number string at the beginning comes out of a rating widget, and some of the text isn’t even clearly available on the page. This seems to be an example of Google acknowledging IMDb as a high-authority site and desperately trying to match any text they can to the query, resulting in a Frankenstein’s snippet.

The Final Verdict

If all of this seems confusing, that’s probably because it is. Google is taking a lot more liberties with snippets these days, both to better match queries, to add details they feel are important, or to help build and support the Knowledge Graph.

So, let’s get back to the original question – is it time to revise the 155(ish) character guideline? My gut feeling is: not yet. To begin with, the vast majority of snippets are still falling in that 145-165 character range. In addition, the exceptions to the rule are not only atypical situations, but in most cases those long snippets don’t seem to represent the original meta description. In other words, even if Google does grant you extra characters, they probably won’t be the extra characters you asked for in the first place.

Many people have asked: “How do I make sure that Google shows my meta description as is?” I’m afraid the answer is: “You don’t.” If this is very important to you, I would recommend keeping your description below the 155-character limit, and making sure that it’s a good match to your target keyword concepts. I suspect Google is going to take more liberties with snippets over time, and we’re going to have to let go of our obsession with having total control over the SERPs.

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The Incredible Shrinking SERP – 2015 Edition

Posted by Dr-Pete

In the beginning, there were 10 results, and it was good. Then, came expanded site-links and Google’s 
7-result SERP. Around the middle of 2014, we started to hear reports of SERPs with odd numbers of organic results – 9, 8, 6, 5, and even 4 page-1 results. At first, these were sporadic and hard to replicate, but they quietly expanded. This is a recent 4-result SERP for “autism speaks”:

By some counts, there are as many as 16 non-paid links on this page (not counting images), but by traditional SEO standards, there are only 4 true organic positions for which you can compete. So, what’s going on here? Is it just random, or is there a method to Google’s madness?

It’s all in the news

For a couple of months, I just assumed these strange result counts were some kind of glitch. Then I noticed an unusual pattern. Last October, Google rolled out the 
“In The News” Update. This update expanded news results to many new sources, but it also seemed to change the pattern of when news results appear. This is 28 days of data from MozCast’s Feature Graph (10K queries):

The presence of News results seemed to be cyclical, dipping early in the week and peaking later in the week. I don’t follow News results closely, so it was just a curiosity at first, until I saw another bit of data. This is the average page-1 result count for that same period:

While the scale of the change was much smaller (please note that both graphs have a restricted Y-axis to make the effect more visible), the opposing shapes of the curves seemed like more than a coincidence. As News results increased, the average page-1 organic result count decreased.

It’s a vertical, vertical world

Spot-checking various SERPs, I was able to confirm this effect. If page 1 had a News box, then the organic result count would be decreased by one (to either 9 results or 6, depending on the starting point). Here’s a sample SERP (I’ve removed snippets to simplify the image) for “samsung galaxy tab”:

This is a basic 10-result SERP, but when a News box comes into play, we’re only left with 9 organic results. This raised the question – were other verticals having a similar impact? Digging deeper, I found that, in addition to News results, Image results and In-depth Articles also occupied one organic position. Remember the example at the top of the post? It’s a brand query, resulting in a 7-result SERP, but it also has News results, Image results, and In-depth Articles. If we do the math: 7 – 1 – 1 – 1 = 4 results. It’s not random at all.

In the interest of being more methodical, what if we looked at the average page-1 organic result across every combination of verticals in our data set? We’ll stick with a starting point of 10 results, to keep the data clean. Here’s a table with the average counts by vertical combination:

I’ve taken the average out to two decimal places just to be more transparent, but what we’re seeing here is little more than a tiny bit of measurement error. Generally speaking, each instance of a vertical result type (as a whole, not individual links within these verticals) costs a 10-result SERP one organic ranking position. It’s worth nothing that SERPs with all 3 verticals are pretty rare, but when they occur, each of those 3 verticals costs one position and one opportunity for you to rank on page 1.

It’s always something

So, do the same rules apply to 7-result SERPs? Well, Google isn’t a big fan of making my life easy, so it turns out this gets a bit more complicated. When 7-result SERPs originally launched, our data showed that they almost always came with expanded sitelinks in the #1 organic position. By “expanded sitelinks”, I mean something like the following:

Sitelinks usually appear for queries that either have a strong brand connotation or at least a dominant interpretation. While we typically use 6-packs of expanded sitelinks as an example, actual counts can vary from 1 to 6. Originally, the presence of any sitelinks yielded a 7-result SERP. Now, it’s gotten a bit more complicated, as shown by the table below:

Since each row of sitelinks can contain up to 2 links, the general logic seems to be that 1 row of sitelinks equates to 1 additional organic result. If you have 3 rows of sitelinks, then Google will remove 3 organic results from page 1.

Google’s logic here seems to revolve around the actual display of information and length of the page. As they add some elements, they’re going to subtract others. Since the physical display length of of most elements can vary quite a bit, the rules right now are pretty simplistic, but the core logic seems to be based on constraining the total number of results displayed on page 1.

It’s time to rethink organic

All of this raises a difficult question – what is an organic result? As SEOs, we typically don’t think of vertical results as “organic” by our fairly narrow definition, but they’re much more organic than paid results or even Knowledge Graph. What’s more, Google is starting to blur the lines with verticals.

For example, in the past couple of weeks, Google has redesigned the look of In-depth Articles twice. You might think “So what? It’s just a design change,” but take a closer look. At the end of March, Googled removed the “In-depth articles” header. Here’s an example of the new design (for the query “jobs”):

While the thumbnail images and horizontal dividers still set these results apart somewhat, Google’s intent seems to be to make them appear more organic. Keep in mind, too, that other, organic results use thumbnails as well (including videos and recipes).

Then, just a couple of weeks later (our systems detected this on the morning of April 8th), Google went much farther, removing the thumbnails and even the byline. Here’s part of a screenshot for “Putin”:

Can you spot the true organic results here? They’re the first two – the rest of this screenshot is In-depth Articles. The only real clue, beside the count and source-code markers, is the horizontal divider on either end of the 3-pack. On mobile, even the dividers are gone, as every result is treated like a “card” (see below).

As an SEO, I’m still inclined to call these results “vertical” for two reasons: (1) historical precedent, and (2) these results play by different ranking rules. I think reason #2 is the more important one – In-depth Articles are currently dominated by a core set of big publishers, and the algorithm differs quite a bit from regular, organic results.

It’s only the beginning…

You wanna get really crazy? Let’s look at an entire SERP for “polar” on an Android device (Moto G). This result also includes In-depth Articles (warning: scrolling ahead):

Let’s do the math. For starters, it’s a branded result with expanded sitelinks, so we should have a 7-result page. Remember that those last 3 results are In-depth Articles, so we’ll subtract 1, leaving us with what should be 6 results. See the “app pack” in the middle? That’s an Android-specific vertical, and instead of counting the pack as just 1 result, Google is counting each link as a result. So, we’re only left with 3 traditional organic results on this SERP, despite it being packed with information.

I strongly suspect this trend will continue, and it will probably expand. The definition of “organic” is blurring, and I think that all of these vertical results represent SEO opportunities that can’t be ignored. If we’re stuck in the mindset of only one “true” organic, then our opportunities are going to keep shrinking every day.

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