The SEO implications to consider with Google's 12-pack sitelinks experiment.
Google has recently expanded its experiment with the new large or "12-pack" of sitelinks on search result pages (SERPs) for implicitly and effectively branded search terms. The official Google Search blog posted this confirmation on August 16. The phenomenon was recorded as far back as April on WebmasterWorld and more recently seemed to be creeping more and more into Google's SERPs. With yesterday's confirmation that these sitelinks will "be rolling out globally over the next few days in all supported languages to anyone using a modern browser such as Chrome, Firefox, or IE 7 and above," it seems important that we look at the potential impact.
To recap, the new presentation makes the sitelinks larger and brings in the meta description and destination URL, and it now pulls in up to as many as 12 sitelinks. Here's an example:
As you can see, while this is not a specifically branded term, it's a keyword phrase that's direct enough to warrant the extra sitelink treatment.
What's the impact of a SERP like this? Well, first off, the extra sitelinks provide the top search result with an increased level of visibility because they take up the majority of space above the fold. This ought to increase the amount of traffic the first result receives as people will be more likely to search and click on the sitelinks displayed as opposed to scrolling down to other sites. With that in mind, as long as the expanded results are limited to branded terms and keyword phrases that are implicitly tied to an organization's brand, it is good news for the brand. It pushes all competition off the first search result. It is also advantageous because it has the potential to highlight different services and areas of the site, increasing user awareness very quickly. The expanded links give the user more of an idea if your website is what they are looking for, and it limits the choice they would have for another site.
There are a couple of SEO implications to consider with this new formatting. First, the change to the interface does have an impact, albeit a small one. Through this new formatting, Google is highlighting another area of text and display that can be optimized to help win the click. Alert SEOs could update the current description tags of the pages included in the sitelinks to begin with a call to action that falls within the apparent 34-character limit currently being displayed. The goal is to create an even more compelling description that's likely to encourage a click-through. The blue clickable link text is based on the link anchor text used in a site's navigation. Pay special attention to your analytics for branded terms on the target pages in the coming months. If any begin to show that they are not optimal, it may be worth editing site navigation to adjust. Additionally, sites may find a need to remove one sitelink to push another more effective page sitelink in its place. Right now, site owners and webmasters can't specifically tell Google which sitelinks to display, however, they can tell the engine through Webmaster Tools which ones not to use. This concept of which sitelinks are or are not displayed leads to the other SEO implication.
This new functionality gives you an instant snapshot of how Google defines your brand and comprehends your site. Try this experiment: insert your brand name into a Google search bar and see what expanded sitelinks come up. Are you pleased and comfortable with the areas of the site that Google's highlighting? My team are constantly monitoring this and tweaking it. Are the sections of your site displayed the ones that are likely to lead to your desired outcome showing up? If so, congratulations. You've created and architected a site that Google understands well and it is embracing the priorities you've established and reflecting them within the SERPs. If not, you and Google have a translation problem. With the 12-pack results, Google is now telling you very succinctly how it defines your brand and what it perceives are the most important and useful areas of your site to its users. If you disagree with what Google is displaying, then you may need to get with your SEO team and reprioritize your SEO strategy and make tweaks in Google Webmaster Tools. For example, if you search your own brand and pages such as About Us, Contact Us, and Legal, and all show up as sitelinks, while your competitors' top-performing category pages are all showing up when you search their brand, then you have some SEO work ahead of you.
To be clear, while it's been officially announced, this still qualifies as a Google experiment and is only registering for a limited number of searches. But it's obvious that for now it's growing. And who really knows? It may not be permanent, but all indications are that this is going to be around a while. At a minimum, it's a great opportunity to try and maximize your brand potential and get a better understanding of how Google perceives your site.
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Crispin Sheridan is the Senior Director, Global Search at SAP. As part of the digital team, he established and leads the search and testing practices at SAP. Crispin is responsible for paid, natural, and mobile search and all online testing. Search and testing at SAP are fully centralized and globally funded and run under a hybrid in-house and agency model.
Crispin has proven that search learnings and keyword insights work hand in hand with social media marketing and together can effectively drive B2B lead generation. Furthermore, the development of the SAP.com Test Lab has contributed significant success to SAP's digital marketing efforts.
A frequent guest speaker at conferences, including SES New York, San Francisco, Toronto, London, Delhi, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, Crispin was appointed to the SES Advisory Board in December 2009. He has also been a guest speaker at the e-Metrics Summit and ad:Tech, and is a member of Google's B2B Technology Council. You can follow him on Twitter at @crispinsheridan and read his monthly SEO column on ClickZ.
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