Despite the growing conversation around things like 0-click searches and the proliferation of SERP features, Google’s results are fundamentally about the blue links. The 10 blue links (well, there are closer to 9 blue links on desktop, and mobile has semi-infinite scroll) form the foundation of the SERP in the vast majority of cases, even when SERP features seemingly dominate. The listing of organic results stacked on top of the other is the essence of the SERP, and they are going to die off, most likely, at some point.
What Are the Blue Links (What Do They Say About Google)?
Before we get into why I think the 10 blue links will die a timely death, let’s better understand what the organic listings on the Google SERP are. I don’t mean in the sense of what they look like, how they work, and what they accomplish. I think we’re all aware of that. For our purposes here, I’m far more interested in what the “blue links” say about Google, users, and Search as a concept. (Also, I want to be clear at the onset, I am not proposing Google will do away with organic results. I am saying, the way they are presented now is not sustainable).
The organic results on the SERP are like going on a business trip. You’re not there to explore or to uncover the beat of a city. You’re there for a specific goal and purpose; and once you’ve accomplished it, you’re gone.
The organic results, the offering of links to 8 or 9 web pages is a business trip. You go to the page, you get the information, and you’re done.
The organic results don’t lead you anywhere beyond the page you clicked on (in any structured sort of way). They don’t guide you, they don’t offer a pathway or anything of the sort. They just are. They’re options — nothing more and nothing less.
As a statement about the state of users, the organic results say “People are utilitarian. They have a very specific goal of getting the very specific information and they move out of the ecosystem.”
When put in that light, the organic results are not very “flattering” in terms of what they say about the nature of people and their quest for knowledge. Even Google admits this backhandedly with their notion of “Search as a Journey” which sees people on a quest for well-rounded understanding that is multi-layered in nature.
The issue is that the acquisition of information and knowledge are not akin to a business trip. You do need to understand the “beat” of a topic. And for that reason, the way Google goes about presenting the SERP and its blue links are going to change.
The Problem: The 10 Blue Links Don’t Allow for Exploration
Constructing knowledge is far more complex than someone having a question and then being provided with a factual answer. If this were all searchers were concerned with, there wouldn’t be a need not only for “10 blue links” on the SERP but any form of URLs.
Google’s Direct Answers would fill the need of most of these users, and all you would really need is one URL inside of a Featured Snippet that may or may not need to be clicked on.
As a former teacher, I’ve always seen knowledge in terms of the construction of schemes (a la Piaget). To create legitimate understanding or even familiarity with something takes multiple attempts. Meaning to say, it takes multiple pieces of content from multiple vantage points dealing with multiple topics and subtopics. This is how a human being constructs a scheme. It’s why school students learn “units” as opposed to one topic one day and a totally different topic the next.
This is not a novel concept. When we commonly describe the marketing funnel as “messy,” it is because of this very notion of how knowledge and familiarity are constructed. We all know, folks will look at a product, do some research, maybe put the purchase on hold a bit, think about it, get some more information, research alternative options, mull it over some more, get some more background information, and only then actually buy the product (maybe).
Why is this the case? It’s because people are trying to be comfortable with the purchase before making it. How do you become “comfortable?” You become familiar. You construct a knowledge scheme. You have an understanding of the product, its benefits, what the alternatives are, what the possible considerations are, and then after all of that, you feel ready to make a purchase.
The way the SERP is set up, with the emphasis on the blue links supplemented with SERP features, only a very linear knowledge path is considered. The SERP is set up to offer quick answers, either through the SERP features shown or through the content represented on the ranking URLs.
In simple terms, the SERP is not set up for exploration. It’s not set up to dive deep into a topic. Even the knowledge graph mostly allows you to explore horizontally. It enables you to move from one knowledge asset to the next but not necessarily deeper within one asset.
Take the case of a celebrity, in this case, Oprah:
Google, via the Knowledge Panel, does two things here (fundamentally):
- It provides background/contextual information (via the Overview, News, and Education tabs).
- Connects you to other assets related to the entity (via the Books and Movie and TV shows tabs).
Compare this to how Wikipedia approaches the same entity:
Here, as opposed to simply being connected to the assets related to the entity, we get a far deeper dive into the various facets that make up who Oprah is from her childhood to her religious views to her influence and impact on society and pop culture.
This is not to say that Google hasn’t shown “flashes” of being able to segment a topic so that it can be easily explored via the SERP.
Google has actually done a rather nice job of this on the “COVID” SERP:
In this case, Google segments the overall topic via a format that easily enables the user to explore the various components that comprise the larger topic (at least at the initial level of exploration).
Every SERP that is not constructed as such doesn’t allow for a genuine pathway towards exploration.
I’m not saying anything here that Google probably knows themselves. I think the idea of creating a SERP that allows people to explore a topic comprehensively, dynamically, and with differentiation is the entire idea behind Google MUM.
Google MUM and the Need to Expand Beyond the SERP As It Currently Exists
MUM deals with the very lack of exploration that is the consequence of the SERP as it currently stands. (Mainly because the SERP as it is now is the result of Google’s abilities, and MUM is a giant leap beyond these current abilities).
For starters, MUM, as its name says, is a “unified model” with the ability to understand information across text and images (with more media formats to come). This inherently means a SERP that incorporates various media with the aim of providing information to users. The natural consequence is a SERP that is not formatted in the same way.
Moreover, the idea of MUM is to parse the aspects of a query and topic to provide segmented information that attempts to predict the various needs of a user. This is inherently a multilayered and comprehensive approach to serving information on the SERP.
It’s a vertically oriented analysis and breakdown of a topic; and to adequately support it, Google is going to have to reformat the SERP as we know it. Instead of offering a list of 9 or 10 options that all speak to the same thing (or if Google is targeting multiple intents, perhaps 2-3 things), Google is going to have to go deeper so that users can explore each aspect of relevant information in a substantial manner.
The classic example I tend to use these days is the query go to yankees game:
The results here are pretty linear. It’s a bunch of places to get tickets to a baseball game.
Google does try to cater to a more in-depth understanding of what the query implies with the second URL shown:
But this is exactly my point. We’re talking about one result on the SERP that links to a page that takes up all of the things you should consider before buying tickets to a game solely from the COVID point of view.
This issue of what to know before going to a Yankees game is a knowledge path unto itself. There is a heap of things to consider before going to a game (other than COVID). I can think of half a dozen just off the top of my head:
- Can you bring your own food? If so, does it have to be in a clear bag as many stadiums require?
- What’s the best way to get to a game?
- If I’m a fan of the visiting team, is it safe for me to go?
- What are some of the local customs that I can expect?
- Do vendors take cash?
- Are there places to stay overnight nearby?
- Is the surrounding area safe at night?
Instead of an entire section or sections of the SERP dedicated to what to know about going to the game, we get one or maybe two results on the SERP.
MUM means to be able to predict the various needs that come with the query and to provide specific assets that address those needs (whether it links to pages, images, etc.).
The SERP, as it is and has been, simply can’t support something like that and in no real substantial way attempts to support something like this.
The closest we really get is when Google serves multiple organic results (or even SERP features) to cater to multiple intents. But this is very limited as it’s all one big “mishmash” of URLs and features all catering to different things but mixed together without any clear demarcation.
The truth is, we have started to see the very early stages of MUM as Google has introduced both the Refine this search and Broaden this search features:
However, these elements, while an interesting start, don’t fundamentally move the needle to allow for significant exploration as they’re really an afterthought or add-ons. The SERP is fundamentally the same construct that doesn’t significantly support scheme building and exploration outside of the fact that you have certain elements interspersed indiscriminately.
Further, these elements, neither qualitatively open up the topic at hand nor the SERP itself to topical exploration.
Take a look at the Broaden this search carousel I got for the keyword hiking mountains:
What you get are basically options for hiking by various categories such as “hiking east coast” or “dangerous hikes U.S.”
Is that fundamentally and substantially different from the list of hikes Google offers in the Discover more places feature?
Moreover, say you do utilize the Broaden this search feature, you ultimately get to another SERP that has the same shortcomings as every other SERP:
In contrast, imagine a SERP that gives you easy access points to explore information, not just about local hikes, but equipment, training, advisories, and local regulations, etc.
So while it’s good to see MUM getting a start on the SERP this current iteration is not anywhere close to where I think Google wants to take things. Because if Google did adopt the topical access points I mentioned, it would have to redesign the SERP, and it would have to offer a multitude of media formats in order to best serve the user. It would have to do away with the blue links as we currently know them.
The Fundamental Flaw with the Organic Results on the SERP
Truth be told, I’ve been skirting around the real issue with the organic results as they’re currently constructed. Namely, they are query-based and not user-based.
What do I mean?
Google’s long-standing advice has been to create site content that considers the user more than anything else. It’s good advice that, until relatively recently, Google hasn’t had the technology to follow.
When serving organic results, Google isn’t thinking about the user; it’s thinking about the query. It’s trying to understand the query and over the past few years has done a good job of understanding the latent implications of the query. You might know this better as Google understanding user intent.
However, this term can be a bit misleading. Google understanding user intent doesn’t mean that it understands the user so much as it means understanding what the user means by their query. Google has not constructed a persona that it can now predict the needs of.
If the SERP were constructed based on the ability to understand “who” is running the query, things would bequite different. For the record, I’m not talking about personalization here (for the most part). Rather, what I mean is understanding “profiles.” What I mean is Google asking, “What does a person searching for this query say about them?” along with “What is subsumed under the overarching topic represented by the query?”
A SERP that addresses the user over their query would be able to attempt to predict the various needs that the user has and offer access points to explore those needs. How that would look and work is a good question, but I can say one thing: a spattering of a bunch of links that address maybe 2-3 “intents” doesn’t really cut it.
In other words, as opposed to trying to interpret a query’s possible meanings, a more user-focused approach would consider the peripheral topical extensions that the query and its various meanings touch.
I do think this is, again, what Google is trying to move towards with MUM. Either way, a SERP with organic results aimed at the query and not the user has to come with a schism that hinders its effectiveness.
What Will (Should) the SERP Look Like?
The SERP should be a content portal (for lack of a better word). I think the goal is to create an ecosystem that presents access points to the full spectrum of topically relevant material. If people need to build schemes to construct knowledge, then there have to be access points to multiple “rabbit holes” that the user can go down.
These access points, of course, need to be clear and well-defined (as opposed to skimming a bunch of organic results-filled content representing multiple user intents).
I think where we’re headed is towards strong topical segmentation that presents multiple media formats. Meaning, a SERP that lays out the landscape of topical material in a categorized way, much the way that the COVID SERP does, but more.
Simple segmentation by topical material doesn’t fully help if all you get under each category is a listing of results. To allow for full-on exploration, each category needs to be further segmented.
Take the Knowledge Panel for former American Football star Jerome Bettis:
What you get under the Education tab here is a link to a site that has his college playing stats, a set of images of him playing in college, etc.
But what if instead there was a set of multimedia that included all sorts of videos according to category (i.e., videos of him playing in college, videos of his TV interviews while in college, etc.)?
Moreover, there’s no context given to the school he went to (Notre Dame). Thus, imagine if the SERP presented a slew of information related to the school itself to better contextualize what it means for a football player to come out of that school’s sports program?
In other words, to be a real portal of information means to move away from simply listing a bunch of URLs on a results page. This is not to say I don’t advocate for organic results to be on the SERP of the future. On the contrary, I think and hope there will be all sorts of URLs presented that speak to a variety of topics, subtopics, and media formats. I just don’t see the simple listing of results 1-10 on a page as being effective nor the backbone of the SERP of the future.
Change Is Hard, Even for Search Engines
The difficulty for Google (and other search engines) isthat what I’ve described here is basically a new product. It’s hard to move away from what made you billions of dollars! The blue links worked, and they still work to a great extent. I think Google sees the need to move more towards a portal model (as I think MUM intrinsically points to something like this).
The question to me is not just will Google move away from the traditional SERP and the way it offers up organic results but rather to what extent? Will it resist going full-throttle towards a move away from the traditional SERP, or will it eagerly embrace a move towards a new construct?
In either case, I don’t see a sudden and drastic shift but a gradual move towards a new SERP as new technology enters the algorithm.