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The Anatomy Of A Google Search Result
As Barry noted earlier, Matt Cutts, keeper of all things webspam and webmaster for Google, is reviving his video series. This new set is on the official Google Webmaster Central blog, rather than his personal site, and so far, don’t seem to feature either of his cats. But even cat-free, they are a welcome addition to the arsenal of information piling up at Webmaster Central. The first in the series is about the anatomy of a search result.
He provides tips for crafting a search result that compels searchers to click through, but in true Matt fashion, he couches his suggestions in non-committal phrases like “the majority of the time” and “you as the webmaster have a great deal of control.” Even though his tips don’t guarantee that your page will show up exactly as you would like, as a webmaster, you may as well provide all of the input to Google that is available to you.
Generally, this comes from the title tag on the page. Matt hints that you might want to use a keyword or two that you want to be found for in your title. For instance, “Starbucks Coffee” might be a little more useful than “Starbucks Homepage.” Google doesn’t use the title tag 100% of the time. Occasionally, Google pulls the title from the anchor text of a link to that page or from the Open Directory Project (ODP). You can prevent Google from using the ODP title by using the noodp meta robots tag: <META NAME=”ROBOTS” CONTENT=”NOODP”>. You can generally prevent Google from using anchor text as the title by ensuring that both the page and the title tag are crawlable. A page with a missing or empty title tag or one that is blocked from being crawled are the likeliest candidates from anchor text-derived titles.
The snippet is the description for the page that appears beneath the title. Google may pull this from the page’s meta description tag, but may also use the description from the ODP (again, the noodp meta robots tag will prevent this) or may pull contextually from the page based on the words in the query. For instance, if the query words don’t appear in the meta description but are elsewhere on the page, Google may grab the relevant sentence and include that in the snippet so searchers have a sense of how the page relates to what they are looking for. Matt notes that the snippet highly influences a searcher’s decision about which result to click on, so it can be useful to experiment with different snippets to see which one prompts more clicks.
Take a look at what snippet appears for your page for the queries you care about the most. Determine if Google is pulling the snippet for those queries from the meta description on your site or from words on the page. Then change the source text and see how that impacts your search traffic. You can also use Google’s webmaster tools to find out what queries return your site that don’t result in clicks (Statistics > Top search queries). Check out how your snippet (and title) appear for those queries and experiment with changes that might make your page more compelling in the search results. Matt suggests checking out a previous blog post from a member of the Google snippets team about ways to improve the content of a page’s meta description tag.
Some search results include something called a “plus box” that expands to provide additional information. Matt shows that Starbucks includes a plus box with a stock quote. He says that if the page includes location information, a map might be available in the plus box. Google is always experimenting with surfacing interesting, relevant data, and Matt says this is one way they are doing that. He doesn’t mention how webmasters can increase their chances of getting a plus box added to their page’s result display, and I suppose it would be a lot of trouble to take your company public for the sake of getting one, but if you’re a local business, you might ensure that you have a crawlable address on your page (and that you’re fully registered with Google’s Local Business Center) if you want to do what you can to get that map plus box.
Google bolds the query words anywhere they appear in the search result. Matt notes that this can be helpful not only so searchers can zero in on how the result is relevant for their query, but also because, in some cases, Google returns pages that include only synonyms of a query (they might return a page that mentions automobiles for a query about “cars,” for instance). Synonyms aren’t bolded; only exact matches are. (As seen in the above screen cap though, plurals, while not exact, may still be bolded.)
Matt says the cached link can be helpful for many things. If the page is down or loading slowly, a searcher can still get to the information via the cache. If the page is accidentally deleted, the webmaster can retrieve the data from the cache to recreate the page. Also, the cache shows when the page was crawled.
Other items in a search result include the URL, the page size (which Matt says can be useful in seeing at a glance the pages that may take a while to load), and for very “fresh” pages, how long ago the page was crawled (generally displayed as a particular number of hours ago).
Some results include a “more results from” link, which triggers a site: query that returns all pages from the site. Matt notes that Google always tries to display a diverse set of results, but provides this link in some cases when it seems as though searchers may be looking for a particular site, rather than for content about a topic from any relevant site.
For searchers who are logged in, a “note this” link is also available for saving links to Google Notebook. The “Similar pages” link triggers a related: search that returns as one might expect, pages that Google deems similar.
Matt stresses that sitelinks are never the result of payment and that they’re completely algorithmic. These are generally extracted from a site’s home page and Google may shorten link titles and make other changes to make the sitelinks easy to scan. For more details on when sitelinks appear, how you can influence what sitelinks appear for your site, and how to delete individual ones using Google Webmaster Tools, check out my blog post on sitelinks and Google Adds Sitelinks Control To Webmaster Tools & Much More from here at Search Engine Land.
Matt also mentions Google Experimental as a place to check out the new things Google is trying, and webmasters may be well served to do so and get their sites ready to take advantage of new features that may make it into the search results at some point.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.