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Is top of the funnel content under attack? How the SERP is set to change

Mordy Oberstein on
  • Categories: All Things SEO Column, Channel: SEO, Google
  • I’m a big believer in paying a lot of attention to the details of Google’s goings and comings. So when Google was found to be utilizing a new filter at the top of the SERP my curiosity was peaked. When I saw that the potential impact of this change to the SERP aligns with another major push by the search engine I went from curious to cautious. 

    Here’s why I think Google is gunning for top-level, top of the funnel, content. 

    Is a new SERP filter whisking away broad content opportunities? 

    Every once in a while, and maybe more frequently than that, Google does something pretty nifty. Such was the case when on June 16th, Barry Schwartz reported on a top of the SERP filter that modified the query. 

    In the first example we all saw of this, Google was filtering a question about how much you need to save for retirement. Of course, this all depends on your age and when you plan on retiring. Thus, Google showed filters that represented different retirement ages so that you could get highly specific information. (Which, of course, is great for users.)

    All good, right? 

    Not exactly. 

    Here’s the filter in action for the query best selling books

    At first glance, this is a really helpful tool. And indeed it is. A user seeing this might say, “Well, you know what, the search engine is right, so I’d like to see the best selling thrillers!” In this case, the user would click the Thriller filter option and be whisked away to a SERP all about the best selling thrillers to hit the market. 

    But it’s more complicated than that. Here’s the same SERP I just showed just with the top-ranking result, a Featured Snippet, also included: 

    When you look at the Featured Snippet here and its purpose and compare it to the filters and consider its purpose… a sharp contrast emerges. 

    Let’s ask, who is this Featured Snippet targeting? Simple, people who want to find and read good books. What kind of books? Any! This list casts a wide net and could apply to anyone who likes to read. 

    Imagine the URL within the Featured Snippet was for an outlet that sold books (and not Wikipedia), perhaps Barnes and Noble. Why would Barnes and Noble create such a list? It’s kind of obvious, but I’ll run through it. An outlet that sold books would create this list to appeal to a broad audience of readers who would click on the URL. In many cases, the books on the list might not appeal to the user once they arrive on the page. Not a problem, the Barnes and Noble website allows you to search by genre. 

    In other words, sites use top-level content, such as a list of the best selling books, to bring consumers in so that the sales funnel can begin. 

    This very unassuming filter at the top of the SERP completely kills that process. 

    Here, Google is completely cutting out that top-level “net casting” and directing the user to go straight to more targeted content.

    This, clearly, stands in contradistinction to bringing in a broad audience and siphoning them off to the right pages once they get to your site. Sites do this because it’s economical. Why create 10 pieces of content when you can create one and then move the user to the right page in the next level of the funnel? 

    Well that doesn’t work with this filter, does it? If Barnes and Noble want this user to head over to their site, they better have a list of the best thrillers (and the best mystery, non-fiction, kids, and sappy romance books as well)! 

    You can see the problem. 

    You could argue that the user never had any intention of utilizing the over-generalized results on a SERP and that they would have ran a more refined query anyway. Certainly a possibility. It’s also a possibility that content/results on initial SERP produced by the over-generalized query would have enticed a click. Prior to the filter’s appearance, there was at least the opportunity to entice a user to your site. In other words, should the user have entered an unrefined query, one where the results shown were never part of their true intentions, the user still may have gone to some of the sites listed on such a SERP. As opposed to refining their query and running a new search, the user may well have decided to utilize a site shown and refine their quest via the site itself. 

    What do I mean? 

    Take our example around books. A user could refine their search for top selling books by looking for top selling mystery books or they could click on the Featured Snippet that lists all sorts of books with the intention of finding those great mystery books on the site itself. In other words, the user seeing a reputable place to buy books, such as Barnes and Noble, might induce a click even if the content shown in the Featured Snippet (or as part of a result’s title or description) was a bit too general. Faced with the option of running a new search or just heading off to a reputable retailer’s site, the user might elect to go with the latter. 

    All good sense would say that the likelihood of the user utilizing a site in this manner goes down exponentially with Google showing a top of the SERP filter that presents them with an immediate opportunity for query refinement. They no longer need to rethink their search and decide on new terms. All the user needs to do is click a button that comes into view before they even glance at the sites ranking on the SERP. 

    To sum it up, what we have here is Google targeting top-level, wide casting, top of the funnel content, and using the SERP to replace it! 

    Multiple messages pushing for targeted content production 

    This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Google limit the potency of “top-level” content. The proliferation of answers on the SERP (made famous by the notion that more and more searches don’t result in a click) has the same impact on “top-funnel” or “top-level” content as the new filters. Namely, making such content as hosted on a site increasingly obsolete. 

    More answers ups the need for content specificity 

    Answers on the SERP disincentivizes the creation of top-level content, the kind of content where a user might start their exploration of a given topic or product. Conversely, such a construct forces content creators to offer deeper, nuanced, and more specific forms of content. 

    In other words, a sports site might not be as relevant for looking up the score of the game last night as it once was. But users looking for analysis of the game per se won’t be satisfied with a short snippet on the SERP and will need to visit an actual website. 

    Answer Boxes, such as this one that presents sports scores, disincentivize the need to visit a website.

    Where I think Google still has some work to do is connecting the user from their top-level search to more specific content. You see the search engine trying to do this with features like Interesting Finds on mobile. But still, I think Google could do a better job presenting a user who searches for top-level information with the opportunity to use a website to explore the topic a bit more intricately.

    The Interesting Finds feature offers the user the opportunity to explore a “top-level” topic in greater depth.

    That aside, the advent of more answers on the SERP is another example of Google signaling that it prefers more nuanced and highly-specific content. A message quite similar to the one Google is sending with the new filters.

    No room on the SERP for the unspecific 

    Just to complete this thematic analysis, there is yet another example of Google signaling that it is looking for the average site to go more specific and it comes from the results themselves. In many verticals, typing in a top-level query is a guarantee for super-authority domination. 

    Pretty much any top-level query related to health will produce SERPs like the one below: 

    The SERP here, and for pretty much any query like it, is dominated by the likes of WebMD, major educational institutions, and government sites. Not that it’s impossible, but it’s extremely difficult for your “average” site to rank for these sorts of top-level queries. 

    However, once we move away from broad terms and get a bit more specific, the SERP opens up: 

    While I wouldn’t call the SERP above the epitome of “niche,” the results clearly present more opportunity as the presence of super-authorities is limited. 

    As the use of nuanced language within the query increases so does the opportunity for your “average site.” In other words, Google, via the results per se, is telling us that it wants more highly-specific content from most sites. That opportunity for the masses exists in specificity and nuance. Casting a wide net with top-level content will increasingly be less effective as time goes on. 

    For the record, I don’t think Google is doing any of this to “go after” sites. Rather, this seems to be Google responding to what it thinks users want and reacting to what might be the natural evolution of content. 

    Prepare for impact

    Google’s multi-faceted messaging paints a picture where the direction of the SERP is all about specificity. For reasons that are both obvious as well as a bit cryptic, Google is looking for sites to offer more targeted content and less generically generalized content. This changes the opportunity landscape going forward in a serious way. And while we’re not “there” yet, the SERP is well on its way towards catering to and rewarding specificity more than it ever has. And it’s all thanks to an innocuous little filter. 


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    About The Author

    Mordy Oberstein
    Mordy is the head of marketing for Rank Ranger, an industry leading all-in-one SEO reporting suite. Outside of helping to build the Rank Ranger brand, Mordy spends most of his time working to help educate the SEO industry by publishing a constant stream of in-depth research and analysis. You can hear Mordy take up the latest issues facing the SEO community on his weekly podcast, The In Search SEO Podcast.