Rank Ranger Blog

SERP News: Big Rank Fluctuations, New SERP Layout Tests

Keeping up the risk level noise, the Rank Risk Index continued to burn through the better part of last week. As noted in last week's SERP Snapshot, the index went slightly berserk when it hit a risk level of 93 on May the 7th and showed no signs of cooling off for the vast majority of last week. Bewildering the best of them, the continued hot fluctuation levels constituted a large part of last week's SEO chatter. 


Stagnating and High: The Rank Risk Index



What was so unusual about the risk level last week was not just how high it was, but how long it stagnated at such heights. The levels started to heat up on May 6 and it wasn't until the 13th that I saw any signs of it cooling down. It was only on May the 14th that the levels returned to "normal." All-in-all we saw what constituted an eight day spike on the index, which is relatively unheard of. 


Continued Rank Risk Index Spike


Rank Risk Index Cools on May 14, 2016

Fig 1. The spike on the Rank Risk Index continued until finally cooling on May 14


A Reason Behind the Spike? 



With the index performing as oddly as it did, it would be nice, and even perhaps a type of SERP solace, to know what drove the spike. If you'll remember, last week we noted a few possible correlations, but nothing really concrete. Most people would tell you that some sort of major algorithm update was working behind the scenes. In fact, I would bet that most of you were of this opinion. This general convention did not go unnoticed by the search superpower. Google indeed reported last week that there was no, I repeat no, major algorithm update causing the risk level spike. Great, so we're back to square one... or maybe not. 


Looking at the Whole (SERP) Picture 

Obviously I can't say anything definitive as to the causality of what went on last week (and beyond) on the index. However, if we perhaps shift gears and seek to gain some perspective, it is possible to see some interesting signs, what you do with them is of course up to you. 


Perspective on SERP Features Data: The Downs 

 

Starting us off on this theme of gaining some SERP perspective is an interesting set of SERP Features data from our Insight Graph. When I say interesting, I mean from a certain perspective of course. There were a few features that ended last week with a net gain, and a few which ended off at a net loss. Let's begin with those that fell towering heights. 


SERP Features on the Decline: May 8 - 14, 2016



SERP Features Decline May 8 - 14, 2016

Fig 2. Related Questions, SiteLinks, and Notable Online decline over the course of May 8 - 14 


OK, so towering heights might not exactly be the right phraseology. In fact, you might be asking why I included any of this data to begin with. After all, the biggest loser, Related Questions, fell a "whopping" .2956%. If viewed based on last week alone, I may tend to agree with you, but as I mentioned, this SERP Snapshot is all about perspective, so let's try and get some.


SERP Features on the Decline: 30 Days out 



Thirty Day Data on Declining SERP Features
 
Fig 3. As of May 14, SiteLinks and Notable Online show a 30 day low


Seeing the data on these SERP Features over the past 30 days sheds some light on why last week's data is significant. It's not the size of the fall, it's the relative level that counts. Looking at the data over the past 30 days shows that SiteLinks and Notable Online hit a comparatively new low last week. Even if the percentage differential is not catastrophic, the fact that the data pattern shifted could be indicative of something. The same holds true with Related Questions, though it didn't reach a new 30 day low (see April 29), its pattern does seem to have shifted from showing at a higher plateau, to returning to its levels prior to May 4. In other words, the data over the last 30 days could be indicative of a shift over at Google, a shift that as seen here began around May 5th, i.e. in conjunction with the Rank Risk Index spike... coincidence #1.  


Perspective on SERP Features Data: The Ups

 

Like the Jeffersons, moving on up to a deluxe apartment in the SERP sky were Breadcrumbs, Featured Snippets, and Answer Box



SERP Features on the Rise: May 8 - 14, 2016 



SERP Features Rising May 8 - 14, 2016

Fig 4. Breadcrumbs, Featured Snippets, and Answer Box show a modest rise by May 14


Again, the same question applies, why is this data so significant as yet again the biggest shift was only .3205% (Answer Box)? For the same question I'll give you the same answer.... perspective. 


SERP Features on the Rise: 30 Days out



SERP Features Rising 30 Day Trend

Fig 5. Breadcrumbs and Featured Snippets show a 30 day high by May 14


Again, rather than showing monumental shifts, the data over the past 30 days possibly shows a new data trajectory. Both Breadcrumbs and Featured Snippets hit a 30 day high by the end of last week. Even Answer Box, though not hitting a new high (see May 3), seems to have turned a data corner by rebounding from a May 10 low and seemingly resuming its mid April course. The timing is yet again quite interesting, however you look at the data, it does seem as if a new data pattern emerges circa May 5, which again coincides with the risk level spike and constitutes... coincidence #2. 


Five Organic Results: The Height of a New Low 



Keeping up with this notion of SERP perspective, I would be remiss if I didn't show some interesting organic results data, specifically around five results appearing on the SERP. 


Five Organic Results May 8 - 14, 2016 



Five Organic Results Hit Low May 10, 2016

Fig 6. Five organic results hits a weekly low on May 10


For the third time in this Snapshot, looking at the data shown in Figure 6 may not be awe inspiring. While the data does show five organic results hitting a low on the 10th, it also shows six organic results hitting a low on the 9th, as well as seven organic results hitting a low on the 12th... big deal. I give you one word... perspective. 



Five Organic Results Performance: 30 Days out 

 

Five Organic Results Performance for Thirty Days

Fig 7. Five organic results hits a monthly low on May 10


While yes, it is true that we can see six organic results hitting a weekly low on May 9th, as well as seven organic results hitting a low on May 12th, these lows are qualitatively different than the low five organic results hit on May 10th. Only the dip that five organic results took last week constituted a 30 day low, one that by relative comparison was much sharper than the previous low on May 3rd. While I wouldn't call it coincidence # 3, it is interesting to note, especially when forming a more expansive perspective on last week's overall SERP behavior. 


An Ever-changing SERP Layout 

 

Over the past few weeks there have been some significant changes to the layout of various SERP features. In fact, on May 2nd I reported a Rank Index Spike that correlated with Google testing different colored ad tags. Coincidentally, and thus forming coincidence #3, it was reported last week that Google was at it again, this time testing a different shade of green for its ads. 

What's important to keep in mind is that the tests to ad tag color have not been the only test resulting in a change in the appearance of the SERP. On May 7th it was reported that Google was testing black titles for organic results. This alone is significant SERP news (and as such was reported in my last post), but just last week I saw that there has been an even more fascinating SERP layout alteration. In doing a search last week I came across a oddly formatted SERP page that showed an increase in white space on the page (this was in fact found and reported by various others as well). 



Increase in Space on the SERP

 

Increased Space between Search Results
Fig 8. A side-by-side comparison of the SERP page, with the left side showing increased space between results


When looking at Figure 8 you can clearly see that the there is additional space between each result showing on the SERP. This even includes the spacing between the organic results and the displaying News Box. What you can't see here is the additional search column width that was also tested and reported on last week. This test actually has some real potential impact, since it would widen and thereby shorten features like a Featured Snippet, and as such create more room on the SERP. So let's call the testing of space between the results coincidence #4 and the test to the search column width coincidence #5. 


The Test of all SERP Layout Tests


Of all these tests (i.e. ad tag color, space between results, etc.) the one that sticks out to me is the test to the width of the search column. Besides for in effect decreasing the height of various SERP features (as noted above), the test that Google is running directly impacts title and description length and as a result, in my estimation, has the most "SERP shakeup effect." In what seems to be the current display of choice, Google is showing results that constitute an increase in the length of a result's title and description. 


Google Test to Result Title and Description Length

 

SERP Showing Increased Title and Description Length

Fig 9. Comparative view of title and description lengths on the SERP 


As previously dubbed coincidence #5, Figure 9 shows the increase in a result's title and description length. On the left you can clearly see the addition of the word "Account" in the title, that is otherwise missing on the right. Further, the new format as tested by Google, allowed for the addition of 18 characters (including spacing) within the description. Should this format stay, it too could lead to increased page space (though there is no telling how long this format will last for). 


SERP Timing



Bringing this all home and in summarizing the above I offer you two words, perspective and timing. With the absence of a major algorithm update I believe these two factors become essential ingredients in understanding the recent risk levels. If we take the weekly SERP data and news and take a step back, gaining some perspective, I think we might get a glimpse of insight into the recent fluctuations. 

Looking at the data related to some of the SERP Features per se, it seems to me like there is a new data pattern that either has emerged or is still emerging. Considering this in conjunction with some major SERP layout changes, most notably the spacing changes, and heightened risk levels become a bit more plausible (at least in my estimation). In other words, there seems to possibly be an overall shift that Google may have undertaken in a piecemeal fashion. While it was not an major algorithm change, this shift could be seen as significant. Significant enough, in my mind, to at least be a very plausible explanation behind the risk level spike.   


Getting Your SERP Perspective

 

What do you think was behind the oddly high and stagnating risk levels? 

How impactful do you think the tests to the SERP's layout were/are? 

Do you think Google will keep the increased title and description lengths? If so, for how long? 

Drop me a line and share your perspective! 

About The Author
​Mordy is the CMO of Rank Ranger as well as the host of The In Search SEO Podcast. Despite his numerous and far-reaching marketing duties, Mordy still considers himself an SEO educator first and foremost. That's why you’ll find him ​regularly releasing all sorts of original SEO research and analysis!




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