With the speed that things change in the SEO industry, one year is like seven dog years in other industries. As the end of a year rapidly approaches, year-end retrospectives that examine the changes from many different angles abound —from changes in how SEO is perceived in the organization to how the practice of SEO is changing in light of 2012’s algo changes.
A lot changed in the industry in 2012 but perhaps nowhere more than in the SERPs themselves. Given the extent of the changes in the SERPs and knowing that a picture is worth a thousand words, we mocked up the changes individually, showing a ‘Before’ and ‘After’ wherever possible, and also included a final mockup that encapsulates all the changes together. For each change, we identify the elements of the change and call out industry reactions. Sentiment analysis was done using Topsy with a deeper dive into individual tweets and article comments for additional insight.
The Menu Bar Migrates North
In fall of 2012, Google began experimenting with moving the menu bar from the left frame to the top of the search results. By November, Google solidified the change, announcing it with a post on their Inside Search blog. Although not a major change that directly impacted the actual contents of the search results like many of the other changes rolled out in 2012, the shift reflects Google’s ongoing willingness to tinker with layout and user experience in the SERPs and unified their SERP look-and-feel across tablet and mobile platforms.
Sentiment analysis of this change actually showed very little sentiment, positive or negative. People seemed to notice the change, but did not voice much of a preference either way.
In May 2012, Google announced the Knowledge Graph, self-described as the “first step in the next generation of search”. The Knowledge Graph culled data from a variety of outside sources such as Wikipedia, Weather Underground, and Freebase.com to summarize key facts and images in a box in the right frame of the SERP.
This change was significant – not only because of the prominence Google is now giving results from outside data sources in their normally tightly controlled SERP – but because it signaled a sharp move for Google from a traditional ‘get-in-get out search engine’ to a ‘we-have-some-answers-for-you-right-here-knowledge engine’.
At SES San Francisco in August, Matt Cutts:
“[...]clearly mentioned that one of the key focuses for Google is to move away from being a search engine and focus on becoming a knowledge engine. Google is so committed to this that Google’s Search Quality team has been renamed to Google’s Knowledge Team.” source
In August, Google also released an expanded element called the Knowledge Graph Carousel which added a carousel view to the top of the search results for certain query types.
As the Topsy graph below indicates, the reaction to the Knowledge Graph seemed overwhelmingly positive, with users appreciating the ability to get answers to their query without ever having to leave the search results page. Much of the commentary in the wake of its release also suggested that users believe the change foretells a future shift to additional ‘we-have-some-answers-for-you-right-here’ innovations in the SERPs.
Enhanced Search Results
Over the course of 2012, Google rolled out a number of enhancements that collectively we are calling—wait for it—enhanced search results.
Search Plus Your World:
With SPYW, Google began rolling personal results into the SERPs, mixing images, social, and traditional results together. Although they came out strong in emphasizing Google+ content over what often seemed like more relevant traditional results, over the year they seemed to dial back the intensity to a more moderate level.
Google initially took a lot of heat for Search Plus Your World, with accusations directed at them ranging from crossing the boundaries of privacy to anti-competitive practices. Analysis of the response after the initial rollout (as the Topsy chart shows below) was mostly negative, as users rebelled against the emphasis of Google+ results at the expense of more relevant traditional ones and the shock of seeing their personal results in what was traditionally a ‘private’ space. As time passed, and Google dialed back the intensity of the Google+ appearances and users adjusted to the change, people mostly stopped talking about it.
Zagat Ratings in the SERPs
Google added reviews for many local queries from recently acquired Zagat and Google+ pages. While some were happy to have access to the free Zagat reviews in the SERPs, others were distressed at the amount of outdated content that surfaced due to the integration:
For websites that implement author markup on their website, author pictures will now appear in the SERPs. Over the course of 2012 Google themselves alluded to, and the sentiment from many industry thought leaders was, that authorship would become increasingly important in establishing subject matter authority. Even so, in August a Conductor study found that only 9% of the top tech blogs fully implemented authorship.
Response to authorship was all over the map, with some appreciative of the opportunity to develop their personal brand in the SERPs and others resentful that Google is attempting to rank authors over one another as ‘authorities’. A perusal of tweet, articles, comments, and forums for this article also showed many who were confused with how to correctly implement author rank and others who were frustrated it did not work as expected.
Penguin Algorithm Update:
Perhaps the subject to get the most attention in the SEO community, the Penguin algorithm update hit the SERPS earlier in 2012. Designed to reduce web spam, the update initially caused a good deal of consternation for many, with reports of sites unfairly caught in the update. As the year marched on, however, the consensus, at least from a SERP quality perspective, was that quality was, in fact, improved for many queries in the SERPS. And, if a silver lining was to be had, the de-emphasis of poor content and linking in the search results drove SEOs to develop a new focus on content quality.
Sentiment analysis showed a fairly negative response to the update, but to be fair, those who were talking about it were likely negatively impacted by the update. As time went on, people have continued to talk about but largely in the context of how to ensure they are producing quality content the algorithms will favor.
Conclusion: Understanding 2012's Changes and How they Impact You
In review, 2012 was a turbulent year in the SEO industry with lots of changes taking place, both in the industry and in the SERPs themselves. Understanding the changes—and how they might affect your online presence—is an important step towards ensuring you are keeping up with a rapidly evolving industry and taking advantage of opportunity wherever possible.
A version of this article appeared at Search Engine Watch on December 4th, 2012.