Google’s About This Result Won’t Tell You What You Want to Know – SEO Theory


I’ve been watching Google’s About This Result SERP feature since the first week of November, 2020. It was at that time that Google began telling searchers how long it had indexed sites, or quoting information from Wikipedia about the sites. Google has been playing with the 3-dots menu link since 2019 but they officially “launched” About This Result in February 2021.

My gut feeling was that they would add more information to the information box, but they surprised me when Google product manager Elizabeth Tucker announced that Google will now include information about why a listing appears in the search results.

Now we can look for a new section titled Your search & this result. If you see this section in the info box, then it will tell you why the listing was included in the search results.

–> Cue the SEO world’s collective gasp as Google finally reveals search ranking factors.

Some people are speculating this may be a pre-emptive move to help Google deal with regulators in the European Union and the United States who are or may demand that Google make its ranking system more transparent. That’s a reasonable inference, but before you start dusting off your list of Google patents and old speculative lists of “ranking factors”, stop and consider that Google’s explanations are incredibly vague.

Yes, they tell you when some (or all) of the search terms from the query appear on the page. But we already knew that search engines look for query terms on the page. They’ll also tell you when “other pages link to a page using similar words as your query” was considered. Again, we’ve known for decades that Google’s inclusion and ranking systems use link anchor text.

One interesting revelation (which doesn’t tell you anything useful) is that they’re using a predictive lookup feature (maybe built by BERT or one of its derivative algorithms) to find “related terms”. So if the searcher asks for “how to cook fish in the oven” Google’s system will see this question is closely connected to (or very similar to) queries about baking and [fish] recipes.

I can almost guarantee you people are scouring Google’s search results, looking for these information boxes to compile lists of “useful search tips”. That’s Google’s description of these so-called “factors” – not mine:

–> Now, the About This Result panel will also spotlight useful search tips to help Google better understand what you’re trying to find. The panel will show you search techniques or settings you can use to modify your search to get the results you’re after.

Regardless of what Google’s end-game here is, it’s definitely NOT going to be to provide search marketers with deep insights into the ranking systems that organize the search results.

About This Result is designed to help searchers rewrite their queries. I rewrite queries all the time. In fact, just yesterday I spent an hour rewriting a single query many times because I couldn’t get Google to show me something I had found in its search results a few months ago (a medieval poem about two magicians – never mind).

When it comes to finding non-commercial information, Google’s search results are awful. I seriously doubt they enhanced About This Result because of my cursing. They’ve probably heard A LOT of cursing from millions of frustrated searchers who can’t find what they’re looking for.

Beware SEO Experts Who Compile Ranking Factor Lists

When people began compiling huge lists of “ranking factors” a few years ago, they didn’t take into consideration the different needs for searchers. At least, none of the several lists I studied attempted to differentiate between the search context for local business queries and general information queries. They just organized huge lists and let people pick and choose what they needed.

Nowadays when people ask for help with Local SEO, I see the specialists who work with these kinds of clients mention only a few optimizations that should be pursued. That is, they filter out irrelevant signals that won’t he;p with local SEO>

Unfortunately, it’s easier for marketers to limit the signals they believe are helpful with local search than with other queries. Despite Wikipedia’s considerable success in millions of queries, many marketers still insist that “subfolders work better than subdomains”. (Hint: Wikipedia doesn’t publish articles on any root hosts – it’s all on subdomains.)

Attempts to create comprehensive lists of ranking factors don’t shed any insight into how search engines work. And I hope people don’t go back to collecting random tidbits from Google’s search results in the misguided belief they’ll understand how the rankings are decided.

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Be Careful Which Patents You Line Up With Disclosed Factors

Google is a patent mass-producing machine. One need not look long or hard to find several patents that mention any given factor or signal. And there’s a good chance that if a patent has been discussed on SEO blogs, there are marketers who believe with all their hearts and souls that those patents explain how the search system works.

The Rule of Search Engine Patents is quite simple: We don’t know which processed disclosed through public patent records A) have been used; B) are being used; or C) will be used by the search engines.

And things are even more confsued than that, because Googlers will patent similar or competing solutions for problems they may end up solving or abandoning for unrelated reasons. Take Authorship, for example. It was mightily discussed and analyzed back in the day, but Google discontinued it long ago. The Authorship code is no longer running in the algorithms. Even if it were, we’ve all removed the markup from our blogs. So what would that code look for?

Google may have learned some useful, forward-looking lessons from its Authorship experiment, but they’ve gone in an entirely different direction with their lookup-table building predictive algorithms. So don’t assume that old patents from 5 or more years ago will tell you anything about what is happening today.

Maybe some of those patents are helpful – maybe not. But you need to find corroborating evidence to support your guess that a specific patent describes a process used by the current search system.

You Need to Understand What “Search Context” Is

Search context consists of incidental information including things like:

  • The searcher’s location
  • The searcher’s device (smartphone, laptop, tablet, desktop PC, IoT device)
  • The searcher’s mode (voice search, typed search)
  • The searcher’s state (logged in, no cookie history, etc.)
  • Queries the searcher just tried to use
  • Spelling conventions
  • Whether the searcher is using query operators
  • Which operating system the searcher is using
  • Which browser the searcher is using
  • Which ISP the searcher is using

All of these things, when analyzed across a large number of query logs, may reveal patterns that disclose the searchers’ intentions. These patterns help search engines disambiguate queries that can mean anything.

Web marketers rarely take these things into consideration. I say “Web marketers”, but maybe it’s more about “Web developers” in many cases. A growing number of sites are eschewing desktop-friendly designs and using mobile-only designs. They create awful user experiences for visitors who aren’t using their smartphones. That’s just a brutal assumption to impose on your audience, especially as people often find things on mobile devices and then interact with them on larger devices.

Search context often decides which set of results a searcher is provided. If you’re trying to intuit “search intent”, you’re just making up stuff if you don’t look at search context. You cannot tell from which page a visitor lands on what their intention is. Nor does their bounce tell you anything about their needs.

My point here is that Google doesn’t seem to know what we’re looking for, either. Why else should they tell their searchers how they chose their results? (Yes, I know some of you think it’s a pre-emptive move to fool the regulators or something – but Google is providing this information directly to its searchers – it needs to be useful information.)

Conclusion

While About This Result seems to reveal information that should be useful in optimization strategies about what’s appearing in the search results, think about when someone is likely to click on that 3-dot menu beside the listing. It’s almost always going to be in a WTF-moment. The people most likely to care about why a listing appears in the search results are A) marketers who want to rank for everything they can and B) searchers who can’t find what they want.

So, yes, you may eventually be able to see that your competitors are benefiting from link anchor text in queries you care about. But don’t confuse those little details with the bigger picture.

If searchers are opening up the About This Result information box, they’re most likely about to change the query. And that is a whole ‘nother can of marketing worms for everyone.

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