See the provenance of search results before clicking
This week, Google has unveiled a new feature across its mobile and desktop search results. To give users 'additional context' at the SERP-level, they have added a menu icon to results that will display some information on the provenance of the information before you click it.
The idea is, the more informed you are about the search result, the better decision you will make when it comes time to make a click. Better informed users mean more accurate search results.
What is 'Aditional Context'?
Tap the three dots on the right of the results and you will open an 'About this result' box. If the website has one, there will be a description of the website from Wikipedia, designed to give readers peace of mind when it comes to sites they haven't heard of. This could be crucial when it comes to 'Your money or your life' topics where Google is particularly keen to steer users towards deeply reputable sites.
If the site doesn't have a Wikipedia entry, Google will display 'additional context that may be available, such as when Google first indexed the site', which may not be so reassuring for keen users of this feature.
The context box then displays the full URL and tells users if the result is an advert and if it is served over HTTPS.
Finally, if you do a search that lists multiple snippets in the results page, Google will inform users that these results have been drawn from multiple sites.
What are the intended consequences?
The party line from Google is that the features will help you make better and “more informed” decisions about the sites in the search results.
The problem it solves for Google is that when it returns results from unknown sites, users were more likely to click off the search results or to try again compared to when it was a site they knew.
Despite the quality of the content or the legitimacy of the site, not knowing it was enough to create an 'unsuccessful' search that hurts Google's metrics and spoils their mission to get users what they need on the first ask.
By pushing this additional info into the search results it stops users from having to click away or re-search. They can see in clear and certain terms that Google says the site is secure and there is a backstory and reputation to the site. Check the context, click away.
This is also going to help push the last remaining sites currently not using HTTPS which has been an ongoing battle to convert the final few straggling sites. Who is going to click an iffy search result that Google warns you is 'Not Secure'?
The move is intended to make the search process and results more transparent and also prevent people from accessing unreputable or even scam sites directly from search results pages.
What are the possible unintended consequences?
Smaller publishers may be concerned that this is another move to push them out of search results pages. By focusing on the history of the site, additional context will lead users to judge more on the name than how well the content seems to match their search intent.
When faced with two results, one which has a Wikipedia summary, with a nice line of history tied into it, the other has the date Google last crawled it, it gives users a clear nudge in one direction. The big can get bigger while smaller sites may see a reduction in their click-through rates on organic traffic because they are not already well-known enough. This gold standard of 'More informed decisions' that search engines want to promote often comes back to a shrinking of the internet back to the monolith brands.
It's also likely to start a run on publishers and other sites trying to get a Wikipedia page up and running or updating their opening description in order to sound as appealing as possible. And, as Wikipedia is editable by the public, there is a slim chance of rogue editors trying to scupper other sites' reputation until it gets noticed.
Reputation over content?
This new feature from Google is not a major revolution. But, the depth of Google's impact means that even small add-ons like this will ripple out some disturbances into the atmosphere.
At its worst, publishers could say that this move promotes brand over substance in a way that again nudges users to bigger brands. At its best, it will help users find the right content first time by giving them the information they need to trust content on sites they are not familiar with.