Search engine results pages (SERPs) have driven much of our goals and understanding of SEO. Because the general structure of SERPs have remained relatively consistent, we take for granted the idea that this format will remain unchanged. The original SERP contained 10 blue links for any given query, with short descriptions following, and the SERP of today realistically isn’t much different. As a result, it’s still the goal of most search marketers to gain visibility and traffic by ascending to this top rank.
In the short term, there’s nothing wrong with this. Over the next year or two, adjustments to SERP layouts will still be gradual, and any business that can consistently remain in the top few positions will earn a ton of extra traffic. However, Google’s trajectory gives us an indication that the fundamental structure and functionality of the SERP we’ve come to expect are about to change in a big way.
Over the course of the next decade, you can expect to see SERPs evolve radically, beginning with minor, hardly noticeable changes, and eventually changing the scope of online search altogether.
The Knowledge Graph has been around for years, but only now is it beginning to make a substantial impact on user behavior. Currently, the Knowledge Graph exists as a small box off to the right of traditional search result entries, listing various important facts and dates related to the user’s query. For now, the Knowledge Graph exists only for a few dozen subcategories of information, including movies, politicians, famous events, and geographical landmarks, among others.
Over the course of the next decade, the Knowledge Graph will grow in both size and scope. It’s reasonable to expect that the number of categories added to the Knowledge Graph will expand, possibly reaching to more general topics, like informational how-to’s for simple tasks like changing a tire or replacing an air filter. The Knowledge Graph will also take up more physical space in the average SERP, further displacing traditional list-based entries, and halting possible incoming traffic for any company accustomed to occupying a top position. The result will be a gradual, yet fundamental shift in how people view SERPs and use search engines in general—they’ll start looking for direct information, rather than links to other authorities.
Google has already shown interest in incorporating the worlds of social media and traditional search. The entire motivation for the creation of Google+–which is now being done away with—was to combine these two realms. Now, Google has bowed out in favor of more prominent social platforms like Facebook and Twitter. In fact, Google recently formed a new partnership that will allow the search algorithm to index and possibly display top tweets for a given subject.
As time rolls on, these integrations will grow to be more powerful, more prominent, and more useful. Soon, trending social posts may become immediately more visible than any other entry for a given query. At this point, it will become more important than ever for companies to post frequently and engage regularly on social platforms.
Currently, there are a handful of basic functions that are rolled into traditional SERPs. For example, if you type in a phrase like “1 cup in tablespoons,” Google will automatically display a functional conversion table or calculator. Local searches will automatically populate a map from Google Maps on the right-hand side or at the very top of results, ready to be interacted with.
Since Google is also incorporating the functionality of other third party applications in its own products, such as including an Uber trip estimator and OpenTable reservation functionality into Google Maps, it’s likely that these functional inclusions will grow over the course of the next decade. In a matter of years, a wide variety of interactive functions will take precedence for any relevant queries, and users will rely on Google not just for information, but also for specific purposes.
Apps are starting to become more widely used than traditional websites. Because mobile devices and upcoming wearable devices are small and difficult to navigate, users are starting to prefer the simplistic, immediate functionality of apps. In response, Google is indexing apps much in the same way that it currently indexes websites. Soon, it’s likely that apps will have their own place in SERPs, ranking higher and more visibly than traditional websites, especially when searches are performed on a mobile device.
With the Knowledge Graph, social posts, apps, and third party functionality all competing for users’ attention, it’s unlikely that the traditional list of links will remain for much longer. That all-too-familiar list of blue-linked entries we’ve all taken for granted will eventually disappear altogether, replaced by new functions, new layouts, and a new presentation.
Because Google likes to keep most of its updates and plans a mystery, it’s hard to say exactly how or when these updates might take place—or if they’ll even take place at all. But with the rapid evolution of Internet-enabled technological devices and the increasing consumer demand for bigger, better products, it’s unlikely that SERPs as we know them today will remain unchanged for much longer. The most prudent strategy is to start preparing now, by getting involved on multiple different platforms and weaning yourself off the traditional SEO rank-based goals.