Why Google May Change Search Result Snippets

It doesn’t do any good to rank well in search results if no one clicks through.

If you go to Google Webmaster tools, and see the list of queries a page of yours might rank well for, you might see some query terms or phrases that you want to show up in search results. Webmaster Tools will show you how many “search impressions” your page might receive, as well as how many people have clicked on it when they have seen it. So what if your page has received 10,000 search impressions for that term or phrase, but only 50 clicks?

One question you should probably ask yourself is if the term or phrase is one that is satisfied by your page.

Sometimes a query term has more than one meaning, and most people searching for it might be looking for a different meaning. For example, you create a page about Java the drink, and most searchers may be looking for the programming language.

Sometimes Google may have associated the query term with a specific site (as a navigational query result), and shows that site first, possibly even including additional pages for that site in the form of sitelinks. Someone searching for ESPN is most likely searching for the ESPN homepage, so if you create a page about the history of ESPN, it might not get a lot of clicks.

Sometimes Google sees a query as if it was associated with a named entity, and associate a site with part or all of a query. For a query such as [spaceneedle hours], Google might show a number of results from the spaceneedle.com website before showing a page on your site about touring Seattle, and the spaceneedle page you created.

If you’re doing keyword research for a specific term or phrase, and you look at search results for that term, you might see results like that. You can look at those as a warning that the term or phrase you’re targeting might not be a good choice, or you could see them as a challenge that might be hard to overcome.

Sometimes a good rank and a poor click through rate can be a sign that you need to make some changes.

You see the query that you rank well for in Google Webmaster Tools, and a low amount of clicks on it. You type the query term into Google and see your page appear as one of the search results, but the snippet is different than your meta description, and doesn’t even match any of the content that you created for the page.

Let’s say that the page is a blog post, and someone left a comment on the page that includes your query terms. It’s what appears as a snippet. What do you do? One approach might be to review your meta description and your content and see if you can improve both where those query terms appear, so that they might be what Google shows as a snippet in the future.

Ultimately, Google is the one that decides what text to use to describe your page.

In my last post, I wrote about a Google patent that describes how Google might sometimes choose a snippet within the content if finds on a page, in the post, How Google Might Generate Snippets for Search Results. That patent was originally filed in 2005, but not granted until 7 years later. It tells us that Google will look at different signals in paragraphs found on a page, such as if all the query terms appear within it, whether or not there’s too much punctuation, if too many of the words in the paragraph are bolded or italicized, and other signals.

It might give different weights to the different paragraphs it finds, and choose one of them before the others, to represent the page. Chances are that Google may have made some changes to the features described in that patent, but ultimately the search engine wants to provide a good idea of what searchers would see if they visited pages from results.

It appears that Google might give some pages second chances when some of the same terms are in a query, and that page shows up again in search results.

When someone searches at Google, the results they see provide hints about what a searcher might find if they click through to those pages. A combination of title (doing double duty as a link as well in Google and Bing), snippet description, and URL might tell us why a page was ranked highly enough for us to see it when we type some words into a search box, and hit the button next or it, or our enter button. Some sites do a great job of crafting titles and meta descriptions and content that might be shown, and might convince us to visit a page. Some sites don’t do quite as well.

And sometimes, when we search for a second query that might contain one or more of the same terms (or “tokens”) as our first query, and one of the same pages shows up in search results, Google might transform the result to give it a completely new snippet, at least according to a patent filed in 2011 and granted on February 19th. Google refers to this as “dynamic snippet generation,” and tells us that

A patent that was granted to Google this month describes how Google might decide upon a different snippet in that instance. The patent is:

Session-based dynamic search snippets
Invented by Ashutosh Garg and Kedar Dhamdhere
Assigned to Google
US Patent 8,380,707
Granted February 19, 2013
Filed: July 11, 2011

Abstract

A first set of search results responsive to a first query during a search session is identified. A snippet is identified for each search result related to the first query. The snippet can be selected based on the location the search tokens from the query in the search result. A second set of search results responsive to a second query during a search session is identified. Repetitive search results can be identified.

A second snippet for the repetitive search result is identified. The second snippet can be selected based on the location of the second search tokens in the repetitive search result and the content of the first snippet.

The assumption behind this approach seems to be that a searcher will look through the snippets shown during the first search, and if they didn’t find one engaging enough to click through, they might try a different but related search. If the same page appears in the results, it might be better to show a different snippet for that page to let people decide if it might be worth visiting, than to show them the very same snippet.

Example of a dynamic snippet

Someone wants more information about a soccer team named the Pirates, located in Atlanta. They search for [Atlanta pirates] (without the brackets), and among the results is the home page for the team. For some reason, they decide not to click upon that results, but instead perform a new query. They follow up with a query for [Atlanta soccer schedule], and the home page for the team appears in the results again. Google notices the follow up query, and that they both share one term (or a “token,” as the patent refers to it).

Instead of showing the same snippet for the page, Google looks through the choices it has among the different weighted paragraphs, and chooses a different one.

This “dynamic generation of a snippet” for a repetitive search result is an attempt by Google to give that page a second chance of being clicked upon. In my previous post about snippets, I described some of the things that the search engine might look for in a paragraph on a page to choose a snippet from, and how it might give those paragraphs different weights.

This patent adds an additional weight, by giving a negative score to the paragraph chosen previously if it’s in the same query session, and it may share one or more tokens (or terms). That paragraph might be chosen again if it still outranks other paragraphs that might have been given some weight as a potential snippet. Or another snippet might be shown instead.

Conclusion

It’s worth spending your time on crafting a meta description that might be used as a snippet since it could make the difference between whether or not someone clicks on one of your pages.

It is also worth the effort of creating well written, interesting and engaging content on your pages, including paragraphs where those terms appear upon your pages. Your page could potentially rank for more than one term or phrase, and it might be showing up highly ranked for some of those, and getting lots of search impressions, but few clicks.

In some instances, improving the quality of your content where those query terms appear might earn you more clicks.

Just remember, Google is the one who decides what snippets to show, and it might show different ones in some instances.

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24 thoughts on “Why Google May Change Search Result Snippets”

  1. I would assume that if people repeatedly don’t click on your website for a given search result, even after they display different snippets for it, it would eventually start to lose ranking for that search term.

    Content quality has never been so important!

  2. @Justin, I will assume so. I don’t have enough volume to confirm but it definitely seems some of my links are sort of sandboxed when not getting enough clicks.

    I try to re-write my snippets, not sure if it’s a good idea all the time but in some cases traffic has improved drastically!

  3. This makes sense and is a good move from Google. From the way I search, I can see that this would be helpful, I often can’t find exactly what I am looking for first time by scanning the snippets so I search again with maybe a more descriptive phrase. Somehow highlighting a result that has come up numerous times in my searches might help guide me to the info I need if the snippets are not helpful enough. I think it will help sites that have great content but maybe not the best web designers, which is probably why Google are doing this.

  4. I am struggle to get traffic to my blog since it is only photo blog which is very segmented topic. But I still believe that a good content will bring you a quality reader to your blog rather than just a spammers to comment.

  5. I hope that a low CTR may trigger just a new dynamic snippet and not a new rank, otherwise we will surely face a new kind of low-ctr-negative-seo in the future..

  6. Hi Danilo,

    The patent doesn’t mention click through rates at all. Not in rankings, and not in decisions to show different snippets.

  7. Why was a patent needed for this in the first place? What innovation is the patent protecting exactly? I mean, showing someone the part of the page that matches their query most closely doesn’t seem like the type of thing that needs patent protection. Maybe something about the technical process of generating those relevant snippets warranted it?

  8. Google is putting a pretty large focus on the meta datta it appears as of right now. I have noticed a number of results that have been changed to what Google wants to see, I think this is likley another way of Google to help determine what will best benefit their search results and the user experience.

    I personally really like the idea of having a “dynamic” snippet, it allows the most relevant part of the page to be displayed. It will be very interesting to see where this patent goes and how it will affect rankings. Very much agree with Justin.

  9. I think that Google is always getting less “neutral” on his SERPs…from the best absolute results, to the best results for you…or for advertisers…

  10. Hi Connor,

    If people create a page about “Java”, an island in the Pacific, and it ends up on the first page of search results for that query term, and the vast majority of people are searching for the programming language, maybe not that unusual. The Google keyword suggestion tool tells us that there are 823,000 local monthly searches for that word in “exact” match mode.

  11. If google has its way in 2014 “snippets” will be more apt to be keyword specific and geared to ppc. Google after all is about driving relevant content and search terms. So if java island say has resorts google might be more apt to study your search habits and direct you to that term. Whereas java programming for a programmer will be specific to his/hers search query.

  12. I think snippet is best part to be seen different from a list of result.And this probably encourage visitor to click on that result. But the biggest problem is that there is no surety if google will show the snippet in result or not.

  13. I agree with Denilo. I work for an online SEO marketing company and we’ve already seen some of our pages slide a few ranks in Google for no apparent reason. However, the search results that are now appearing before ours for relevant keywords are not as relevant as Google has deemed them to be. Perhaps CTR is what is affecting us, as the rest of our content has been consistently good and meets the standards for credibility. Furthermore, we have far more external links than our competitors who are now ranking higher. Anyone else have insight on this?

  14. Rich Snippets have been the real “buzz word” of this year and they certainly are not going away. What I have found difficult is the random nature of if they will show. With Authorship, everything can be setup correctly but not show all of the time. There doesen’t seem to be any reason for this. Of course, recently it’s emerged that Google is looking at “quality” factors including whether it’s a clear head-shot photo.

  15. Hi Bill,

    Its Deepak here again from India. We had few conversation about Google Local optimization & now would like to discuss about new “Data Highlighter” from Google. Recently Google has introduced Data Highlighter through webmaster tools, another rich snippet that comes when we search for event/ products name, that means we can get rich snippets results for our product page/events page without putting Schema Markup code?

  16. I think the answer to this is that we must know how to use proper keywords so that upon searching Google will show the corresponding site we are looking for. Precision of the words should be applied.

  17. I fully agree with it doesn’t do any good to rank well in search results if no one clicks through. Conversion will finally depend on if the term or phrase is one that is satisfied by our page. Long tail keywords are generally more helpful in these cases.

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