Google As Website? The Recent Explosion in Knowledge Panel Features and Interactivity
David: Well Mike, we have this week to get through first, but I’m looking forward to doing the next one of these in-person with you in Austin!
Mike: It will be nice seeing you and Joy Hawkins and Joel Headley in person.
David: You’ve been banging the drum for the last 12-18 months that for most businesses, Google Is the New Homepage. The reality is most customers are coming into your business digitally with Google as the front door.
But it feels like with all the new features Google has released during that time period, “Homepage” isn’t a sufficiently consequential descriptor. How about “Google Is the New Website?”
Mike: Agreed. With Google rapidly moving to a mobile-first index, which is essentially an entity-first view of the world, it would appear that website or not, the Google Knowledge Panel results ARE becoming a fully formed mobile website.
David: Our colleague Cindy Krum has described for years Google’s ambition to become the “presentation layer of the Internet.”
Mike: Much of the reality of Google as the presentation layer is now present in the Local Knowledge Panel.
With the caveat that Knowledge Panels may vary dramatically by industry (hotels, restaurants, cultural attractions, etc.), let’s take a look at a Knowledge Panel for a generic brick-and-mortar business to see how this presentation layer plays out.
The first thing I noticed was that on an iPhone screen, the Knowledge Panel and its many CTA dominate the first three screens, almost 3,000 pixels of vertical screen territory before you get to the business website in the search results and 4,000 pixels before you see a third-party site.
David: Wow. I knew it was a ton of pixels, but that’s an incredibly long panel. As full-time web marketers, it’s so easy to bury our heads in the sand of the right-hand desktop Knowledge Panel. That doesn’t tell anywhere near the full story, though.
That 3,000 pixel count is staggering. On all but the latest iPhone, that is 4.5 scrolls!
Mike: While I realize that phone users might scroll down more than a desktop user, I assume that the bulk of user interactions are going to take place in the first 2 or 3 scrolls where the Knowledge Panel is seen. Thus a user is likely to select one of the many calls to action that takes the user deeper into Google’s “mobile website for the business.”
David: Time for an updated version of Gord Hotchkiss’ legendary eye-tracking study, specific to mobile Knowledge Panels. I know from my own behavior, I wouldn’t scroll 4-5 times to get additional information.
Mike: I did search for any research in that regard but came up empty.
David: Google surely does know the limitations of searchers’ scrolling appetites. So what are they doing to help users navigate all this information? It’s no longer just basic NAPW (Name, Address, Phone, Website) and hours of operation.
Mike: There are 11 calls-to-action in the first screen, and of those, only 2 take you away from Google properties: click-to-call and the link to the business’ website.
The most prominent calls to action are to the other tabs in the Knowledge Panel (Overview, Posts, Reviews), two of which are recent additions. The tabbed view enables a user to explore a great deal about any business before deciding to give them a call. And in a recent test, we saw a fourth tab added that included a list of services offered (h/t Kevin Getch).
David: Man. With all those options, it feels like we might even see an expandable hamburger menu coming pretty soon! How crazy is that?
Mike: Each tab has either business-, user-, or Google-generated content. Several interesting observations on that front are that Google is actively encouraging more owner-derived content to show in the result and more media types like video.
David: I agree with you. The trend toward owner-generated content is significant and lasting. I’m definitely losing our Posts bet from last year 🙁
Mike: In addition to Posts, Google is encouraging the business to create a “new” 750-character description field, ask and answer Q&A, and to potentially add these services. That is a lot of business-derived content! Google has traditionally been somewhat reserved in accepting that.
David: As we discussed last time, the business-facing features around Q&A have sadly been a long-time coming. But at least they’re here now.
So, let’s talk about the implications of this incredibly rich presentation. The obvious one to me is that Yelp and other IYPs’ search traffic for recovery searches of individual businesses has surely fallen off a cliff. Only half-jokingly, I’d say Yelp and others may as well no-index the business profile of any business that has claimed its Google My Business listing. No one is visiting those pages directly from Google, at least on mobile devices.
Mike: Life in the deep down pixels of a mobile search has got to be hard and the traffic losses significant for those local directories that predicted their success on search—that’s for sure.
Another observation is that local entity search, which has never required a website but always used it if it was there, is becoming less dependent on website content. With all of the user-generated AND business-contributed content, we may be moving toward a time when a website becomes significantly less relevant that it is today. And certainly in the next billion users of India and Asia that is true today.
David: I’ll disagree with you slightly there. It’s clearly becoming true for head terms, but in the long tail, I still feel there is a lot of value in positioning your business as being semantically relevant for a given query. I’ll grant you that Google’s now getting a lot of this information from the content of reviews, but it’s a bit early to give up on owned content for search—and it’s still clearly important for conversion in categories that require any kind of significant research.
Mike: I think we are in agreement that a website is still a competitive advantage in the developed world. I am just thinking that it might become less so in the future.
Besides new content and all of these tabs, it is obvious that Google is moving towards video as a favored media type with their recent acceptance of videos in the photo area and tests of videos in Google Posts.
David: I was just going to say, I’ve found myself encouraging small businesses more and more in the past couple of years to focus on their visuals—I’ve placed both in Zone 1 of the Local Marketing Stack. Both photography and videography are also a great opportunity for agencies to build out as a service component.
Mike: Clearly, Google’s ambitions are expansive and Google as the new homepage or Google as the new website might not do the company justice?
David: Agreed. I’ve been arguing since Amit Singhal’s demonstration in early 2016, that “presentation layer” doesn’t sufficiently describe Google’s ambitions. They want to be the transaction layer of the Internet—at least in local.
Google’s expanding list of service partner integrations and new Shopping Actions program clearly communicate those intentions. (Incidentally, both moves position them to monetize voice searches as the world’s largest affiliate. But the Knowledge Panel’s implications for voice are probably a worthy topic for our next discussion.)
Mike: I think Google has long been envious of the screen time that Facebook gets from users. Imagine all of the ads that could be clicked if screen time were to double, triple, or quadruple that of search?
David: Aha! As president and chairperson of recruiting, let me extend a warm welcome to the newest member of the Tin Foil Hat Society!
Mike: I don’t need a tin hat to see where Google’s interests lie. Maybe we need to move beyond the idea of Google as the new website to the idea that Google is trying to create, as an alternative to the walled garden, a velvet-glove approach to a captive web?
After more than a decade in local search, David Mihm now runs Tidings, an email newsletter platform for small businesses that leverages their everyday social media activity, and his own weekly newsletter, Minutive. In 2012, he sold his former company GetListed.org to Moz, helping over 3 million businesses get better visibility in Google and other search engines. Along with Mike, he’s a co-founder of Local University.