Evidence of “SERP Snippet” Impact on Clickthrough Rates

This year has taught me some very important SEO lessons. I’m going to share my most embarrassing one with you now.

Crouching Panda, Hidden Dragon?

In February of this year (2011), Google rolled out their “Farmer” or “Panda” release, which aimed to penalise cruddy content on the web (the fluff that’s designed only to generate low-quality links).

On March 1st, we redesigned Web Design from Scratch, using a lovely new WordPress theme, designed by my creative director Jimmy Hughes and implemented by production director Dan Johnson. And we were very pleased with ourselves!

Until this happened!

It was pretty clear what was going on. Google had somehow mistakenly evaluated our site as having low-value content, and had penalised us in the search results.

We set to work trying to figure out what we’d done wrong – and what to do about it.

Nothing made any difference.

Until one day recently, I was doing some research on clickthrough rates from search engines, to help my course students understand better the link between SERP position and clicks.

I noticed from Google Webmaster Tools that the clickthrough rates for some of our most popular pages had gone down. But our rankings had not. It was the clickthrough that had caused the drop in our traffic, not our rankings.

In other words, it wasn’t Google slapping us. We had found a way to slap ourselves.

But What Caused the Self-Slap?

I’m going to show you a sequence of pictures.

Can you spot the difference between these two?

Here’s the first one…

And here’s the second…

Did you spot the difference? It’s very subtle.

The second snippet featured the original date the article was written – back in 2006!

That’s the difference, and that’s what caused our search engine visits to halve.

When someone is looking for insight into modern web design styles, they don’t want a page that’s five years old. It will seem out of date. That’s just a fact of life.

We hadn’t had dates on our posts before. Some of our busiest articles – the ones with the most inbound links that get great rankings – were written a few years ago. But previously they didn’t publish a date, people read them, loved them, and kept linking to them, so their rankings only got more consolidated.

Overnight, we add dates, and traffic nosedives, by why did it take so long to spot?

It wasn’t until we looked at the data at different way. And I needed to realise that number of searches and search rankings don’t automatically turn into visits. There’s another crucial step, which we often overlook, and that’s the appeal of the SERP snippet, as I explained in yesterday’s videos.

Recovering

Of course, we couldn’t be sure that displaying the dates was the significant factor without testing. So Dan hacked WordPress, which now shows the date – but only for 3 months – after which the date is automatically removed (unless we want to keep it). See Dan’s tutorial on how he removed the dates.

We did that last week. Here are the results so far.

This is just our organic search engine traffic. You can see that we’ve recovered from about 1500 daily visits from search to 2190 yesterday.

We need it to increase by another 50% to get back to February’s levels of traffic (about 3500 daily visits), but we’re on our way.

One of the things the Panda release was supposed to do was also to penalise pages that did not get good clickthrough rates from search results. So it may be that we did actually pick up a penalty from Google after our CTRs suffered initially, which should also recover in time.

Here’s the list of our most-clicked pages from Google Webmaster Tools (which is always a few days behind, so this doesn’t include the last 3 days.

The dip in the graph represents the weekend. But look at the far right column: Change in Avg. position. The green numbers represent pages that are ranking better than they were one week earlier. Red signifies a worse ranking.

Our top 2 queries have gained 4 and 5 places respectively, and the overwhelming change is very positive.

This supports the theory that Google rewards pages that get good clickthrough rates.

And here’s an update a few days later. The results continue to improve over the week since the change.

Update, December 2011

The good news is that organic search traffic has recovered gradually, so almost to the same level as this week last year (16,000 visits against 17,000 last year).

The growth since June 2011 has been startlingly consistent. It makes me wonder whether Google is deliberately turning our ranking back up.

20 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Dan says:

    How about adding a custom description for each post via seo plugin for making the serp description better?

    Dan

    • Doug says:

      Definitely go for custom descriptions. Don’t just go with the first paragraph or a description that just “describes” the page – go for something that sells the page.

      Treat your SERPS snippets like classified ads, sell the page, make sure searchers know that they’d be fools not to click through.

    • Yossi Jana says:

      Yep agree with Dan. Now days there are tons of plugins a specially plugins like Headspace2seo and WordPress seo from Yoast that gives you almost everything you need for insite and onpage Seo.

      Dan, nice to see you here….

  2. Pingback: SERP snippets effect on clickthrough rates | Starglider Systems Blog

  3. Luiz Marques says:

    @Dan – I think this would be the better option, as you can then choose the text for each post for optimum copy. It is a lot of work for a large site, though.

    Looks like there is a plugin for hiding the date after some time – http://www.dailyblogtips.com/date-exclusion-wordpress-plugin/ – I haven’t tried it myself, however.

  4. Ben Hunt says:

    Thanks to Dan for this insight..

    Check out http://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/richsnippets, which will preview any type of post as it would appear in the Google SERPs.

  5. Gerard O’Loughlin says:

    Thinking out loud…..

    If the date could be updated dynamically every day in the meta description and a site was spidered every second day, could this potentially draw the searchers attention to a listing in position 4 for a particular search term on a SERP.

    Could this potentially draw the searchers attention away from result one, as the listing would always have today’s date or worse case scenario yesterdays date.

    If searchers are not clicking on a result because they feel it’s out of date, would the opposite apply if they see that the result is up to date?

    • Dan Johnson says:

      I’m not sure about always showing the current date, that strikes me as misleading.

      But yes, a recent date can have the opposite effect, encouraging clickthroughs, that’s why we leave the date on until a post is 3 months old.

      If a post is particularly time-sensitive, then we have an option to leave the date on permanently too.

  6. Aileen says:

    Hi Ben,
    Thanks for this insight and the fascinating evidence that supports it.

    Any chance Dan would explain what change he made to WordPress?

    Having a meta description for each post is definitely a good idea but Google often seems to add the date anyway (if it can detect it), so a description alone is not the answer.

  7. Pingback: How to Remove Dates from SERP Snippets to Increase Clickthroughs

  8. Pingback: How to Remove Dates from SERP Snippets to Increase Clickthrough Rate

  9. Suzanne says:

    Thanks for sharing this, I updated my singleposts template to get rid of the date on posts. I just wish I didn’t have the date in each page’s URL now.

  10. Herrin says:

    Just discovering how much useful stuff there is on this site Ben. Y’all are doing a great job of creating quality content. Thanks for the great link building talk the other night too.

  11. Tim says:

    Be good to see this applied for Thesis.

  12. Dan says:

    So you have a blog where you educate people about seo and you fail to dig on level down in the data to spot this simple issue.
    Guess that explains why you are in the teaching business and not in the actually making money from websites business.

    • Ben Hunt says:

      Sorry Dan, I don’t get your point.

      I’m learning every day, and I’m passing on what I learn. That makes me happy :-)

  13. nick sharpe says:

    in the science of SEO, serp snippet writing is a fine art. any web designer should figger that out whenever you post to FB, LinkedIn or finding yourself at the top of Google search results. i’m wonderin if i should hire myself out as a serp snippet writer?
    and dan, ol buddy, sharing info is the coin of the realm in 21st century SEM. an ocean of newbies who can’t get jobs at GE, GM or the White House are flooding the web design market. ben is def on the “give to get”, “win win” situation. doesn’t have to be college treatise.
    bottom line, when it comes to seo web design for organic serp, its all about the words – and maybe a couple of decent PR backlinks. thx, ben.