Google Experiments with Enhancements to the Organic SERP: Free…for now

Over the past week, we’ve caught wind of a few experiments going on within organic search results that are worth summarizing for our readers. What’s clear is that these enhancements, if taken to production, have great potential to generate revenue for businesses.  What’s unclear is what this might mean to Google’s bottom line and, more interestingly, what they might indicate about Google’s overall philosophy on the future of ‘non-paid’ listings.

Click to Call

We’ve seen “click to call” in paid and local listings, but Google is now testing the capability within organic results. From a mobile perspective, it makes for a much more fluid user experience, and that’s ultimately a win for marketers. Eliminating the additional step of seeking out contact information could certainly garner more direct leads. (According to a lead response study by Inside Sales, a lead driven by a click-to-call is more valuable than both a web form and live chat lead.) Given this simple fact, this test could certainly be seen as a potential “win” for marketers who want to derive more value from the organic SERP.   But could success also potentially result in Google’s own monetization of the feature – charging marketers for a “lead gen” service right out of the SERP?

Local Business Cards

We’re equally (if not more) interested in an experiment recently extended to select businesses that is calling “local business cards”. First, what do they look like?  See the red circle directly below:

Google Posts

These inclusions allow local businesses to promote specific content directly within the (organic) search results. Based on what we’ve seen in the example above, it might be slightly misleading to refer to these as simply “local business cards”; yes they are cards and they are from local businesses but they’re not like the business cards you might be imagining. These appear to truly be content inclusions – perhaps one could even call them contextual advertising. A suspicious mind might ask “will these content placements be a paid offering and, if so, has Google figured out a way to monetize content results that would otherwise be ‘given’ to organic listings?

Google Posts: An “Experiential New Podium”

Over the past couple of months Google has experimented with a “Google Posts” feature, with presidential candidates as the primary focus group. As far as we can tell, Posts are fairly easy to create. Content is uploaded and hosted directly on Google’s cloud servers in real-time fashion, appearing in a carousel card format that’s particularly conducive to mobile. There’s an option to share a post, though no mention of a “like” in the foreseeable future, and apparently searchers have an option to privately “react” to the content. A definite allure here for Google is the ability to serve exclusive content available solely through Google and its network partners, not through Bing, Yahoo, AOL or other competing sites. It makes Google more of a destination, rather than a gateway – much like the massive efforts Facebook has undergone over the past several years to keep users within its walls.

Like we mentioned, initial rollout of the feature was utilized by presidential hopefuls. If you were to google Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton today, here is an example of how they appear:

Bernie Sanders Google Posts Hillary Clinton Google Posts

If you remember back to when Carly Fiorina was in the running, you may also remember she actively leveraged the card-formatted Posts, particularly around the time of the second Republican debate. Alas, we no longer see Carly in the debates. And though that reality stems from a wide range of reasons entirely separate from advertising, it does make you wonder about the reception of Google Posts. With a candidate’s ability to upload just about anything, regardless of fact or truth, it may act as yet another venue for content that trumps authenticity, quality and true authority with dollars or political connections. In Fiorina’s case, it ended up delivering a fairly poor user experience.

It’s interesting that this feature arises now, a time when social networks are being accused of social engineering. (Particularly if this is extended to political issues and not just candidates) we must ask, will Google Posts be served in a skewed manner or not served if the participants espouse a point of view different than Google’s self-defined quality guidelines?  Despite the fact that they’re not reviewing any content posted for the time being, there is an ability to sway public opinion according to the content that gets published or selectively removed – this is a tempting method to try to direct the opinions of millions of users who visit Google every day.

Monetization for the future?

Though the latest update to the results page has not yet had any alarming impacts to organic traffic, it is interesting to watch these experiments during a time when many are in fact claiming that natural search real estate is in decline. Something else to watch is that – while all of these interesting new features may be free (and Google has not hinted at pricing them any time soon) – they do make an SEO wonder about how the organic SERP may be monetized in the future.  The landscape is constantly changing, and on the one side, Google’s primary concern is to provide the most valuable and relevant search experience possible; but on the flip side, money must be made.

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