What started out as a simple alert panel has evolved into the most prolific set of direct information the Google SERP has ever seen. Google’s on-the-SERP coverage of COVID-19 isn’t only an easy-to-access beast of a data source, it’s also a peek at what could be coming to the SERP… permanently.
The uniqueness of the COVID-19 SERP
The SERP Google shows for many queries directly related to COVID-19 (i.e., anything from coronavirus to COVID-19 cure) is unique in two essential ways:
- The amount of raw data being presented. There is just an absurd amount of data that Google presents on these SERPs. Google is showing you a breakdown of the COVID-19 cases in your location (as well as the world at large) as an accent to a global map of the pandemic’s spread. Of course, Google gives you the opportunity to click ahead in order to see a full breakdown of the COVID-19 data shown on the SERP. It’s a testimony to how hard Google can push direct content if it really wanted to. It’s both radically awesome and a bit frightening at the same time.
- The left-hand menu functionality. While the right side of these ‘COVID-19’ SERP contains “knowledge” the left side contains specialty functionality. Here Google gives us a sticky menu (i.e., it follows you as you scroll down the SERP) that serves as a way to delve deeper into various aspects of the pandemic. Clicking on a given option brings up an entire SERP devoted to exploring that particular aspect of COVID-19.
While I could talk about the implications of Google going so deep into offering direct data on the SERP, it’s the functionality at the left side of the page that really caught my attention because I think it solves some of the biggest problems Google faces going forward.
The COVID-19 SERP functionality solves some of Google’s biggest problems
Personalization is a tricky matter. There’s a lot to balance when trying to highly target a specific user. That’s true for us as marketers and that’s true for Google. Google has long faced issues around personalization. The prime example of this has been the controversy Google has faced in regard to personalization within the search results leading to a filter bubble. November 2020 is not that far off so you can expect the issue and allegations of “biased” results to rear its heads again once the US elections kick into full-gear.
At the same time personalization puts Google on a collision course with another one of its ‘search result aspirations’ – diversity. As a means of effectively targeting its users, Google, more often than not, caters to multiple intents with an offering of a diverse set of results. Hyper-personalization and a strong diversification of the search results are obviously at heads with each other. You simply can’t have both. There’s not enough space on the SERP. You’re talking about showing an effective amount of diversity while strongly targeting a user with just 10 results. That’s damned near impossible.
So how is Google to solve this? With the functionality you see at the left of the page for COVID-19 queries.
Let’s take the two problems I’ve already brought up, the filter bubble and the collision that is personalization and result diversity, add another issue into the mix, and see how the unique functionality of the COVID-19 SERP is the great panacea.
The problem of personalization is solved with user input
The biggest white elephant when discussing personalization within the search results is not the filter bubble nor is it the great battle for diversity vs. personalization. Rather, it’s personalization itself. I’ve long been on a soapbox saying, nay shouting, that the ultimate personalization that Google is after is not possible without user input.
I don’t care how smart Google gets and how great it becomes at offering personalized results, Google will never be able to know what a user in a specific moment is after (which is partly why it cannot abandon result diversity even with advanced personalization). The only way Google can offer the level of personalization it is after is by putting the user in control of the SERP. By letting the user tell Google what they want and by letting Google give that to them.
Now, how do you give the user control over the SERP?
I don’t know, how does a sticky menu at the left of the page that lets the user filter out what they want sound?
Imagine you searched for estate planning. (I recently realized my will is worthless ever since I moved out of the US.) There’s a lot you could mean by this query. Are you looking for information on the financial end? Do you need some tax information? If it’s the latter what state are you in as every state in the US has different laws?
In this instance, Google might look at my past behavior and think that I’m looking for a local lawyer to help me navigate the legalities of my “estate.” Which it does when I run the search (though in my case I have no prior search history):
Suppose, however, that despite my previous searches I really want financial information. In that case, the Local Pack I get is totally irrelevant and now I have to skim the result to pick and choose what I want or think of a more refined search to run and what a drag that is.
Now imagine I had a SERP with a sticky menu at the left of the page that let me see a SERP related to either local lawyers, financial services, etc. With user input, Google can offer me a full set of results that matches my exact intent.
I’ll take this one step further. Not every user has only one intent. How efficient would it be if Google let me toggle back and forth between various menu options so that I can open tabs for results that hit on multiple intents without having to run multiple queries? So if I wanted to look up a local lawyer and read up on some financial tips I could do both with the same search!
Simply, the sticky menu Google has implemented for COVID-19 queries brings a new level of user input to the SERP. That’s huge.
More space prevents personalization trainwrecks
At this point, you can see how having a sticky menu, like the one seen on the COVID-19 SERP, prevents a collision between personalization and result diversity. The contradiction that is both superb personalization and diversity among the results is mainly a problem because of space. You can’t adequately meet both demands with the limited space a single SERP offers the user.
The sticky side menu functionality lets you breakdown the query by intent. It lets Google energetically target the user on the initial SERP without having to water that level of personalization down with a diverse set of results. Rather, the options within the menu would reflect the intended diversity Google needs to offer.
That is, the sticky menu would allow Google to engage in a topical intent-based segmentation. This could play itself out in a variety of ways. If you search for buy car insurance Google could offer you whatever it thinks is personally relevant on the initial SERP. It could then segment according to intent.
In this case, I could imagine a side menu that included a tab that read Compare policies where you would see results that compared what’s included in various types of insurance policies. I could also imagine a tab entitled Policy reviews where you could read reviews on the various insurance companies and their policies. If you don’t need to research anything at this juncture then you might click on a tab for Buy policies where all the sites that offer a policy would appear.
I think you get my drift.
Nothing pops filter bubbles like sticky side menus
Last, but not least, a side menu that sticks gives Google the opportunity it needs to avoid any sort of filter bubble criticism. In such a scenario, Google would not have to directly worry about the results on the SERP further confirming a user’s biases. The side menu would allow Google to go full-on personalization. All Google would need to do is supplement the extreme levels of personalization with a broader set of content that would be accessed via the side menu.
Imagine the worst-case filter bubble scenario, political bias. Even if, hypothetically speaking, a search history slanted towards a particular political party produced results that reeked of confirmation bias, it wouldn’t be a problem. Google could counteract that level of personalization by supplementing perspective via, you guessed it, a sticky side menu!
You might have a set of initial results that are slanted towards a given political perspective. However, Google could easily supplement this with a broader look at the topic via the side menu. In this case, all Google would have to do is insert a tab that read Also in the news much like it does in its multi-carousel News Box on mobile:
It’s an easy solution that not only ensures Google offers a well-balanced look at sensitive topics but simultaneously extends the user’s journey in all-new ways (which is another significant aspect of Google’s mantra).
There you have it, search result objectivity that extends the user’s journey – two birds with one stone!
The multi-faceted SERP is coming (I think)!
The SERP as it is now is antiquated in many ways. The entire construct is one that was designed for a different era of digital content consumption. As Google gets better at understanding what’s out there and gets better at serving what it now understands it’s going to need creative solutions to head-off some serious problems.
Obviously, I can’t predict the future. But it’s hard for me to imagine Google designed a new format for the SERP and isn’t thinking about its implications much the way I have above. Whether it be the format and functionality Google is using for its COVID-19 SERPs or whether it’s something different – a results page that allows for some sort of user input – seems all but inevitable to me.