The idea for Google’s new search result, in-depth articles, may have sparked last year when Google selected 150 people to take part in an experiment. For three days, Google randomly texted participants eight times a day to ask them, “What did you want to know recently?”
This was an effort to uncover the things that people need to know but don’t consider using Google to find. This research is also likely connected to Google’s newest algorithm change, Hummingbird.
Both the in-depth article results and Hummingbird seem to follow the same pattern: Google is trying to return results that provide not just what people are looking for, but also why they are looking for it.
Google doesn’t want to provide search results. Google wants to provide answers.
According to Google, “Users often turn to Google to answer a quick question, but research suggests that up to 10% of users’ daily information needs involve learning about a broad topic. That’s why today we’re introducing new search results to help users find in-depth articles.”
So what does this mean for content marketers? Well, if you want to create a content plan for appearing in the in-depth article results, you may consider taking Google up on a few of its suggestions, like:
- Use schema article markup
- Use Google Authorship markup
- Use proper coding for paginated articles
- Use schemas to highlight your organization’s logo
- Create compelling in-depth content
This makes it sound like content marketers have an opportunity to follow these guidelines and get their content to appear in the in-depth search results. But it may not be as easy as it sounds.
I did some research to see which of the above factors (and a few others) actually impact the results — and to determine if content marketers can, and should, try to optimize their content plan in order to appear as in-depth articles.
To gather a broad scope of search results, I performed six searches, looking at a variety of keywords across a range of topic types:
- Very vague topics: beach and snow
- Academic topics: censorship and foreign policy
- Brands: Chipotle and Walmart
Turns out optimizing for in-depth article search results is more complicated than it seems.
Publisher status and page rank
On The Official Google Search blog, Pandu Nayak mentions how publisher status factors into the in-depth search results: “In addition to well-known publishers, you’ll also find some great articles from lesser-known publications and blogs.”
But the search results tell another story. Of my six searches, only one had a page rank lower than 7 (it was 6). Fourteen out of 18 web pages had a page rank of 8 or 9.
The New York Times, the only publisher with a page rank of 9, appeared most frequently, appearing in all but one search (search term: Chipotle). Among the results, only three were publishers I was previously unfamiliar with: Gigaom (PR 8), Grist (PR 7), and Audubon (PR 6). Big names dominated the rest of the list:
- The New York Times (appeared five times)
- The New Yorker (appeared twice)
- The Atlantic (appeared twice)
- The Wall Street Journal
- New York Magazine
- Vanity Fair
- Fast Company
- Bloomberg Business Week
Forbes published research on the same topic and found that, in 505 search queries, The New York Times appeared in 25.3 percent of the results. The Wall Street Journal was in second with 8.0 percent, and The New Yorker and The Atlantic trailed with 5.7 percent and 5.6 percent, respectively.
Five of the publishers that appeared in my results appeared in the Forbes Top 10 list that made up 65 percent of its search results.
Findings: So far it doesn’t look like “lesser-known publications and blogs” have much of a chance to appear as in-depth articles. Considering The New York Times, with a page rank of 9, showed up most in search, it does appear that high page rank plays a big role in results.
Google Authorship Markup
Google suggested that publishers “provide Authorship markup” in order to increase the odds of appearing in in-depth search results.
But of the 18 articles I pulled, none of them had proper authorship citations according to the Google Structured Data Testing Tool. Seven came back with the Authorship Testing Result, “Authorship is not working for this webpage.” And 11 returned results that “Page does not contain Authorship markup.”
When searching for the titles in Google, I did find two articles that appeared to include authorship in the search results. But for reasons unknown to me, the structured data tool went against that finding.
Findings: It doesn’t appear that authorship is weighing heavily on Google’s selection for in-depth content.
The above-referenced Google blog post by Pandu Nayak also stated, “I’m happy to see people continue to invest in thoughtful in-depth content that will remain relevant for months, or even years after publication.” This indicates that the in-depth results may include articles with older post dates.
The Forbes research also looked at this factor. It found that only 10.1 percent of 1,141 article results were from 2008 or earlier. The oldest dated back to 1979, which was post-dated for an article originally published in Business Week.
Results from 2012 showed up most in its research, producing 29 percent of results, while 2013 produced 21.5 percent, and 2011 showed 20.2 percent of results.
My research showed similar findings: Articles from 2012 made the in-depth list 6 out of 18 times. Only two articles were 2008 or earlier (the earliest was from 2003).
Opinion: Timely content published in the last four years appeared in 82.5 percent of Forbes‘s searches. But since Eric Schmidt of Google believes that every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization until 2003, it’s hard to say if this is a stat based on relevance of the content or the existence of a larger pool of recently published content.
While Google did mention that long-form content should include the proper coding for paginated articles, it didn’t mention suggested word count as having an impact on in-depth search results.
However, I did find one opinion that content should be between 2,000 and 5,000 words to appear in the in-depth search results, and another that said at least 2,000–2,500 words were needed, so I felt it was at least worth exploring.
However, my six queries returned results with words counts as high as 16,000 and as low as 800. The average word count of the 18 articles was roughly 4,500 words.
Findings: It seems that word count of in-depth articles can vary greatly. But since only two of my results were under 1,000 words (they were both in a brand name search), it does appear that long-form content between 1,500 and 5,000 words is most likely to show in the results.
Quantity of social shares
Google doesn’t mention social shares in its information about in-depth content results, but again, I thought it was worth seeing if it might be a relevant factor. I used Curation Reports to tally the total number of social interactions for each article, which includes the number of social interactions from Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, StumbleUpon, and Pinterest.
The number of social shares ranged from 92,867 (an amazing interactive piece from The New York Times) to 78. One article showed zero social shares, but there were no social buttons on the page. The average number of social shares was 8,249, but this number was likely skewed by the Times piece, which had 59,822 more shares than the second-highest article (at 31,145 shares). The next-highest came in with only 6,067 shares.
Google+ numbers didn’t seem to make much of an impact, either. Only the Times article had more than 1,000 Google+’s. Not including this piece, the average number of Google+’s for each article was only 65.8.
Findings: The number of social shares at this time seems to have little impact. The number of Google+’s seems to have an even smaller impact.
Schema article markup
Google’s webmaster tools help page states, “For this feature, it’s particularly helpful if you can implement certain aspects of the Schema.org article markup.” It goes on to list the most important schema markup (aka HTML tag) attributes of content:
- alternativeHeadline (a secondary headline, or subheading)
- image (i.e., the URL of the image, as it must be crawlable and indexable)
- description (a short description of the content)
I didn’t do any research on the schema usages in my search, but my findings from research on the Elite Strategies blog post on in-depth articles was worth noting.
Out of random searches that produced in-depth article results, 22 of the 59 articles included no schema markup, and another 22 out of 59 had “some” schema markup.
Only 15 of the articles had proper schema markup, per Google standards. Of that 15, 13 were articles from The New York Times. The other two publications with proper schemas were from Search Engine Land and Yahoo Finance.
Findings: The use of schemas doesn’t seem to hinder articles from appearing in the in-depth search results field. But considering that The New York Times had schema markup in all of its articles and it was the publication most likely to appear in search results, that could be a sign that proper schemas can help improve the odds of showing up.
Google’s in-depth article search results have only been around for two months. Currently, it doesn’t seem that Google’s initial guidelines have much impact on what actually shows in search results, but this could change at any time.
For content marketers, it probably isn’t wise to put too much effort in trying to appear in in-depth article search at the moment. Rather, it seems we should just continue doing what Google and readers want us to do most: provide answers and solutions through quality content.
Or, we could always go work at The New York Times.
Looking for additional guidance on giving your content an authoritative boost on Google and other search engines? Check out what the search experts had to say at Content Marketing World 2013. Access to a wide range of presentations is available through our Video on Demand portal.