A huge thank-you goes to Merkle SEO Kyle Blanchette for assembling and helping to analyze all data contained in this article.
Google recently made some under-the-radar changes to sitelinks in the organic search results. The first change removed small sitelinks from below regular organic blue links that render for high search volume queries (Google has since fixed this glitch). The second change adjusted the number of large sitelinks being displayed for branded searches (this is most likely a test).
Even though it does not look like either of these changes will have a significant impact on traffic, they have caused dramatic fluctuations in impressions and average position in Google Search Console (GSC). If you experienced that moment of panic when you did your last GSC check-in, take a look at this article to better understand:
- what happened with sitelinks in the search results.
- what effects the changes had on GSC data.
- how to check your site for declines.
- what the changes mean for SEO.
What happened to sitelinks?
Google made two changes that reduced the number of sitelinks being shown on search engine results pages (SERPs). The decline started gradually at the beginning of September and saw a sharp drop around October 23, 2016.
Change #1: Google removed small sitelinks from search listings (bug)
Small sitelinks often show up for high search volume queries, both branded and non-branded. You may not have noticed these — data suggests they are not commonly used by searchers.
Recently, these sitelinks stopped appearing in search results, which Google confirmed was a bug. The issue has reportedly been fixed as of early November.
Change #2: Google started testing the reduction of large sitelinks for branded searches
Large sitelinks appear below the home page for branded searches and are displayed prominently at the top of the organic search results. They feature URLs on your website that Google deems important and helpful for users navigating your website.
Listings in affected searches now display four sitelinks instead of six; additionally, some listings rendering the sitelink search box saw a reduction from four sitelinks plus the search box to two plus the search box.
As this change is not impacting all websites (or even all queries for those websites seeing the change), it is likely a test.
How did this impact Google Search Console data?
After analyzing three sites before and after the change, Merkle determined that the changes had the following impact:
- Decline in impressions by almost 80 percent on average due to the reduction in the total number of pages ranking for high search volume queries.
- Decline in average position by over five positions due to the reduction in the total number of pages in high-ranking sitelink positions.
- Increase in click-through rate (CTR) by 360 percent (1.53 percent CTR, up from 0.33 percent on average) due to the reduction in low-CTR sitelinks for high search volume queries.
- Virtually no impact on traffic due to the low CTR of sitelinks.
The severity of the drop varies from site to site, mostly based on the search volume (thus potential impression impact) of affected keywords and pages. (It’s worth noting that Google reportedly corrected the small sitelink issue on November 9, 2016, so metrics should return to normal shortly.)
The images below show total data for three different pages that dropped from sitelinks, each from a different site.
The data below averages clicks and CTR for the same three pages on three different sites. Although average clicks demonstrated a slight percentage decrease, that decrease only equated to a drop of about two clicks per day.
How to check your site for declines
If you are not sure whether your site listing was displaying sitelinks before, there are tools you can use to find out. One of the best is SEMrush’s SERP history tool, which provides a monthly snapshot of the search engine results page (SERP) for any keyword in their database. Check a few of your biggest keywords for August or September to see how they were performing before.
In addition to using SEMrush to check the SERP, you can also go straight to the source: Google Search Console. If you’re seeing a drop in average position or impressions starting around October 17, you were likely affected.
What does this mean for SEOs?
Sometimes, SERP changes have more of an impact on reporting than on actual performance. This is one of those times.
Though the drop-offs in impressions and average position reported by Google Search Console may look intimidating, the sitelink changes appear to have had practically no impact on overall traffic for the sites analyzed by Merkle. (Check your traffic numbers within Google Search Console for queries and pages affected by the sitelink changes to know for sure what impact they had.)
That said, there are some real takeaways from this change:
- Due to ongoing data fluctuations, be wary of comparing current data to historical data, either MoM or YoY. Though the small sitelinks have been added back to the SERPs, the reduction in large branded sitelinks appears to still be in the test phase. This could continue to cause wobbles in impressions, average position and CTR for some major keywords and pages.
- The reported drops in GSC may not have performance implications; analyze your traffic to understand the true impact. Don’t jump to conclusions if you see dramatic fluctuations in impressions, average position or CTR (now or in the future), because they may not be real issues.
Google made some changes to sitelinks that may or may not stick around. The changes caused dramatic swings in impressions, average position and CTR in Google Search Console, but they had little to no impact on traffic. If you see wild changes in your data, check the traffic implications before assuming something is wrong.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.