How Deep is Google’s Love?: Where the In-Depth Articles have Gone (and What it Means for You)

Recently, Google appears to have made a significant change to its search results page that eliminated several in-depth articles for many clients. We’ve taken a deeper dive into this development to see what it could mean for brands and high-profile individuals, and the PR professionals who work with them.

As you know, when searching for a brand or an individual, the Google search results page presents a variety of relevant content pieces and types of media to satisfy the query. Often this means a company’s own webpage will appear at the top, followed by third-party content such as Wikipedia and news sources. There may also be social media results (if an individual or brand actively maintains these platforms), along with image results or video content.

Several years ago, Google introduced a section within top search results they called “in-depth articles”. These results looked very similar to other search results, but came from longform media outlets like Variety, Rolling Stone, or The New York Times Magazine.  Often, they were a seminal article about the brand in question – articles that may have been placed by their PR teams.

Including these articles on the top results page seems to have been Google’s way of ensuring that a greater variety (and deeper) content would appear in this prime spot. Their inclusion, and the actual articles that appeared within that section, were governed by a different set of algorithms than most search results.

Recently, this section disappeared from all search pages for brands and executives. This happened without any announcement or acknowledgment on the part of Google.  It is important to note that in-depth articles for many brands and individuals contained negative content. At the same time, it was the place where particularly engaging longform journalism made its way onto the prime real estate of Google page 1 for a brand.

The ramifications of Google’s elimination of this section are yet to be seen, and their motivation can only be assumed to be “less intervention” following high profile criticism of potential bias in their  algorithms.

A whole host of interesting questions arise from Google’s move: What is the corporate (and civic) responsibility of those who hold the world’s data in their hands? Are there cases for intervention? Who decides what those are?

It is interesting to note that alongside this mysterious  disappearance, a recent Five Blocks study of CEO search results found there are far fewer news sites (sites such as CNN, CNBC, and others) on the first couple of pages of searches for a CEO compared to a year ago. In addition, those pages feature many more  profile sites, where one would find more dry facts (often created by the brand), and less news.

This marked difference in the presence of news within the organic results over the course of the past year, alongside the recent removal of the in-depth article section, means that page 1 of search for brands and individuals will contain far more“owned” content – i.e.: information they control.

For some brands this would appear to be a positive turn of events, but for many this trend means they will not automatically have great media pieces (which they often earned by being genuinely great) appear prominently in searches. It means they will need to work harder to deliberately ensure that the best third-party media does in fact place highly within their profile. Savvy communications teams will find ways to enhance their brands’ online presence within these brave new parameters.

— Sam Michelson, with Sara K. Eisen

The Great “In-Depth Articles” Disappearing Trick

On multiple occasions, (here, here, here, and here) we have covered the inclusion of In-depth articles in search results.

On March 26th, 2015, when we looked across nearly 6,000 terms we are tracking, we noticed a sudden decline in the amount of in-depth articles appearing in search results. In the graph below, you can see the percentage of terms within a given peer set, and the day our data indicated they stopped appearing.

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Are They Really Gone?

The odd part about these numbers was that in-depth articles didn’t actually vanish. They just started displaying differently. When you look side by side, it becomes clear that the only real change was the loss of the tag indicating that these are in-depth articles.

IDA Chevron Result

This change likely indicates that Google’s own research has shown them users are more likely to click on in-depth articles when they believe them to be part of the normal search results. It could be that the title “In-depth articles” may have been distracting or off putting because “in-depth” would imply a greater investment of time.

Future of In-Depth Articles

Regardless, the message is clear. Google still considers in-depth articles an important part of a brand’s search story. One could argue that this step to further blend in-depth articles into more traditional results, rather than keeping them as a stand alone element, indicates just how committed Google is to their continued existence. Whether they are identified as in-depth articles or not, they are still prominently displayed and stand out.

Given Google’s commitment to testing and refining their search algorithm to provide the most value to searchers, we may soon see this evolve further. Having in-depth articles more deeply integrated within a set of results, could be the direction they are going, and this move is the first step.

The Upshot of In-Depth Articles

Earlier this month, over July 2nd and 3rd, Google injected its in-depth article feature with a little shot of pep, as we saw an uptick in the number of search terms showing in depth articles.

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Most of the terms in these four groups are famous individuals (rather than companies), spanning different industries and interests. Indeed, these are the people about whom we expect to see deep journalistic coverage.

What’s interesting is that despite many of these articles being a “fresh addition” to the search results, they aren’t actually new. Many are a year or two old with some even older than that.

Google’s in-depth article feature on the search page is effectively breathing new life into this content. I’m not sure how many searchers are still interested in reading an article from 2006 about the 2008 US Presidential election. Nonetheless, Google is giving them prominence in first page search results.

As digital reputation consultants, we have been closely following the news and aftermath of the recent European Court of Justice ruling regarding the right to be forgotten. It was just on June 26 that Google began taking down links to certain web content in implementation of that ruling. Although this advancement of the in-depth article feature took place exactly a week later, it’s probably unrelated. Nevertheless, we feel Google’s invigoration of these articles makes clear that it’s not willing to let anyone forget too fast.

The In-Depth Article Experiment Continues

Google’s test kitchens seem to be warming up with fresh experimentation on in-depth articles. With just a handful of examples in the last few days, we have noticed a couple of variations on how Google is serving them up on the search engine results page.

A quick refresher – in-depth articles were introduced less than a year ago, in August 2013, as three articles grouped at the bottom of the search engine results page under the header “In-depth articles,” such as seen below.

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Back in February, we described how Google was playing with moving this box up the page. The box itself remained unchanged, but in some cases, some of the search results appeared below the in-depth articles, making them no longer the bottommost search results. This is still happening sporadically.

In March, the experiment seemed to take a turn with the presence or absence of the In-depth articles themselves, as many search terms lost the articles they’d had.

Now, we have found two new variations. In both versions, the in-depth articles box has been promoted to a noticeably higher result position and given a new appearance that basically makes it a fraternal twin to the News box.

The only difference between the variations is what the box itself is called. In one, it’s called “In-depth articles for [term]” (and don’t think it escaped our notice that the search term – here IBM, in the next example Verizon Communications – has been made all lowercase. Google getting sloppy?)

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In the other, the box takes on even greater resemblance to the News box, in being called simply “Articles.”

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As an aside, what’s interesting about this second variation is that with the Articles box looking so similar to the News box, Google may need to figure out how to differentiate the two.

But isn’t Google always experimenting? What’s the big deal? We think the difference in the box title, subtle as it may be, is a hint at what’s going on. Parking a certain type of search results at the bottom of the search page and calling them “In-depth articles” is clunky. Their placement tells the searcher – who more than likely has limited time and wants quick useful information – that these articles are not top importance and their title hints they’re long and time consuming to read.

Moving them up the page promotes their importance and suggested relevance, while taking away the “In-depth” part of the title may remove a barrier to click.

Whether or not this is the rationale for these experimental possibilities, the fact that they are being experimented with sends a clear message that Google believes these in-depth articles are important and aren’t letting them go. That means they’re still a force to be reckoned with, especially for those who care about their online reputation.

In-Depth Articles…but Shallow Market Penetration?

Followers of this blog know that we have been eyeing for months the phenomenon of in-depth articles and their potential impact on reputations of companies and individuals online. First, we watched their appearance last August, then their tentative migration up the results page from their original placement at the bottom and now their wild disappearing and reappearing act.

Through the beginning of this year, things were pretty steady with about 10% of the companies in the Fortune 500 showing results that included in-depth articles. Just at the end of February, however, the fluctuations began, with nearly 20 companies losing their in-depth articles one day, and then some bouncing around.

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At the lowest point, nearing mid-March, only 20 companies had in-depth articles, a drop-off of 64% from the 56 that began February!

For now, it looks like Google’s in-depth article experiment is still in progress and it remains unclear where this moving target will land. And while we cannot claim to be in Google’s head to explain what’s going on, we can hazard a guess.

On the theory that Google’s aim is to make search results ever more useful for searchers, we have to wonder how useful these in-depth articles have been. Unlike news results, which can change daily, reflecting changes in the world, or profiles and background pieces (e.g. Wikipedia) useful for reference, we suggest that in-depth articles – lengthy and often with a slant – may not be seeing repeat visits. Moreover, their length makes them time consuming to read, making it difficult for the average searcher to get in, get the gist, and get on to something else.

For all the companies with unfavorable in-depth articles, a shift away from them would be a good turn. Ultimately, though, whether this experimentation means in-depth articles are approaching their sunset – or if something else is on the horizon – is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile, we will continue to monitor the course of Google’s current lab work.