The Google ecosystem is evolving at rapid pace. A lot of the changes seem like details but add up to a larger strategy. It’s easy to miss the forest for the trees in the day-to-day. It’s important to take a step back and see in which direction the forest is growing.
I frequently end the year with annual predictions (2022 has been pretty spot on so far) and infrequently highlight larger trends. Recently, Google announced a lot of new search features that all roll up to a larger strategy.
3 big trends are evolving in front of our own eyes but they’re easy to miss. Two of them have a big impact on SEO, one on offline retail. All three of them are significant.
User research moves from websites to the SERPs
The first trend is user research moving from websites to search results (SERPs) powered by machine learning. We got a taste of this when Google started showing featured snippets, People Also Asked boxes and knowledge cards. But now Google’s massive progress in machine learning speeds things up.
MUM, the evolution of BERT, understands context to such a depth that it can predict text (think G Mail) and understand information from text, video, audio, and images. In September of 2021, Google introduced three search features built on MUM that spare searchers a click through to websites:
- Things to know
- Topic zoom
- Visual inspiration
Search for a query like “pour painting ideas” and you’ll find a carousel of images and videos that covers at least two full screens on mobile before reaching organic search results. Just like Pinterest, which gets more searches than Bing, this is a very intuitive way to explore results and find inspiration.
Whereas “things to know” is a list of important facts or insights about a topic, Topic Zoom allows users to refine or broaden their search.
All three new MUM features have one thing in common: they bring research from websites to search results. Users find what they’re looking for faster without having to click through to websites and search for information there.
As always, there are three perspectives to the Google ecosystem: searchers, businesses, and Google. Shifting research from websites to search results might be good for users because they find promising results faster and Google might be able to provide key information faster.
It’s certainly better for Google because every page view means more ad impressions. The more interaction that happens in the search results, the more revenue for Google.
This trend might be bad for companies. When a larger part of the user journey happens on a website, the business that runs this site can learn more about users. More information and interaction in the search results means Google can show users more results… and ads. The only silver lining might be that companies receive traffic that’s better qualified since users already went through part of their journey on Google.
Core Web Vitals quantify user experience
Core Web Vitals didn’t just shake the SEO world because Google was open about them being a ranking signal. It’s also the first time user experience is quantified (beyond page speed).
For a long time, UX was a placeholder for anything that would support your argument at the moment. "We need to do this to improve the user experience!" Core Web Vitals (CWVs), part of Google’s Page Experience metrics, solve that problem.
Another big change about the Vitals is that Google went from measuring lab data to real user interactions by aggregating page-level metrics in Chrome. Now, if a larger portion of your user base browses your site with older smartphones or from areas with poor internet connection, you’re measured against their experience. Previously, Google would emulate users and how they could experience your site.
That is not so different from Google’s solution to replacing cookies. Google initially came up with a technology called FLoC, Federated Learning of Cohorts, but replaced it with the Topics API in early January ‘22. It provides advertisers up to 3 out of 250 possible interests based on user behavior that is also measured and stored in Chrome instead of Google servers. Google profiles web users through their interactions in Chrome and uses that data to allow advertisers to pay for targeting. Core Web Vitals are not so different, just for the organic piece of the pie. 
For now, Core Web Vitals seem to mostly matter where UX makes the biggest difference: e-commerce.
Google aggregates local retail
In Q3 2021, Google showed impressive +34% year-over-year growth. [3, 4 5] In Q3 of the same year, it was +40%. In Q4, it was another +32%. How can a company of that size, making more than $250 billion in annual revenue, keep growing? The answer: they enter new markets.
E-commerce is a $10 Trillion market that can triple in size over the next 10 years (globally). Retail (offline) is already there with $27 Trillion in global sales in 2022. Google understood the assignment and went all-in on retail when the pandemic broke out.
Two strategies paid off: free Google shopping tab listings and local integrations in search.
In September 2020, Google allowed merchants to list products for free that could show up in the shopping tab but also in regular Google Search. It’s a classic Google play: provide a service for free, capture significant market share and charge later. A nice-to-have secondary effect is that Google Shopping inventory filled up quickly. A bad little side effect is that some search results look like a weird mix of Pinterest and Amazon category pages (search for “watches” on your smartphone).
Local search integrations show users key information in the search results, such as if the product is out of stock, shipping time, price drops, or whether the retailer has poor customer service. Competition moves from offline to online as small businesses enter the ring and compete in the search results against big retailers with stronger supply chains and potentially better customer service.
Google’s Q4 earnings report speaks for itself. Where it doesn’t, a Phil Schindler quote might:
Google’s advertising revenue came in at $61.24 billion for the quarter, up 33% from $46.2 billion in the same period a year earlier.
Philipp Schindler, Google’s chief business officer, said retail was the largest contributor to year-over-year ad growth.